I still don’t have an e-book reader. Although I like technology in other areas of my life, I’ve been largely resistant to switching over from traditional books to e-books. I like my paper books. I like how they feel. I like how they look on my shelves. I like the experience of reading them. So, I sat down to read Tim Challies post on 5 reasons that books are better than e-books fully expecting to agree with him and be reaffirmed as a literary Luddite.
Then, a surprising thing happened. As I reflected on Challies’ five reasons, I began to realize that I had been framing the question badly. Like Challies, I had been asking the question: “Is a book better than an e-reader?” But, that’s an almost impossible question to answer. It’s a little like asking, “Is a pencil better than a pen?” They’re both used for writing. So which one is better? But, of course, the neglects the obvious question: “Better at what?” What kind of tasks do we have in mind, and what does it mean for a particular medium to be “better” at that task?
And, once I began to frame the issue like this, I realized the obvious. Books are better at some things than e-books, but that doesn’t necessarily make them simply “better.”
To see what I mean, consider the five reasons that Challies gives for saying that books are better than e-books.
- I can truly own a book. By this, he means more than just property rights, though that’s included. He’s really emphasizing the physical connection that you can have with a book after reading it multiple times. And, I completely agree with this. I like appreciate the physical connection you can make with a book over time, and I find it impossible to do this in the same way with a digital file. (This is the thing I’ve missed the most about moving from a physical Bible to a computer Bible.) But he skips the fact that very few books fall into the “treasured possession” category. Most are read once and shelved. In many ways, an e-reader is better for these. (I’m actually more concerned about the property rights aspect. I want to be sure that I can “shelve” a book and still be able to read it again even after file formats and reading devices have changed.)
- I can loan a book. This does seem to be a real drawback of e-books. I regularly lend out books to my students. Although this means that I sometimes don’t get them back, this is a price I’m willing to pay.
- Books offer an experience. Again, I agree. But this again criticizes an e-book for not being a book. I like the experience of a book, but that doesn’t mean that the altogether different experience of reading an e-book is not still valuable. To say which experience is “better” is like asking if the experience of watching a movie in a theater or on TV is better. Better for what?
- A book is a single-tasking device. This one’s interesting. It basically criticizes e-book readers for doing too many things well. Of course, if your point is just to immerse yourself in a book without distraction, then the multitasking ability of an e-reader might be a problem. But, again, that’s only one kind of reading.
- I can buy a used book. The issue for Challies here is less financial than experiential. He likes the experience of searching for used books. I’d rather save the time and search for books online. And e-books are usually cheap enough to compete with the low price of a used book plus shipping.
And, of course, Challies doesn’t mention the many things that e-book readers are “better” at. They make it easier to copy notes and quotes to your word processor. They’re easier on the environment. It’s faster and easier to get them. You can carry more with you at once. And so on.
So, maybe I’ll actually take the plunge and buy an e-book reader. Of course, I’d also have to get over the fact that I’m cheap. But that’s a different issue entirely.