Are E-Books Good For Us?

Every April I read The Great Gatsby. The tradition started the April of my junior year at Wheaton College, when I took my copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece (the most perfect American novel, IMHO) to Adams Park, laid down on the newly warm grass and read through the whole book in one sunny afternoon. It was bliss.

This year, as an experiment, I decided to buy Gatsby on Kindle and read it on my iPad. I’ve hitherto been loathe to enter the world of e-books, but I figured I better not knock it until I’ve tried it. A few weeks ago at Biola’s Imagination Summit, a discussion on “the future of books” with Moe Girkins (former CEO of Zondervan) and Jason Illian (CEO of e-book upstart ReThink Books) got me thinking about the topic. E-books certainly seem to be the future. Physical books, Borders, libraries… all of that will likely become outmoded. But is that a good thing?

The way I see it, there are both pros and cons with the e-book experience.

Pros:

  • All-in-one storage. Kindles, iPads, devices of similar ilk become portable libraries of vast numbers of books. Imagine having your entire library with you wherever you are. Instead of feeling frustrated that the book you want to quote in your research paper is on your shelf back home or in some library in another state… it’s all at your fingertips. Want to study abroad but don’t want to bring suitcases full of physical books? Just bring an iPad full of the dozens of books you’ll need.
  • Better preserved. Electronic books, stored on a device or in a cloud somewhere, are free from the mold, acid, water damage, etc. that plagues physical books.
  • Convenience. Have a few extra minutes waiting for someone at a coffeeshop? A half hour on the subway? Instead of having to remember a physical book, just pull out that iPhone and pick up where you left off.
  • Social reading. As new platforms and apps develop that combine e-readers with social networking (ReThink Books is one), the potential social and pedagogical benefits of collective reading (tracking friends’ comments, sharing notes, keeping tabs on students’ reading progress, etc) are apparent.

Cons:

  • Hinders our focus. When you’re reading a book on the same device that you could use to check email, update Facebook, watch a video, play Angry Birds, listen to music, chat with friends, and do about a million other things, it becomes harder to focus on reading for a long stretch of time. These devices are made for multi-tasking, after all… short bursts of activity for short attention spans. How could I ever focus on reading a book on my iPad for an hour when my instincts tell me to press a button and check my inbox or Twitter feed every 10 minutes?
  • Turns reading into a “downtime” activity. Before, we took books with us to the park for 4 hours. We packed a book for a day of reading at the beach. We planned rainy days around reading books. It was an event. But now, our devices go with us everywhere, so reading a book becomes an anywhere/anytime activity, which by default usually becomes a “when I have time” or “I’m on the bus so I might as well do something on my iPhone” activity.
  • Takes away the billboard effect. Previously, having a physical book in our hands served as an advertisement of sorts: Letting others see what you were reading. It starts conversations (“Oh, I loved that book!” or “What’s that you’re reading?”). Now, when people see us looking at a screen in our lap, there is no visual indication that we are reading a book, let alone what we might be reading. Where’s the fun in that? Similarly, the loss of personal libraries in our homes–bookshelves with books that serve as identity markers and clues to our personalities (let alone conversation starters)–seems to take away a valuable function of books as social and household artifacts.
  • Hurts the eyes. I’m sorry, but yes. Reading long PDFs on my laptop screen hurts my eyes, and this is no different. Kindles, iPads, laptop screens… It’s nothing like reading a book. It’s exactly like reading an electronic screen. Eyesore.
  • More expensive! This may not always be true, but it was for me and The Great Gatsby. $10.99 on Kindle. $7.99 for the physical book. How does that make sense?

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I’m open to e-books, but I’m certainly not convinced of their value.

What do you think? Have you had a positive experience with e-books? Negative? Indifferent? Are physical books going to exist in the future?

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18 responses to “Are E-Books Good For Us?

  1. I don’t like that you can’t reference a page number. That can be annoying if you’re a student or in a book club. I also like the marginalia of used and borrowed books (see a good article on e-books on marginalia here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06Riff-t.html?_r=1&emc=eta1)

    I did find the e-book helpful while traveling, though. It sure helps when packing a carry-on bag when I don’t have to make room for three to four books!

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  3. Con # 1 – The reason I bought a KINDLE. I can only read on it.

  4. I am a used and rare book dealer. You will never see me with one of these devices. I think they have some applications – the textbook market perhaps – but for pleasure reading? If you love the culture of books, please – do not buy one of these.

  5. I agree with you in every sense. I just think of all of those people that sacrificed so much to have their words printed, that I just can’t fully give myself to kindle fad. Physical books have more value to me.

  6. I proposed to my wife at Adams park soon after I graduated from Wheaton on a beautiful Spring Day near the fountain….

    and I’m sticking with paper books…I like bending the pages, underlining, and sharing the books with friends and family.

  7. I think you’re forgetting another pro of “real” books: the smell and feel. It’s a little cheesy and nostalgic, but the touch of paper and musty smell of an old book is magical. I think it’s part of the reading experience, and the transition from holding something warm and papery to something cold and aluminum isn’t, I think, a step worth taking.

  8. I completely agree with the previous commenter. There’s a richness that comes with holding a book in your hand. You form a bond with it–a different bond than you have with your electronic device. I may be out of touch with the masses, but I don’t think physical books will ever go the way of the dinosaur.

  9. I have a Kindle and an iPad. My eyes get tired on the iPad, but not on the Kindle. It’s not a lit screen. I never thought I’d like the e-book, but I have grown to love it. One great thing for “work” books is that I can get my notes electronically, which makes them searchable.

  10. While I won’t argue that there’s some beauty lost in reading a book on an electronic device versus a physical manuscript with a unique scent, feel, and cover design, the reality for me and many others is that, before purchasing a Kindle, I did not read, and now I do. I’m a natural skeptic so it took a lot of inner debate and finally a leap of faith for me to jump on the e-book bandwagon. So, I understand your misgivings, but I wanted to comment on a few of your cons and throw in a pro to boot.

    Firstly, there is a massive difference between e-readers and modern tablet computers (e.g. iPads, Xooms, etc.). IPads are, as you said, designed for multitasking and their backlit screens are, as you said, hard on the eyes after a while. E-readers, such as the Kindle and the black and white Nook, do very little other than allow you to read books, and their e-ink technology is very easy on the eyes, as easy as a good, old-fashioned book even. When I use my Kindle, I put my phone away, and I can get lost in the words for hours.

    And secondly, my favorite e-reader benefit (I’m assuming this is the same on the Nook as the Kindle) is the ability to instantly lookup definitions of unfamiliar words. With the Kindle, you can scroll the cursor to a word, and the definition is instantly displayed at the top of the page. It’s become such a habit that it hardly interrupts the flow of my reading, and naturally, my understanding of the material is greatly enhanced, not to mention I love learning a new word now and again.

  11. I’m a guy with more books than shelf space. I was not a believer until I got the Kindle. I find it easier to read to than an actual book, and it doesn’t do anything else, so no problems with distractions. I absolutely love that I can decide to read a book, buy it, and start reading within a few seconds. My only problem is that I can’t share the book when I’m done.

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  13. I wasn’t a believer until I downloaded the Kindle app on my iPad. I understand the nostalgia of real books… the feel of paper, the smell, closing the book with warm accomplishment when you’ve finished the last page… but when it comes right down to it we have to ask ourself WHY we’re reading the books in the first place. Is it because we like to be seen reading, or because we’re actually interested in what is being said on the page and whether or not it is true or applicable.

    Also, I actually like how the iPad Kindle app (not sure how the actual Kindle functions) does not offer page numbers (for now at least). You can check your progress to see how far you are from the end, but if you don’t intentionality check, you won’t know… this I like. It keeps me focused on the page I’m reading and it’s content, not the question “how far am I until the end?” or “how much more of this chapter is left before i go to bed?” You either read what’s there, or you don’t. No rushing, no pressure. The end could be anywhere.

    FWIW, I’ll always have a bookshelf with books on it, but only my favorites. I always check to see if a book is available on Amazon Kindle before I buy a physical copy; I’m much more likely to buy it and read it if it is available for immediate download.

  14. The Kindle, with it’s nice cover, feels and looks like a book.

    It would be interesting if Apple could find a way to put the book title in its little Apple logo on the back of the iPad. Something to bring that back. I agree, that is something that’s missing.

    I don’t see how reading becoming a “downtime” activity is a bad thing. I take my Kindle to the park for a day and also appreciate having it on the bus to pass that time. I used to take books on the bus all the time on my 45 minutes commute to work.

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  16. I’ve saw an interview with Sherman Alexei who said he refused to allow his books to be available for the kindle.

    Here is a snippet from another interview:

    Why do you consider the Kindle “elitist?”

    I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle?

    http://www.edrants.com/sherman-alexie-clarifies-elitist-charges/

    I guess on the plus side, ebooks are better for the environment though I’m not sure if books is the biggest problem in terms of paper waste.

  17. I love good, old-fashioned books, but recently bought a Kindle, mainly for public-domain stuff (classic literature, classic works of philosophy, economics, etc.). On those items, it will certainly save me money in the long run.

    Also, as a proposal writer, I am often required to read 100s of pages in PDF (RFPs). An iPad may be hard on the eyes, but the Kindle beats a computer screen any day.

  18. Pingback: Loon’s linkage (April ’11) | The Common Loon

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