The eBook debate continues to rage incessantly and provoke some very important questions. Is the controversy less about the value of books and more about the development of modern technology? Who are the winners and the losers in this supposed eBook revolution? Does it really matter what format books are available in? For many people, it certainly does.
Although I don’t actually own an e-reader yet, I do plan to get a Kindle soon (hopefully for Christmas this year) after borrowing my sister’s one earlier this summer. I will be using it almost exclusively for when I’m commuting by train as it is the practical side of e-readers which appeals to me the most.
There are a fair number of advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the printed book vs. eBook debate. Some of them are obvious, some of them are not so obvious:
The disadvantages of eBooks
No sense of the ‘weight’ of the book. Looking back, half of my enjoyment of reading ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami was going into a bookshop after my exams were over to buy a copy and then marvelling at the sheer size of the object. You can’t do that with an eBook. As objects, books also have other important functions like being used as doorstops or mini steps for reaching things. I would not go as far as endorsing their use as weapons though.
You can’t flick through an eBook with the same ease as a real book. Occasionally, you will be 92% of the way through a book thinking that you have a couple of chapters left to go until it abruptly ends only for you to find that the remaining 8% of the text is taken up by background notes or an index. I felt a bit cheated when I found a glossary hiding in the back of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess although I guess it was more interesting to work out what the words meant by myself.
E-readers require batteries. Ok, so the Kindle does last a long time before it needs to be recharged but you don’t have to think twice about starting to read a long paperback in case it suddenly flickers and dies in front of your eyes.
The death of cover art. eBooks do have front covers but they are much less prominent than they are on printed books as you are only likely to see them once. One blogger (can’t remember who) recently wrote that after reading ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern on an e-reader, they now wanted to buy the book because it would look pretty on their bookshelf. Cover art is important and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Bad news for bookshops. Whether it’s a specialist independent bookshop or a charity shop which stocks second-hand books or even chain stores, eBooks are slowly killing the paperback. Browsing shelves is always much more satisfying than browsing a website.
Piracy. Downloading isn’t just about music and films anymore. Authors and publishers stand to lose a lot of money from the illegal distribution of books online which is a whole lot faster than using a photocopier.
You can’t play spine poetry with eBooks. Enough said.
No such thing as signed eBooks. I have a treasured signed first edition of ‘Private Peaceful’ by Michael Morpurgo that I will keep forever, even when it’s worth a lot of money one day. You can’t ‘collect’ e-books in quite the same way. You also can’t go to an eBook signing and eBook festivals will not necessarily generate a huge turnout.
No page numbers. This is just me being petty – I don’t really have a solid reason why I prefer page numbers to percentages, I just do. Percentages unsettle me.
The advantages of eBooks
Carrying a library in your pocket. I travel by train very frequently and I like the fact that if I finish a book on a Kindle halfway through a journey, I can immediately choose another book from a virtual bookshelf and start reading it there and then. This is much more preferable to staring out of the window watching the tunnels and industrial estates flash past whilst listening to other people’s inane conversations about men who look like Hobbits (you really do hear it all on the Tube).
eBooks are light. I deliberately had to read ‘1Q84’ in a week when I knew I wasn’t working and didn’t have to go on long journeys. It’s a heavy book even in paperback. Carting it around with me on public transport just wasn’t an option.
Reading more books. People who use e-readers will buy more eBooks and read more regularly. They are more likely to take a risk on something they wouldn’t normally read – my sister says she reads a lot more non-fiction since she got her Kindle mostly because of Amazon’s Deal of the Day offer.
Free classics. I am looking forward to downloading some classic literature when I get an e-reader. If you are either skint, a cheapskate, or a bibliophile who gets through books faster than Homer Simpson gets through donuts, then cheap or free eBooks are always a bonus.
eBooks are good for students. My life would have been made so much easier if more eBooks had been made available at my university library. Fighting dozens of other students for the same textbook is not fun. In spite of the stingy reputation that students have, I think most would be willing to pay for some sort of service which allows access to online copies of key texts even if it is just out of laziness.
Good for self-publishing authors. I know this is really a separate debate but ultimately, self-publishing is probably more of a good thing than a bad thing. Yes, it is true that self-publishing means that the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey will soon take over the world, but if you are prepared to search through all the dross, I’m sure you will find some undiscovered gems out there too.
You have easier access to obscure books. Bookshops are only ever going to have a certain amount of space to stock their items and ordering things in is time-consuming. Even buying paperbacks online means you have to wait for them to be delivered. With an e-reader, the literary world is at your fingertips instantly.
eBooks don’t take up valuable living space. You will never have to throw them out to make room for anything else nor will you have to spend hours packing and unpacking them when you move house. You can’t trip over eBooks and break your neck.
You can read embarrassing eBooks. Whether it’s erotica or trash of any genre, nobody ever has to know…until someone like me looks over your shoulder on the train, works out what you’re reading and passes judgement anyway.
A Neutral Point
eBooks don’t smell. I was originally going to suggest that this was one of the downsides of eBooks because I do enjoy a good book smell. On the other hand, I have also come across plenty of library books that smell of antiseptic and other unpleasant things so perhaps the fragrant aspect of books can swing either way.
I guess you could say I want it both ways: I am generally not against eBooks so long as their rise doesn’t lead to the interminable decline of printed books but I think this is unlikely anyway. As Stephen Fry once said:
What do you think? Are you a total convert to e-readers or do you remain devoted to the humble paperback?