Having personally witnessed the global explosion of computing & consumer electronics, I think the change has been for the best. Which is why I don’t look too kindly upon people who defend increasingly archaic things. In this case, I call out the paper book (specifically the medium, not the content).
Books are awesome. I grew up with them. I loved them and I lived in them. With that disclaimer, I must also admit that I have gone (perhaps regrettably) from that guy who used to read 5 – 8 books a week, to this guy who is loath to even walk into a library. You see, my reading habits gradually shifted from popular fiction (esp. scifi) to absurd & satirical works, and eventually to non-fiction altogether. And after non-fiction, there was a gradual decrease of interest in books in general. That said, it wasn’t that I wasn’t reading anymore. I just wasn’t reading books anymore.
Armed with my iPhone and MacBook, with widespread 3G & wireless coverage, I began to read online rather voraciously. On any given day nowadays, thanks to Reddit & Twitter alone, I get to read tens of articles on various subjects of interest. The brevity (they’re all shorter than a book, in any case), the ease of access (read anywhere, anytime), and the sheer variety (on virtually any subject/interest), is almost addictive. Remember these qualities, I’ll refer to them later.
Let’s note also the recent explosion of eBooks and related technologies. In addition to simple text, Word documents & PDFs, we now have more comprehensive formats like ePub, DJVU and Mobi, which add so much functionality, and scale seamlessly across multiple devices and resolutions.
The devices are in themselves, mini-miracles. From primitive LED/CD displays, we’ve progressed to flickering backlit displays and subsequently to non-flickering e-ink displays; from monochrome to 256 colors to millions of colours; from ultra-low-resolution pixellation, later antialiased, to present-day HD graphics; from bulky CRTs to flatter LCD/plasma screens to the thin flexible OLED screens of the future. The evolution of screens has been mind-blowing, and all these have come (and gone), in consumer electronics in my generation alone!
Indeed with my Kindle now, my reading habit has returned with a vengeance. The e-ink display is virtually indistinguishable from paper (heh), and it feels substantially better than reading from LCD displays. I now enjoy so many benefits of the digital book revolution: a device thinner than a booklet giving me access to any one of hundreds of books at the same time; a convenient backlight; dictionary and encyclopaedia functions on-press and on-demand; highlighted passages are conveniently captured in a text file for posterity... you get the point. The cumulative benefits make my Kindle such a compelling device that I never leave home without it! (I really really really love my Kindle! I highly recommend it to anyone who reads, or would like to read more.)
So anyway, the explosion of digital content (to the point of infornography) and the promising future of digital displays, lead me to the natural conclusion that eBooks are here to stay. To me, eBooks represent the next step in the evolution of information dissemination.
Every time I bring up my love for eBooks in a discussion though, it almost always results in a heated argument. Many of these arguments invariably revolve around a few common points, so I’ll just list them out here, with my rebuttal in favour of eBooks.
An important caveat
I am by no means suggesting that physical paper books are no longer necessary or useful. Nor am I wilfully disregarding the historical and cultural value of the (paper) book. I'm merely arguing that paper is no longer the dominant medium for written communication in the digital age and therefore not every book needs to be in paper form going forward.
Digital books naturally achieve the original goal of Gutenberg: the mass production and distribution of information. For example, content that has a short half-life of relevance, or requires timely updates such as magazines or textbooks can be digitised by default. Paper books then can serve a more dignified and intentional purpose, leveraging the strength and beauty of material tangibility. What do I mean by this? Timeless, confidential, sentimental or crucial content can be stored in hard-copy, resilient to the woes of misbehaving or abused technology, capable of being passed down from generation to generation like a precious heirloom.
To people who say paper books invoke nostalgia, truthfully, I think that sounds rather whiny. Sumerian cuneiforms were carved on clay. The Greeks and Romans inscribed some of their writings on stone. Entire ancient epics have been written on papyrus scrolls. Handwritten calligraphic tomes were also incredibly popular in certain circles during their respective epochs. Any of these would have evoked feelings of nostalgia for the people who grew up with them. And yet, technology evolved and humanity with it.
We adopted the Gutenberg printing method not because it solved nostalgia, but because it was good technology – quicker, efficient and accessible. It allowed more people to get their hands on more literature in a shorter length of time. I argue the same rational logic must prevail now.
The time has come to evolve once more. So get with the program.
Paper books are made of trees ground to pulp (mostly). Even recycled paper ultimately originated from a tree at some point. Thanks to ubiquitous computing, we now have the option to avoid unnecessarily cutting down trees, for any number of reasons like say, global warming, conservation of nature and habitats, prevention of deforestation & desertification – take your pick). I don’t see why we shouldn’t take that option. I don’t see how we can ignore that option.
Think not just of the trees used to make paper, but the transportation, logistics, storage & eventual wastage of books throughout their lifespans. Traditional books are just not a sustainable solution in an increasingly resource-starved planet. E-books don’t end up in landfills as often as magazines.
Books take up space. They can get damaged or lost. In contrast, eBooks are a godsend. Thanks to the magic of the Cloud and digital delivery, eBooks remain in excellent condition at all times.
Traditional books are constantly misprinted, reprinted or even go out of print. Also consider translations, and reprints of translated copies. With eBooks, all this redundancy is avoided. One copy is all a user needs. They can be updated easily, translated on-the-fly, and integrated into the modern digital workflow seamlessly. On a value scale, eBooks are significantly ahead of paper-books in this regard. I’d prefer to work with one file and a comprehensive update mechanism to replace having to purchase and work with multiple copies over a lifetime.
In an increasingly digital world, paper books make less and less sense. The content can’t be shared easily. (And the solution to unlawful sharing is not to remain a technophobic luddite.) You can only fax, photocopy, snail-mail or scan a printed page to digital form. And even then, it’s just an image. Short of extremely sensitive OCR technology or manually typing out printed text to a digital form, printed content is essentially imprisoned on the page.
Whereas digital text is not only instantly shareable (Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V), but also more accessible. Think live-translations, annotations, collaborative reading & writing and voice-overs. If the goal of a book is primarily to disseminate information, then a digital copy is more capable than a traditional book.
Imagine fully indexable content making for easy search and retrieval. Unprecedented archival of content, and unprecedented access to knowledge. In my mind, the Internet coupled with eBook technology equals the 21st century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria.
And here’s the kicker. Ctrl-F!
One of the downsides of digital text (especially on the internet) used to be that print had superior typography. But digital typography has come a long way since. With the potential for widespread appreciation for typography and their growing ubiquity as web-fonts, digital typography & design will only become a more popular phenomenon. Digital text is no longer limited by typography in any way.
The history of written language is full of evidence how characters, alphabets & entire languages have evolved to suit our needs. Print design will always have its place and we will always give credit where it’s due. But it’s time to evolve, and move on to the digital age. Secretly, I’m also quite interested to see how language will evolve in the cosmopolitan digital world.
Some people claim they read better on paper, and not digital screens. I can tolerate this sentiment, though just barely. For someone from my generation or the ones before mine, digital screens are a recent phenomenon. And it is true that the early screens were not ideal for reading. But with the advent of e-ink technology and HD screens à la Retina, this situation is surely getting better, no? I’m convinced the majority could read content on digital screens if they had to.
The ones who can read content on digital screens but prefer not to, are like people who have umbrellas but don’t want to use them. They are free to do as they wish, but this doesn’t mean the rest of the world shouldn’t be allowed to use umbrellas either.
The ones who really do have trouble reading on digital screens would make up a much smaller population. We could definitely accommodate these people with paper books. But the scale of this would still be orders of magnitude lesser than what it is now.
The tangible experience of having and holding (and smelling) a paper book is definitely a beautiful thing, and of course there are quite a few intuitive actions that are available to us such as writing in the margins, highlighting etc. While early e-readers didn't offer this functionality, with the touchscreen paradigm this is increasingly becoming an option. Best of both worlds, or at least a good compromise, it seems to me.
Hypertext and multimedia
One of the best things about reading on Wikipedia is the ability to jump from person to concept to thing to event endlessly thanks to hyperlinks. This isn't just a convenience, but a fundamental innovation because readers can stay at a critical level of abstraction with minimal digression unless they require it. For writers, this could be a new object-oriented way to write, building on previous texts while avoiding repetition.
The hyperlink concept isn't new to books, not really. Aren't choices in Choose-your-own-Adventure books basically hyperlinks in disguise? So too are footnotes and references in academic articles. Digital books can really latch onto this idea to enhance traditional texts or even innovate new forms.
Why stop there? If one of the goals is to communicate in a clear and engaging way, then the various types of multimedia (anything from images, GIFs, audio, video or even interactive elements and augmented reality) can impart new dimensions to the text.
Expense of technology
“Paper books are cheaper for populations that don’t have easy access to digital screens, because digital readers are expensive.” Or so the traditional defense goes. I disagree.
While the initial investment in the digital reader device might be steep, every subsequent eBook would add value to the investment. eBooks should theoretically be cheaper than traditional books, because there are no printing equipment costs, operating costs (to run the equipment), no storage, no shipping, no delivery costs etc. What’s more, the sheer ease of publishing on a digital medium would ensure that there is a lot more content being generated and available as eBooks, further increasing the potential benefits derived from e-readers.
I’m not a big fan of supporting commercialization, but digital screens can also capitalize on (dynamic and interactive) advertisements. With a subsidy on low-cost e-readers to a low-income population, the potential profits from advertising alone would just explode over the lifetime of the digital reader. And this would be cyclic. A low-income population (presumably due to low education) gets educated by reading. An increasingly educated population becomes increasingly affluent enough to buy the products being advertised.
Of course, after this long defense of eBooks, I ask you to expand the POV even further. Why stop at books? Really, any form of information with a paper equivalent can be disseminated to any demographic digitally. After the initial infrastructure investment, subsequent content distribution would become a trivial expense. Anything at all from bills & coupons, flyers & pamphlets, certificates, novels & novellas, magazines & monthlies, newspapers, textbooks & encyclopedias – the advantages of digitizing all of these are real, and numerous.
And here’s the kicker, CTRL–bloody–F.