Throwing the book at it

So I was feeling punchy this morning and decided to mock two people I follow on Twitter: FTB’s own Natalie Reed, and April Gardner aka Slignot on the topic of electronic books vs. physical books:

A picture of a Twitter exchange between myself and Slignot

My point was simply to point out that there has been pushback against every new technology by those who cry that humanity will forever lose the specific charms of whatever is being made obsolete. There is nothing inherently wrong with digital distribution of knowledge (either as books or whatever else), and the world will mourn the loss of the book in the same way it mourned the loss of the rotary phone, the telegraph, and the horse-drawn carriage. Yes, there will always be techno-hipsters who insist that vinyl records are the best way of appreciating music, and I’m sure a niche market for books will persist after the rest of the world moves online, but I’ve always found such allegiance to obsolete technologies a very weird thing to insist on. Then again, I find listening to house music, wearing vests, and drinking bubble tea weird to the same extent, so there’s that.

What followed was an epic fight between Natalie and myself over the dangers associated with eliminating the book. To hear Natalie tell the story, books are inviolable and physical depositories of knowledge that cannot be selectively edited, censored or controlled nearly so easily as, for example, ebooks on a Kindle. The day that we no longer have the option to purchase a book and have sovereign rights over its content is the day that humanity loses a fundamental check on those forces that would exert undue influence over humanity’s access for information. We know that corporations, given the chance (and the profit motive), will take away human freedoms so long as they can get away with it. She does not trust those forces with the power to control the flow of information.

My point, essentially, is this: the loss of the book will go unlamented by most people if they have access to both alternatives. The book will not be eliminated, it will simply be phased out in the same way that calculators replaced abacuses. Do we lose some of the tangible benefits – the look, the smell, the feel, the ability to scribble marginalia – when we lose the book? Yes. Any change means the loss of something. The relevant question is do we lose something that has inherent value?

Natalie’s initial argument was that the loss of control over the flow of knowledge is inherently dangerous, and that abandoning books for digital media could potentially result in such a loss. I find this argument fails for two main reasons. First, if we are talking about the global control of information, digital media beats books hands-down every time. There are a limited number of publishing houses in existence, and they decide what warrants getting pressed onto paper and what doesn’t. While you or I could, in theory, start our own publishing company, the financial and logistical barriers are insurmountable for the majority of the population. In comparison, if I wanted to publish an electronic book tomorrow, the only thing that would stop me is thinking up a snappy title.

The second reason I don’t find the “control of information” argument compelling is that digital release lowers the barriers to access in ways that books simply cannot touch. If my blog was a ‘zine’ (remember those?) I would have a readership of like 5 or 6 people, tops. Books require a complex system of shippers and vendors to get into your paper-touching hands. Again, one could go the self-distribution route, but you couldn’t do that and work a full-time job and have a social life and, and, and. The corrolary holds for the reader – books require you to be in either convenient proximity to a vendor or, if the author is lesser-known, the person actually writing the books. It is far easier for me to subscribe to my favourite author and download hir newest tome than it is for me to rely on the library or bookstore to have something in stock.

Now the specific model Natalie objects to – that of the Kindle – where content is 100% controlled (and even possibly edited) by the distributor, is a shitty model. If all books went the way of the Kindle, we’d be in serious trouble indeed. However, I have serious doubts that such a scenario could ever come to pass. For people in North America with ready access to the internet, the first source for knowledge retrieval is Wikipedia, not the electronic version of The Britannica. Content producers are finding new ways of making distribution of free media profitable (or at least cost-neutral). Any attempt to ‘corner the market’ on human knowledge would fail as quickly as it takes Anonymous to stop laughing at the attempt. A corporate entity attempting to funnel all media through their coffers would face fierce backlash from governments and individuals alike. Fearing the Kindlization of the collected works of humankind is an interesting doomsday scenario to imagine in the abstract, but not one I am going to lose sleep over.

We do not necessarily lose control over the distribution of information when using digital media. In fact, the opposite is likely the case – by lowering barriers to accessibility, you increase the ability of both authors and readers to exchange ideas. Natalie suggested that books, checked out of a library, are far more accessible to people with limited incomes. Not everyone can afford the price of an e-reader, let alone the cost to buy every book ze wants to read. If every book were to disappear from existence tomorrow, that would indeed be a serious problem. However, that is not a problem associated with electronic media per se – it is a challenge of ensuring migration doesn’t leave people behind. This issue, however, is entirely tangential to the question of whether or not we would, as a civilization, lose something important (Natalie used the word “crucial”) if books went the way of the daguerreotype.

I have tried to avoid saying that ebooks are better than physical books (except insofar as the criticisms of them are simply not true). However, there is far more interactive potential for electronic media (including ebooks) than for printed word. The question of environmental toll is perhaps a wash – how do clearcuts for paper stack up against strip-mining for minerals? – but we are in the infancy of the ebook, and the twilight years of the paperback. I have no doubt that as we find new ways to integrate technology into our everyday lives, and find innovative ways to present content, books will simply fade into the background of a technology that was important, but that we have outgrown. Some will lament the passing of the book – I can’t say I’ll miss it.

I imagine that this debate will continue in the comments, but it’s easier to do it here than on Twitter. Less spammy too.

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  1. Dianne says

    Stone tablets + C4 = no more book. Google cloud books can be retrieved for as long as the cloud exists.

    That having been said, there’s one still killer ap for physical books: airplanes. You can’t use electronics for a certain portion of every flight and on long flights your battery will run down and your book disappear if it isn’t physical.

  2. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Yeah, ebooks suc… no, wait…

    Furthermore, with a decent ebook reader, you canscribble notes on them, mark pages, highlight, and all that good stuff. This turns books into “videogames”? A prerequisite to having an intelligent conversation is avoiding hyperbolic falsities.

  3. jamessweet says

    I’m with you in terms of the possible reduction in prominence of the physical book being basically a wash… but I think you underestimate how tenacious printed media will be.

    I’ll be uncharacteristically brief and not write a whole blog post as a comment this time… but you talk about it being gradual; I think it’s going to be asymptotic, and the asymptote is not going to be too far from where we are now. There will be less paper books in the future, but not anywhere close to zero.

  4. says

    As a performing musician, I’m still extremely tied to paper and pencil (and occasionally eraser and pencil sharpener) a lot of the time, and the technologies are not quite there yet for practicality: quickly annotating a PDF to include your own markings is nowhere near as easy yet as picking up a pencil and writing on the score or part (exempli gratiæ: for me, adding breath marks or pronunciation; for you, adding bowings or fingering). Add in battery, weight, and flexibility issues, and sheet music still looks like a better option than reading off a iPad or tablet.

    What has changed is the volume of material that is readily accessible. Not only stuff like Wikiquote or Project Gutenberg, for music you have sites like the International Music Score Library Project – hosted in Canada! – which is heading toward a quarter of a million? different scores of public domain music scanned in the ubiquitous PDF. Access to virtual libraries like that are certainly changing the way people look at least the classical repertoire (and more changes to other fields are just as likely, soon).

  5. says

    Oh dear Crommunist – If your blog was a zine (yes, they still exist) you would have many many more readers than 5 or 6. I still run a zine distro in 2012! I would make sure of it! It took me as a zine writer/reader/distributer awhile to accept e-books. But about a month ago I bit the bullet and purchased a Kindle Fire. I think there is room and importance for both electronic reading and dead tree reading.

  6. Sivi says

    What about the benefits of analogue media (q) (sorry, no question mark key). It keeps longer, and remains readable despite changes in technology and formatting, etc. It also requires a lot less infrastructure to support, which makes it good for less developed nations, and other people who for whatever reason don’t have much electrical access.

  7. Shin says

    The battery life on my Kindle is 2 months (of average use, I’m not sure what their metric was for ‘average’). I’ve never needed to charge it more often than every couple of weeks. So, I’m not sure a flight exists that’s long enough to run down the battery. (And if there is, I have this little gadget with me when I travel: I love that thing).

    I understand tablet-style devices have much, much shorter battery lives due to the screen (mainly) and hardware they power, but even then in most cases you’re talking 12-17 hour battery life on many of them. Moreso if you carry my little friend there. 😉

  8. Dianne says

    I read on my cell phone. The battery life is much more limited. The no electronics part still holds, though.

  9. says

    It also requires a lot less infrastructure to support

    I’m not sure that’s true. Paper requires a LOT of infrastructure to produce and ship. Printing presses too. Not to mention distribution and vendor infrastructure. All of these are way smaller (or non-existent) for digital media.

    Given that they have programs wherein they distribute tablet computers in the Gaza strip, I’m not sold on the idea that books are the way to educate the world’s poor. Besides, what if you wanted to give 10 books to every child in a remote community? HUGE shipping cost. The logistical difference between 10 books and 1000 books is negligible in digital media – major issue for print and paper.

  10. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Ebooks don’t require ‘more’ infrastructure, the require different infrastructure. How much (weatherproof) space does 38,000 require? As opposed to 1 computer.

  11. says

    Ebooks don’t cost $33 USD to ship to a location across the Pacific in a reasonable amount of time from South Carolina. They don’t burn fossil fuels to transport from printer to consumer, and if you have to move house, it’s a lot easier to pack and unpack an e-reader full of files than the same amount of media in print form. I’ve moved house 4 times in as many years, and I wish I’d been able to get an e-reader a lot sooner than I did. This is important for someone who, say, is only sporadically employed and can’t afford to live in the same place for very long, though admittedly has enough assets to pay for an e-reader and periodically buy an ebook. It also helps that, when released by publishers who don’t have their Luddite heads up their asses, ebooks are considerably cheaper than paperbacks.

    I will confess to being a tad biased, as I’m one of those obscure, risky authors Crommie’s talking about. I’m a little sore about the amount of money I’ve spent over the past few days to send review copies to 12 states and 7 other countries. It costs nothing to attach an ePub to an email, and it gets to its recipient a lot sooner, is all I’m sayin’.

  12. Shin says

    The no electronics part is utter bullshit that we can only hope is changed in favor of the actual evidence that our tiny devices have zero effect on any plane built in the last 20 years.

    A lot of airlines have changed all their flightplans to digital format and issued pilots iPads for FSM’s sake, and those guys sit a hell of a lot closer to the sensitive equipment than the rest of us do.

    (And I assume I don’t need to bother here, but the “cumulative effect” nonsense is just that, nonsense.)

  13. Pteryxx says

    I’ll just say, books aren’t so easily destroyed by water. I still have a perfectly readable Star Wars paperback that was dropped in the Atlantic several decades ago.

  14. says

    I accidentally left my copy of Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” outside overnight. The dew RUINED it. Sad, too. I wasn’t even done reading it yet.

  15. Dianne says

    BS in terms of danger to plane, yes. But still the rules, also yes. Until the airlines decide to give it up and enter the 21st century, there’s still going to be a time period where you can’t use electronics on a plane. (And before you argue that it’s such a ridiculously short period of time that no one cares, the answer is “NOOOOOO! I demand constant entertainment!”)

  16. 'Tis Himself says

    It all comes down to personal preference. I read books on my kindle, I read dead-trees books. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. However I tend to buy dead-tree books. There’s no market for second hand kindles, there is a market for second hand books.

  17. says

    So for my 2 cents, I have a great tablet now and so far I’ve really enjoyed reading books off it. Great for just carrying around something thin and light and when just reading the battery lasts quite a while.

    However, one of my favourite things is to get books signed by the author. I have several books signed by my skeptical hero’s, including one by Carl Sagan which is the pride and joy of my collection.

  18. iknklast says

    I guess I’m a bit tired of people who think because they like electronic books, there is something weird about those of us who like actual books. The demise of print books has been predicted for so long, it’s almost become like the rapture; my husband (a retired librarian) had a bet with a woman in the 1990s. She said the book would be gone by 2000; she owes him a trip to Alaska.

    And, if books can be destroyed by water, are you implying that electronics would not? In my experience, the odds of my Nook being destroyed should it contact water are much higher than a book. In fact, I have books that have been in water, and were not, in fact, destroyed.

    There is a place for both the high tech and the low tech, and it’s time for those who imagine themselves superior because they accept only high tech to recognize that. After all, you can mock vinyl, but the music makers have started putting out vinyl again, so maybe those folks have something.

    And I will never likely read my digital reader in the bathtub, though I feel perfectly safe reading my old fashioned books in the bathtub.

    Books ruls.

  19. Ryan Gerber says

    The legal issues are a big obstacle. I only buy ebooks from sites where I can break the encryption, and avoid those like Apple where I can’t. I have some ebooks that have stayed with me through three format shifts and six computers. Very few ebook retailers let customers have that kind of freedom.

  20. Daniel Schealler says

    One of the other pros for books is that they don’t require a power source to keep running. That’s useful.

    The other reason I really think books or something like them will be with us forever is because the costs of printers and printing are continuing to fall.

    When I can by a printer/binder that sits in my own home for under $200 and I can buy the rights to self-print and bind a book for around $5 and < 10c per page, I'll totally start doing that.

    Books will become an optional medium for the encoding of digital texts.

    And we don't need to worry about digital texts being controlled by corporate or government interests so long as the internet remains free.

    If the internet got locked down to government and corporate interests, then we'd have much, much greater problems than we would from the same thing happening to books.

  21. says

    Well, I do wonder if it’s paranoid to worry about somebody deciding “I must censor this book” and writing a virus to get rid of every copy on everyone’s computer/Kindle/whatever. I don’t think that takes a totalitarian government at all, just a dedicated hacker. So there’s still a question of which book-reading devices are connected to the Internet and how.

    The Kindle screens make me a little more optimistic about my future in a world of no-more-books. I do get tired of looking at a backlit computer screen all day, instead of something that displays like an actual object. Also, hopefully we will always be able to print things out if we really want to, in fact there are machines that quickly print/bind books.

    But, I already live in a world of endless back-and-forth between old books and new publications. I read a lot of papers online, but sometimes I have to go to the department’s library for things that are still in old books, and haven’t been put online (or have, but in rather inaccessible format). It seems to work out. Not only that, but I can’t wait until writing styles expand away from “book” thinking. So many things could be done differently, beyond just embedding links.

  22. says

    My wife has astigmatism, so the only type of ereader that she could comfortably use (without getting a migraine) is one with e-ink. However, I can’t really see my way toward spending 100+ on a dedicated ereader when we both rather like the physical books. Tablet, maybe, but then she couldn’t read it comfortably.

    The big thing for me though is the cost of the ebooks. When I check books that I might consider getting in ebook format, and compare the individual cost to a mass paperback edition, the cost is the same. That makes no sense, since there’s not the extra cost of printing and shipping a physical book. So, no. If I’m going to be spending the same on the books, I’d just as soon have something solid in my hand.

    Lending is also an issue. I borrow and lend books with friends, but that freedom would be curtailed on an ereader, so that’s a huge value being lost.

  23. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Alyson – so why DID they insist on paper copies? Tell them that to avoid running up the shipping bill, you are sending a PDF.

  24. Brian Lynchehaun says

    However, I can’t really see my way toward spending 100+ on a dedicated ereader when we both rather like the physical books.

    I have the Sony PRS640, about $300 (CAD) at the time of purchase. It has a touch screen (which has a texture pretty similar to paper), and the ability to highlight words/passages, bookmark pages, make notes, and a bunch of dictionaries all built in. 2gb storage space (about 500ish books), and the ability to accept SD cards (meaning I could store several hundred thousand books in a shoebox, if inclined) and you have something that is definitely worth the investment, in my opinion.

    (It also can play music, but that is something I’d be ok with dropping. I like my devices to do just one thing well)

    “The big thing for me though is the cost of the ebooks”

    I’m a big fan of “free”.

    Books that are no longer in copyright:

    For books that are currently copyrighted: or

    If publishers are going to charge the price of a hardback book for an electronic version, then I’m going to download the book for free (or not at all).

    . If I’m going to be spending the same on the books, I’d just as soon have something solid in my hand.

    This kind of stuff is really unnecessary. It seriously implies that you don’t understand the difference between hardware and software. This kind of hyperbolic comment is simply dismissive, and provokes knee-jerk responses.

    I borrow and lend books with friends, but that freedom would be curtailed on an ereader, so that’s a huge value being lost.

    Only if you choose to ‘buy’ your books with the electronic nonsense stapled on. If you use any of the above sites that I listed, it ceases to be an issue.

    I seriously do not understand the argument that “this particular group of people, who I do NOT have to do business with, are doing eBooks badly. Ergo, I do not want eBooks”.

    Take your time and money elsewhere. Get your books from companies that aren’t stupid. Separate criticism of the technology from criticism of business models. Muddling it all together simply implies that you haven’t considered things properly.

  25. Who Cares says

    Which reader allows you to scribble notes? Seeing that I tend to have a bad habit of written arguments with books 😉

  26. Daniel Schealler says

    I can see that making sense from within the US.

    But consider the view from those of us living outside the US.

    For me, the cost of shipping a book from Amazon to New Zealand is about half the price of the book again.

    Kindle saves me a lot of money in delivery costs alone… And on top of that, I’ve found the Kindle editions are usually around 75% the cost of the paperbacks, give-or-take a few percent.

  27. Betty says

    I confess to sentimental feelings about books, but that just makes me a paper freak. The real issue for me is this: If having an e-reader meant I had access to all the books, I would have one in a heartbeat. As it stands, that is not true. NOOK brags about…what?…over 1 million titles? 1 million is not all that many books. It’s practically nothing. is a bit better for stuff I’m seeking, but the prices suck. Most of what I really want to read I’m still shopping for as used books. I keep feeling all judged for Luddism whenever I read one in public. (I have lately started to counter-judge anyone I see with an e-reader for having pedestrian taste in literature.) I wish all book lovers would sideline the electronic vs. paper debate for a bit and come together and demand the addition of more titles to all the stores and libraries. No. Not just more titles. Make that ALL THE TITLES. Now.

  28. mas528 says

    I really think that digital is good for school children. I remember carrying a backpack (you know, the old green canvas things) full of books which gave me neck/shoulder grooves, and I also remember that there were some lean years where we couldn’t take them home at all.

    I hope I don’t derail the discussion here…

    We had a blackout on the east coast.

    Everything was electrically powered. My computer was my entertainment center. Music, movies, and books, (Project Gutenberg) especially.

    As a systems administrator and
    as a mild emergency preparedness nut (New Orleans really scared the living crap out of me, for many reasons), I wonder about electrical service interruptions for digital media.

    A e-reader is convenient, and can probably be charged with a solar charger.

    About the cloud…
    I also remember 9/11 2001. The phone lines were borked. We had a bonded T1, which was useless. No internet access at all.

    But when I get one, I will place my paper books in sealed plastic bags so they don’t get wet, and store them just in case.

  29. says

    Heh, that’s okay. I don’t have an e-reader, nor do I have any burning desire for one. I bought a couple of books a year ago. They remain unread. Besides, I kind of figured out the surprise twist ending. He was a ghost the whole time, right?

  30. karmakin says

    I usually buy vinyl copies of the music I want to own then just download the MP3’s from the internet, then frame and hang the album.

  31. karmakin says

    Yes to both.

    One of the oft-ignored issues is the increasing rate of back issues among youth, having to do with thicker school books and the need to carry them back and forth on a regular basis (as in, all or most of them) to the point where they are carrying very dangerous weights for them. Going digital is something that immensely helps with this. (Although, I’m also in the “anti-homework” camp that thinks that there’s far far too much structured homework given out these days which creates serious class imbalances.)

    And Natalie’s main point, I think is that after a societal collapse and electricity is hard to find, all the electronic media is going to do nothing. I can’t disagree with that, although I agree with the other point that on the whole digital makes self-publishing easier and actually weakens the hold of the big publishers…

    Although one thing. I do not like non-fiction books generally. I find that compared to blogs, they are less responsive, less interesting, less pertinent and generally written worse (serious on this). Since the rise of blogs and other social media, I find my non-fiction reading of books has dropped significantly.

  32. Alyson Miers says

    I don’t communicate directly with any except one of the reviewers, so I don t know how many of them have ereaders. I guess I might find out later, after all the reviews are posted, how many of them could just as easily have accepted ebooks. I’m just saying, ebooks are a lot less resource-intensive.

  33. says

    Looking at the sites you listed as having ebooks available for free, and doing a quick search for books I’d want, I found: 0. On top of that, if I like the book, I’d still like the author to get something for that (if I can afford it, anyway –I have no issues with libraries or lending, and those are generally things that authors support as well). I just don’t think I need to pay for printing costs that don’t exist.

    This kind of stuff is really unnecessary. It seriously implies that you don’t understand the difference between hardware and software.

    How so? The hardware would be the ereader, at ~$100 for something that just does the e-ink (unless on sale). The software is relevant in terms of the format, and in some cases that can be converted, but the material I’m reading still costs the same as a paperback version. In other words, I don’t think I was being hyperbolic. It literally costs the same, or more, to read the books I want to read on an ereader. While there may be advantages in convenience, those don’t outweigh the economic disadvantages. If you’re pirating, then I guess that’s different. I would prefer not to pirate, however.

    Separate criticism of the technology from criticism of business models.

    Most of my criticisms are about the business models. My technological criticisms have to do the inability to get a tablet ereader that is comfortable to read for long periods for someone with astigmatism (I’m not sure if the technology exists that would allow that). I like my electronics to do more than one thing; that’s why I like my smartphone so much. I don’t really see where I’ve “muddled” my criticisms.

  34. says

    True, if you live outside the US, the economic considerations could lead to different conclusions.

    And on top of that, I’ve found the Kindle editions are usually around 75% the cost of the paperbacks, give-or-take a few percent.

    Where are you getting that from? When I look at the costs of a paperback vs Kindle edition, they’re the same. The exceptions seem to be things that are out of print, and usually out of copyright. For example, “The Gathering Storm,” from the Wheel of Time series:

    $9.99 for the Kindle edition, and $9.99 for new from Amazon.

  35. smrnda says

    To some extent this kind of reminds me when I read early dystopic science fiction where it was predicted that instead of food, we would eat bland, tasteless, utilitarian ‘nutrition capsules.’ I don’t even think much serious research has been made into finding a replacement for food that nobody would prefer to use (outside of possible emergencies) simply because nobody develops a technology that people don’t want.

    Print books are still so popular that I can only seem them going away if they become a complete specialty market or if printing books becomes environmentally unsustainable on a large scale.

    What I worry about with electronic distribution is that bookstores and libraries are great community spaces. Sometimes, a library is the only real community space a region might have, and I worry that politicians bent on destroying any sort of ‘public’ function of government might make a case that libraries can become obsolete. Then again, libraries are often the place where people go to use computers and free wireless, so they would probably enjoy sufficient popular support.

    My own take is that sometimes I want a book NOT on a kindle but on my actual computer screen. I work in front of a computer and it’s nice to be able to have a book open right there when I need it – saves a lot of wear and tear on my neck and the hassle of managing typing and turning pages at the same time.

  36. mas528 says

    Well, let’s face it. A book of logarithms would be useless on any electronic device. Except to maybe print it out.

    As several of us have mentioned, what happens when there is no electricity? If anyone survives, someone will need to start anew with science and engineering.

    If there are a lot of people around, the privileged will have electricity. People like myself? Probably not. .

    There *are* concentrated food rations. The military has the Hooah/Oo-Rah bar. It actually tastes good. Spam, which people (unfairly) make fun of is tolerable even if it is too salty for me. .

    Shoot. Hardtack was pretty good for the time. Some people still eat it.

    The idea of a pill was either a dunderhead’s like Alvin Toffler or some know-nothing science fiction author (which is most of them). .

    It was parodied in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
    One thing I like about paper books is that it is easy to look for a passage. I can usually remember which side of the page it was on and make a reasonable guess how far in it was. I can poke my finger to open it and get reasonably close to where I want to be.

    I think (I don’t have one) that would be lost on an electronic device.

  37. Makoto says

    I’m an avid (perhaps voracious is a better term) reader. I devour books. But oddly, I have an easier time sticking with a book in physical format, even though I have several eBook readers around me (phone, iPad, Kindle Fire, computer, etc). I have most of those for my job, but I still find myself preferring physical books that I can pick up, put down, and so on. Really not sure why – I’ve even tried the same book in e- and real format, and the real format wins for me hands down.

    That said, I definitely prefer the eBook format for travel, it’s a whole lot easier to just carry the Kindle instead of 4 books for a flight.

  38. left0ver1under says

    “Google cloud books can be retrieved for as long as the cloud exists.”

    Which will be far shorter than most people think. The computing industry is as dependent on oil as any other for production of computers and hard drives.

  39. left0ver1under says

    Few posters agree see print and ebook as both having strengths and weaknesses. That’s surprising.

    The only thing I have again ebooks is DRM. The savings in weight and size alone make them worthwhile, never mind cost of production and savings on the environment. One PDA or ebook reader can hold hundreds or thousands of books in the space and weight of one printed book.

    That said, printed books don’t require electricity and can be read anywhere with light. You don’t have to turn on a paperback that you read under a tree, nor a reference book on your desk or bookshelf. And paper lasts far longer than hard drives, CDs and Flash devices, decades versus years (at best).

  40. Brian Lynchehaun says

    So, to sum up.

    Arguments in favour: eBooks are convenient, lightweight, conserve storage space.

    Arguments against: if society collapses and you have no electricity, ebooks are useless.

    I weep for the goddamn species.

  41. mas528 says

    Save your weeping for damned self.

    Society doesn’t have to collapse to be without power.

    You missed blackouts (complete and rolling), infrastructure failure, downed power lines, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods.

    In addition, in any disaster scenario, there will be theft and looting. A fancy device that has a history text on it is more likely to be stolen than a bound history text.

  42. Crimbly says

    I’ve read through all the arguments here and while everyone makes valid points, yours are pretty antagonistic.

    My biggest gripe with eBooks – apart from the fact that the only one I ever owned, a Sony somethingorother, had horrific backlighting and I stopped using it because I was straining my eyes intensely – is the idea of losing my bought eBooks. I’ve had the same thing happen on my iTunes when my computer has died; there is no opportunity to redownload previously purchased files. I’m told by an eBookphilic friend that ebooks allow you more than one download; but that it’s a finite limit dependent on publisher, and I don’t want to be limited like that.

    Of all my books I’ve dropped two in water (one is a still readable, very battered and oft-lent copy of The God Delusion) and have only ever completely lost one. As a minor bibliophile I like the fact that I can arrange a physical library of them, order them according to subject, and choose to have several open at once at my desk.

    One idea I could get behind is if the publishing industry did what Blu-Ray producers sometimes do: include a BR, DVD and digital version in one packet. If I could buy a physical version of a book and a keycode to download an ePub version (for a increased price obviously) then I would do so; best of both worlds.

  43. says

    Then again, I find listening to house music, wearing vests, and drinking bubble tea weird to the same extent, so there’s that.

    Wait, is drinking bubble tea hipstery now? I didn’t get the memo. Does this mean I’ll have to stop drinking it?

    Hang on. I think it’s one of those things like watching Bollywood movies, listening to K-pop, being vegetarian, doing yoga or wearing a bindi, which is hipstery when white people are doing it, but just fobby when we ethnics are doing it. So I should be OK.

  44. says

    Bubble tea isn’t hipstery, it’s just gross. I have never been drinking something and said “gosh, you know what this is missing? Slimy balls”

  45. says

    Funny, my example of “use for paper that I cannot possibly see going away for decades” is also music-related: When I bring a new song for my band, I print out a quick sketch of the chords at work and then bring a copy for each member to practice. To do this electronically would require that each of them have a tablet with them and charged at band practice, if any of them forgot it then we are fucked, etc.

    My wife looks forward to a future when simple tablets are essentially disposable… that I just might have five of them in my car and will load up the new song(s) on those and pass them out. Yeah, good luck with that… Looooooooong ways away.

  46. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I’ve read through all the arguments here and while everyone makes valid points, yours are pretty antagonistic.

    You’re right. I should totally treat asinine arguments with deferential respect.

    The ‘lack of power’ argument is inane. I haven’t notice that argument get any play with TVs, refrigerators, tablets (which have otherwise come up again and again, often by the same people criticizing eBook readers for needing to be plugged in every couple of weeks), or microwaves.

    As if, in a prolonged (multi-week!) electricity-deprived emergency, people are going to be primarily concerned with reading their novels.

    Fragility (compared to books) is an entirely valid line of criticism. My eReader has survived (not entirely intact) the several times that I’ve dropped it. A paperback would have fared much better.

    ‘Needing power’ is, however, an entirely vapid criticism. It’s akin to me criticising books for needing light to read with.

  47. Otrame says

    iBooks (on th iPad and other Apple devices) allows highlighting, notes and bookmarks.

  48. mas528 says

    This is not just about the kindle, but all e-readers. So it includes the ipad and fire, not just the kindle e-ink reader which is the only one (that I know of) with a multi-week charge. . . .

    I’m feel pretty safe in the guess that you have never had to be evacuated to a emergency shelter. . I bet you don’t even have a bug-out bag.

    In my bag, and any bag that I help prepare I include a solar/crank flashlight/radio, few toys, a pot-boiler novel, and a bag of hard candy as well as the usual things. .

    Sitting in a evac center is both unpleasant and boring.

    It can be less unpleasant, if children around you are entertained and you can read a book.

    You do not want to plug in a charger in a mass evac center,.even if there is convenient power available.

  49. Brian Lynchehaun says

    just the kindle e-ink reader which is the only one (that I know of) with a multi-week charge

    E-ink has a near-zero power requirement. All the Sony devices that use e-ink will operate for more than a week (most are 2-4 weeks). Those 2-4 weeks are *of usage*, not merely sitting in a bag unused. E-ink doesn’t drain power, so the eReader can stay on a single page for much longer than 2-4 weeks, though my Sony automatically turns off after a day (or 2, I don’t recall) of disuse.

    Secondly, an iPad is not an eReader. An iPad is a tablet, that has about the same battery life of any laptop out there. A definition for you:

    In short, you seem to be woefully misinformed about something which you are criticizing.

    Meanwhile, the inane power argument is also an argument against televisions, laptops, computers, microwave ovens, ovens, and so on. “If it’s not serviceable in an evacuation, then it’s no good” is an entirely crappy argument for devices that are not specifically intended for use during an evacuation.

    I bet you don’t even have a bug-out bag.

    Your speculations about my life are as unwelcome as they are incorrect.

  50. mas528 says

    The ipad was marketed as an e-reader, and people will buy it for that reason. It is most specifically *not* sold as a laptop replacement.

    The fact that I didn’t know about the Sony e-ink devices is not pertinent. . I do know about the Kindle. Its like saying I don’t know about Acer when I know about Dell, HP, Lenova, and Apple. .

    When you town has been destroyed by a tornado, you are not worried about your refrigerator, even when you’re waiting at the evac center.

    But you’re right, if it isn’t destroyed, it does apply to these things too; less so to TVs. Which is why there are solar power backup power for refrigerators that can run a refrigerator for a few hours a day.

  51. kelly says

    Not everyone can afford an e-reader. Many (poor) people still use the libraries and used book stores. Others trade paper books. Some pass around a book to people they know and have them sign it (I’ve done this before). It’s a great way for several people to read something for free and to keep a record of the people who’ve read the book.

    From an printmaker’s point of view, it would be an absolute tragedy if paper became obsolete. While I can appreciate digital art, I love seeing layered prints and intaglio works. Texture and physical volume cannot be replicated on a 2-D screen–paper is an important medium.

    I don’t care to end a rich history of text combined with art on paper (books). I fail to see why paper books must become obsolete because of technology. There is room for both.

  52. dianne says

    It’s hard to imagine mass printing of paper based books without oil and other energy sources either. The computer industry is dependent on oil per se only for the plastic. The energy can come from any energy source that can be turned into electricity. Also if we were really on the verge of running out of oil, gas prices would be rather higher than they are. I’m more worried about running out of climate suitable for human life on a massive scale.

  53. says

    “This issue, however, is entirely tangential to the question of whether or not we would, as a civilization, lose something important (Natalie used the word “crucial”) if books went the way of the daguerreotype.”

    I disagree. It’s an issue that gets to the heart of how information is access, and how that access can (and most likely will) be limited if we rely on structures where the means of access is privatized, controlled, sold. Imagine if 100 years ago the only way to learn how to read was to shell out two week’s worth of middle-class wages.

  54. ButchKitties says

    I do the same thing as Karmakin. Most vinyl comes with a download code, and if it doesn’t, my turntable can rip vinyl to mp3.

    I also tend to buy a lot of my music directly from touring musicians, most of whom need to sell their music using physical media because they need the money immediately to buy gas to get to their next show. I’ll buy a CD if that’s all they have, but I prefer vinyl because I like having a giant, frameable version of the album art.

  55. ButchKitties says

    Jenny Calendar: Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?

    Giles: The smell.

    Jenny Calendar: Computers don’t smell, Rupert

    Giles: I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

    This is why I’m reluctant to jump on the e-reader train. The copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology that I inherited from my dad has a particular smell, and that smell alone helps me remember what I’ve read. I like that the journals I’ve purchased from the New Age store are still infused with the scent 100 kinds of incense. I like the feel of paper in my hands, and how different books have different textures. The olfactory and tactile sensations of a physical book are, for me, part of the reading experience, and I will lose those parts when I make the jump to e-readers.

  56. says

    Information durability is the reason that books will not yet go away. Ink on (non-acid)paper or vellum is still the best mass/durability compromise we have for long duration (by long, 500 years or greater) information storage.

    I have and read books that are more than 200 years old. I’ve handled and read books that are 500 to 800 years old. They’ve even recovered sizeable portions of a 1200 year old manuscript that had been in an Irish bog for the thick end of a thousand years. About the only thing that beats organic material books is clay or stone tablets, but their information density sucks.

    I cannot, currently, read any of the DVD’s or CD’s onto which I printed backup copies of my PhD thesis 10 years ago. Paper copy, however, is fine. I can still use the Apple IIe I did my highschool essays on in the eighties, but between half and 3/4 of the diskettes for it are hopelessly corrupt. My boss at work is hanging onto 10″ VMS diskettes because ‘there’s important information on those’ despite the fact we no longer have the device that uses them, but the hundred yearold treatises I needed to reference for my honours thesis are perfectly functional.

    I have and enjoy an ebook reader, but I cannot be sure it will be a supported format device in five years, let alone ten.

    Until someone comes up with a digital storage method that is a)physically durable on a millenial span and b)continually backwards and forwards compatible with previous technologies, printing out a copy of wikipedia every few decades on archival paper and binding it in leather, and sticking a few copies randomly in a dry cavern or monastery somewhere is still the best longterm information transmission system we have.

  57. says

    And that’s exactly what it WAS like 400 years ago in Europe. 100 years ago in many other parts of the world. 100 seconds ago in many places still. I see you asking me to check my privilege – maybe you should be checking yours as well.

    The means of access is NOT free now, even though you keep repeatedly asserting otherwise. It is throttled by publication firms, large and small. The step you’re taking towards a dystopian corporatocracy wherein information is locked away is equidistant from one where there was no infrastructure whatsoever, and knowledge was held by only a few. Such is the nature of information. However, unlike with physical books (which are bound by Newtonian physics), digital information can get everywhere at any time. Would you know nearly as much as I’m sure you do about, for example, quantum physics if you didn’t have access to the vast stores of free information available quite literally at your fingertips at all times?

    And there lies the crux of my problem with your argument – of any Luddite position: the failure to maintain any sense of perspective when discussing the downsides of the ‘intimidating new’. Oh noes! All knowledge will be locked away by corporations! The same knowledge that is now available to billions of people in a way that books could NEVER satisfy. Including, incidentally, the knowledge of how to develop the ideas necessary to overthrow the same corporatocracy you fear. The digital frontier you wish us to shrink before is putting knowledge in the hands of people who would have otherwise not had access to physical books.

    Now, if you are talking about archiving, then that’s a whole different story. Yes, if the entire edifice of society suddenly collapses and the sum total of all human knowledge were only stored on digital devices, we’d certainly be boned. Then again, if the paper-eating space monsters from Qualguox III suddenly invade Earth, then so much for your fancy books!

  58. says

    All this is to say nothing of the innovative ways in which knowledge can be presented through digital media. Tearing down the walls between teacher and student in ways that move around the boundaries of ordinary time/space. Art that is shaped by the viewer as much as the artist. Exchange of ideas at a pace that leaves books rotting in the dust. None of this ever seems to make it into the argument. It only ever seems to be “oh look at what we’d LOSE! I wouldn’t be able to FEEL IT in my FINGERS! Books have a SMELL! My grandpappy gave me a book, and we would all lose something irretrievable if my specific experience was even slightly different!”

    I dismiss Luddites with the same contempt that I do those who talk about the “good old days when music used to be good”. Things change. Get over yourselves.

  59. ischemgeek says

    Though I’m no great artist (the anatomy and perspective in my drawings makes even me cringe, and I imagine it would bring tears to the eyes of someone competent), mine’s art related: A pad of drawing paper and good pencils costs about $25. An art program, tablet and computer with the multimedia equipment to back it up will run you several hundred to several thousand, depending how high-end you want to go.

    That, and I have yet to find a program that makes drawing on the computer as easy for me as just putting a pencil to paper.

    But for reading: I like books and computers interchangably, though I admit LCD screens are hard on the eyes after a while.

    For writing: Pencil/pen does make creative writing flow easier for rough drafts, computer on the other hand makes editing easier. Plus I can type about twice as fast as I can write, and computer type is always legible unless you accidentally click a funky font. My handwriting, on the other hand… erm. My handwriting makes my art look masterful by comparison. 😛

  60. mas528 says

    I have no problem with e-ink readers, I intend to get one and give them as gifts.

    I honestly do not know what you mean when you say:

    Tearing down the walls between teacher and student in ways that move around the boundaries of ordinary time/space. Art that is shaped by the
    viewer as much as the artist. Exchange of ideas at a pace that
    leaves books rotting in the dust.

    Education *is* going to go in that direction., but on the surface, this sounds like something like Ray Kurzweil would say.

    If you have an example of how this would work, can you explain it?

    I foresee something like the calculator replacing time consuming sliderules and log table, roots, and trig function look ups.

    Things will be a bit faster, but it will basically be the same topics.
    On the issue of ‘losing something’ and being a luddite:

    Would you accuse an artist of being a luddite because she works in charcoal, canvas and oil paints,, film photograhy,or lithography when she has this rich graphical instrument called a computer and fantastic paint programs?

  61. says

    I went out to dinner one night with a friend, and we ran into a street display where there were a bunch of different features, one of which was a light pen attached to a projector. People could draw on the side of a building, and everyone else could watch that being created. Who is the “artist” here – the person drawing a given stick figure? Her kids next to her, cheering her on and suggesting different things? The person who had the idea to set up the display at that point?

    This was a completely new type of art that couldn’t have existed without projection technology – at least not in a way that would have made it feasible on a streetcorner. New technologies, just as they fuelled the Renaissance, will push art into new places.

    If you’ve ever played “Little Big Planet”, you’ve seen a world in which art becomes not only something you look at, but something you live in and do as a part of the spectacle. The viewer is part of the piece, and makes it hir own. Totally new type of art. Think of what happens when people get really creative with the novel, or the painting, or the symphony. Completely permeable line between creating and consuming.

    If you want to work with older tech, that’s fine, so long as you have a use for it. A Luddite is one who weeps at hir neighbour’s canvas because ze is using acryllic paints (when, as everyone knows, oils are the way to go).

  62. Dunc says

    Yup, it’s the obsolescence that worries me. I have lost a lot of digital media over the years, one way and another…

  63. Iain says

    My mother-in-law’s home was destroyed by a tornado a couple of months ago. Most of her books and photographs were also destroyed – mostly by the rain that followed. Computer? Fine. If her books had been ebooks, she would still have them.

    My wife is spending time with her mother as she rebuilds. She can do this, while still working on her dissertation, because all of the articles, and most of the books, that she needs are online. All of her documents are in the cloud. If she needs a new book or article, she doesn’t have to wait until she can visit the university library to get it. In academia, the gains of moving to digital documents and books are huge.

    20 years ago, unless you lived in a city in a rich country, the vast majority of published books were almost completely unavailable to you. Now those books – and many more that were out of print – are available almost anywhere in the world in electronic form. Somebody mentioned The God Delusion – do you think that if you grew up in a small town in the bible belt that you would have found books like that on the library shelves, or in the local bookstore? Sure, we also have Amazon now, but a lot of what sells isn’t even available in Canada, let alone the rest of the world.

    So, yeah, paper books have lots of virtues. But digital is better.

  64. Timid Atheist says

    My father and I had a lovely discussion about publishing companies just the other day. They are the gatekeepers. Or they were, rather, before digital became widely available. They decided what was worthy to be printed and what was garbage meant for file thirteen. In a way, the digital age has opened a flood gate of knowledge that simply wasn’t available to the average person twenty years ago. When I was a child we had very few books in our house. We had a local library and school library, but if those libraries didn’t have books on what we wanted, we had no chance of reading about the subjects we were interested in. My family was lower-middle class and to buy a book, even back then, was a luxury. Today I can find a new author selling their book for $.99 and find an amazing writer and never once have to deal with a publishing company trying to tell me that that person was or wasn’t worthy to be read. And honestly, a lot of the books publishing companies publish are crap anyway. They’re pretty terrible gatekeepers. So I say down with the gatekeepers.

    And even better, small publishing companies are becoming more common and you can have digital and print and everyone wins.

    FYI, I prefer print books.

  65. evelyn brown says

    it seems to me the fear isnt of the electronicness of stuff, its with closed formats DRM and other people having control of our information.

    I have a text document journal from 1999 that, when the drive it was on wore out, i had already backed up in three places. ive lost the drives they were on now (in a series of moves, just as can occur with a book) but lets say i hadnt; i could read those old words from when i was small, put them on a dozen different cloud backups, send them as horrifyingly embarrassing e-mails to my friends, have them printed titled and bound, leave them buried and encrypted, at least one under a paving stone in my childhood backyard (certainly rusted by now), or even edit one, and say it was the original (hoping noone looks at the metadata). its theoretically possible to destroy them all; to wipe every drive it ever lived on, delete every single cloud backup and the account that went with it, find my friends passwords and delete those e-mails, find out if they made copies and do the same to those, but it wouldnt be easy.

    perhaps the fear here comes from the challenge to the way we see information. the way its not permenant, how malleable it is, especially in our minds, how scary it is to have to trust someone (even yourself) with your memories and your truths, your information. questions of what information can be, for good or ill, how we process it, how we use external things for memory and the ramifications of all that. its potentially brilliant and beautiful and absolutely fucking terrifying, even at its best. keeping paper backups of our favorite words wont change that.

  66. fronkey says

    As an Australian, most eBooks available for me (excluding out of copyright books, which are of course free), are only marginally cheaper than paper books, and are not infrequently more expensive, especially as I buy most of my books from the UK (which is cheaper than buying locally, despite postage). This is not the fault of the eBook media per se, but of a lack of competition among Australian publishers. However, until the pricing is more reflective of what the costs involved and what is received, I am not much tempted to go the eBook route. Besides, you can’t fill your house with impressive looking bookcases with eBooks.


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