E-books vs paper books – may they both win

Now, you’re probably starting to think about your summer holiday (if you’re not on holiday already!), and all that delicious reading you’re going to get done. So… what’s it going to be? An intimate bonding with a satisfying chunk of paper and print? Or frustrations with connectivity and battery life?

book on beach

de istockphoto.com

In cost and convenience, the e-readers win, I concede that. But is that the main consideration in so personal an activity? I don’t choose my friends for their cost or convenience. I don’t even choose my meals that way – deciding what we eat based on easiest and cheapest would deprive us of so much pleasure and would make human beings less interesting. And many die-hard e-book fans I know love to travel and explore, and, seriously, what is either cheap or convenient about that? Isn’t it cheaper and more convenient to read a magazine article and watch a video about the fantasy destination? I’m not saying that reading and travelling are the same thing (although are they that different? A different debate), I’m making the point that cost and convenience should not be the deciding factor here.

I could be accused of sticking to the comfortable, staying with paper books because it’s what I’m used to. But no, I like change, and will happily try out new technologies and embrace their conveniences. I do use e-books for work-related reading, and I love the technology, the swiping of the pages, the searchability. But for preference, and certainly for reading for pleasure, I prefer the self-contained fantasy world of paper.

And I’m not alone. E-books are still a significant minority of books sold and read. Yes, the percentage is increasing rapidly (from 17% to 28% of the American population over the past three years, according to Pew Research – in Spain, where I live, approximately 12% of the population e-reads). But will e-books replace print? I doubt it. 87% of e-book readers also read books on paper. And here’s why: it’s psychologically much more satisfying.

kindle reading

by James Tarbotton for unsplash.com

A paper book has heft, bulk, it has dimensions. That makes the relationship more tangible, and more intimate. If the book I’m reading has boundaries, the relationship is more intense. And let’s not even get into the sensation of holding something substantial in your hands, of riffling the pages, of the texture of the paper and the smell of the print…

Ok, all of that is pretty obvious. But let me go on. The privacy of connecting with something that has no connectivity. The thrill of the immediacy of opening the book and diving in, no waiting for start-up and library search. Paper books allow us a more personal reading style. I turn down corners if I can’t find my bookmark or if I want to remember a specific page. Sometimes I’ll mark a margin, yes, with pen. A paper book will never suddenly not be there anymore because of a malfunction, a weak battery, a software incompatibility. And I love being able to see what other people are reading at the airport or on the metro. I once even made a friend on an airplane that way – I had just bought the book that he was reading, so of course I asked him what he thought about it. E-reading, while not unifying our tastes, homogenizes our style, and removes the public statement that our reading choices make about us. And the intimacy of lending books… “Here, you have to read this,” my friend Elizabeth said to me the other day, as she put in my hands a book I would never have thought of picking up. And best of all: we didn’t have to worry about copyright issues.

However, let me confess a contradiction: I do believe that e-reading is much better for what the psychologists would call “active learning”. You can search, highlight, annotate, bookmark (depending on your e-reader, obviously). I don’t want my research books to be a self-contained universe. I want them to lead me to other destinations, to cross-reference, to correlate. In some cases you have hyperlinks in the footnotes, really convenient. You can read a review of a book and in seconds have the book downloaded, ready to go. You can change the size of the font, useful for tired eyes. Even the menacing progress bar at the bottom of the screen is less bothersome if I’m not engrossed in a fictional world. And travelling with an e-reader is so much lighter than a rucksack full of textbooks or similar.

I’m aware that there might be a generational issue here. The Pew Research Survey I mentioned earlier shows that 37% of under-30s read books on screens. So I decided to ask an expert. My 11-year-old daughter goes through at least a book a week, and it was getting logistically impossible to keep up with a fresh supply, not to mention the fact that the physical space the books take up was beginning to be a problem. So we bought her a Kindle for her last birthday.

I asked her which she preferred, reading on the Kindle or reading on paper, and her answer was interesting: “Well, the Kindle is definitely more practical,” she said, in her most practical voice. “But… I find I can imagine the book better if I’m reading on paper.” Her friend Charlotte agrees, and adds: “I get so much more distracted with e-books. I love flipping the pages back and forth!”

So, who wins: e-book readers or paper book readers? The answer is we all do. True, paper books may become more scarce and costly over the next generation. True, e-readers will become ever-more technologically amazing. But they have ahead of them a long and happy co-existence, and new business models and publishing formats will draw in new readers, new contributors, and will make reading an ever richer experience.

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If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on Flipboard

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