The dangers and short-comings of e-books

On Friday afternoon I finished work a bit earlier than usual and so arrived back home while the local Waterstones was still open. I popped in to have a little browse and bumped into a friend who works there. We, and another guy who works there, got into a bit of a discussion about the pro’s and con’s of e-books. It was an interesting three way debate as we each held a distinctly different view. One thoroughly opposed to e-books, one on the fence and one, me, enthusiastic and keen about them.

In the interest of balance, given how I am, on the whole, very excited about e-books, I got thinking about the ways in which they perhaps are not very good.  So here we go again; another blog post about the merits of e-books.

Is the technology good enough?

There is something undeniably old-fashioned, in a counter-intuitive sort of way, about e-ink based readers. For the good things about them, long battery life and excellent display in bright lights, they still seem a little clunky. My Kindle is often, no matter how unfairly, compared to an iPad and inevitably comes off worse. They are relatively slow when you refresh the screen, can, at present, only display greyscale images and have fixed page sizes. I have no doubt at all that the technology will improve. My hope is for full-colour e-ink with very fast screen refresh rate and full touch screen. Basically an iPad with colour e-ink. For all the good things that Kindle and the other current e-ink readers have going for them they will forever seem a bit crap simply because we are used to nice, big, full-colour print editions of books.

Could e-books lead to a decline in the availability of books?

For a long time video games have existed in generational cycles where technological updates render existing platforms obsolete and in a relatively short space of time old games become unavailable. Could e-book format wars and DRM issues lead books down a similar path? Currently, as far as I understand it, any book I buy on my kindle can be transfered up to six times between devices that I own. I cannot lend a book to a friend, I cannot donate my book to a charity shop (as I do with an awful lot of my print books), and its availability to me is dependent on my kindle being in good working order and Amazon continuing to make new kindles for the almost inevitable demise of all the existing ones. In the same way that a VHS video tape is not currently a good way to own a movie because VHS video players are not as common as they once were, if the technology becomes obsolete so does my ability to read books I have paid for.

Are e-book readers leading to a decline in the amount of actual reading that gets done?

I heard this criticism when I first bought my kindle. It seemed totally antithetical to me that a device that improves the speed and ease with which I can get books should lead to a decrease in overall reading. I heard it again on Friday when it was commented that the most downloaded books were the free, out of copyright classics that perhaps people feel they ought to read rather than actually want to read. It was wondered how many people who download those books actually read them. Which is not to say that all print books purchased get read. I have a copy of Being and Nothingness that I have never managed to read past page 50. But perhaps it is a little easier to abandon reading something when you are a few clicks away from reading something else.

It’s just not a book!

This is the one criticism I have the least patience with. I heard it again on Friday, spoken in almost this exact way. Once again I argued that the point of a book is to deliver words from the brain of the writer into the brain of the reader and the interaction that occurs there is the same as it would be between a beautifully bound print edition, an e-book or hand-written on the back of a cigarette packet. But then, in the interest of balance of course, I questioned that assertion. Art is environmentally sensitive. Tracey Emin’s unmade bed outside the confines of an art gallery is simply a bed. The conditions in which art is viewed are an aspect of how that art is then read. A novel scrawled on the back of a cigarette packet (as an extreme example that exists only in principle of course) would have a different set of connotations to it. Why did this lunatic write a novel on a cigarette packet? What does this novel have to do with cigarettes? These questions are unrelated to the novel but become irrevocably bound up in it. Now of course that’s not a real example, the contextual differences between print and e-books are not so pronounced, but the differences are there and in time new connotations may emerge.

It’s possible I underestimate the power of tradition. For the ways in which e-books are superior to print it may simply end up that people just don’t like it as much. And whether or not those arguments are fair or valid would be insignificant next to the simple fact that people just like what they like. Books are solid objects that you can hold in your hand and feel a real sense of ownership over. I wonder if an electronic collection of books could ever give its owner the same sense of pleasure and satisfaction that a good, loaded book shelf does. Personally I don’t collect books. I give an awful lot of mine away when I am done with them. But people love collecting stuff and e-books don’t lend themselves to this extension of the hobby of reading.

I bought a copy of The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey on my kindle last week and as much as much as it pains me to admit it I feel a little regretful that I didn’t get a copy of the very nice cover that adorns the print edition.

In conclusion;

I said to the guys in the bookshop on Friday that it was my belief that neither print or e-books would ever dominate the other. I wouldn’t want them to. There are aspects unique to each that offer different benefits. Even if the technology gets to my daydream standard print will always have physicality and greater control of design and presentation. E-books, on the other hand, will always have ease of distribution, economy (of both price and space), and a potentially massive catalogue of titles unavailable in print. I believe a balance will emerge in which the two co-exist. Print may decline but it won’t disappear. I would like to see publishers, and those involved in indie-publishing, recognising and utilising the relative benefits of each. Print books can be luxurious objects. Design them to be desirable. Play to the strengths of each.

2 thoughts on “The dangers and short-comings of e-books

  1. Stallman has written quite a list on the “dangers” of e-books Unfortunately he (and most people) miss the point entirely. I’ll try and explain as briefly as possible. E-books require technology and energy to work. Paper books do not. Paper books can last hundreds of years if cared for without ever requiring a recharge. Now if you just reading pulp fiction I don’t really care what you do. But when you start talking about putting the wealth of man kinds knowledge in electronic format I get very concerned. For example, engineering books, maths and science even history. I get very concerned because we fail to grasp that we live in a very finite world becoming more finite by the minute. Most of us suffer from this technology induced fantasy that some how fossil fuels are going to be replaced by some miracle energy source. As I understand the laws of physics I’m not holding my breath for this miracle. Many of us believe that the energy crunch (and it’s coming, 2017 at the latest) is about how much filling your car at the pump will cost. (I read a suggestion once that the solution was that we all ride bicycles… apparently they must all be handmade out of wood with stone tools?) However a few us with IQs above 80 know that the price of filling your car will the least of your worries. Couple this with the fact that world food supplies are completely dependent on fossil fuels not just for transport but more critically, fertilizer. (i.e. energy is only one part of a much bigger problem) Finally throw a world population of 7 Billion in the mix. And what do we do? Devise every means possible to complete destroy any hope of rebuilding some semblance of civilisation. Sounds crazy driving down the road listening to the radio while your kids play with their ipads but just remember one thing. Everything you do, everything you wear and everything you eat is 100% dependent on finite resources that are running our fast, a lot faster than your are being told. The reason you are not told is simple. The capitalist system is a doomsday machine. It’s not designed with an off switch or a self destruct button. It certainly won’t tell you falling off a cliff. Not while there’s a buck to be made. I wrote it here: 2017 and it’s going to start hitting the fan in earnest. Think about that next time you buy a non fiction e-book.

    1. This is a very interesting and forward thinking point that goes beyond what I was thinking about when I wrote this post. It does give another perspective on the print vs digital debate but I still feel that both offer unique advantages that the other cannot. Print has a resilience that digital books would lose in a fuel crisis, but digital books have (while we have the power to use it) a far reaching and easy means of distributing and accessing that information that print can’t match. One offers preservation of knowledge, the other, distribution of knowledge. Both are important and should be used to their fullest, while we have the means to do so.

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