The debate about electronic book (e-book) formats seems to be cropping up quite a lot lately. Arguments have happened on Twitter, and there’s even been discussions amongst friends in (gasp!) real life.
As is usual with such discussions, there are the extreme viewpoints. Some people are absolutely dead set against electronic formats for reading, considering the whole practice as sacrilegious, while enthusiastic adopters of the technology accuse the former of Luddism.
Then there is the boring middle of the spectrum people like me (though perhaps I am closer to being an e-book convert). I have used a Kindle for close to a year now, have read quite a few books and regularly read the New Yorker on the device. But I have also enjoyed reading paper books during this time.
So, here goes a rather subjective look at both formats. Fair warning – there is little new ground broken here on the debate. There are ample blogs or articles that have made similar points. I just wanted to jot out my own thoughts, and also – I have nothing better to do right now.
Love or hate it, e-books are here to stay – this summer Amazon passed the milestone of selling more books in electronic formats compared to hardcopies. The practical advantages of e-books are difficult to argue with. The devices are (usually) light and small, hence portable and their massive capacity enables you to carry range of reading materials. On a recent trip to India that involved over 48 hours of travel time, I took my Kindle (the latest non-touch version) loaded with about ten different novels of varying genres from serious literature to sci-fi, fantasy, mystery etc as well as couple of the latest New Yorker editions. And these were just the unread stuff. I also had a collection of old Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and classic short-story compilations – stuff I love re-reading occasionally and are available for free or cheap on Amazon. All this in the convenience of a sleek device that holds like a paperback in my hands, but much lighter. Having the Kindle allowed me to jump easily between various books or magazine articles depending on my mood (I like reading a few different books simultaneously, especially when I am travelling). In the pre-electronic book days I would have been limited by perhaps one or two. Given that I travel somewhat regularly and enjoy catching up on my reading during flights, this easing of burden on the shoulders is quite a boon.
At this juncture, I should mention that I strongly favor the Kindle as my reading device. I have tried the Kindle app and iBook on iPad as well, but the iPad is not built for reading books. It is too heavy and the screen glare is too harsh for any kind of extended reading. Then there is the distraction of a device that is usually connected to the internet tempting you away from reading. The iPad is however excellent for reading magazines, news articles or scientific/technical papers where colored graphics are important. I also think that it could be a great substitute for academic text books.
Amazon has recently introduced couple of new lending features that makes the Kindle even more attractive. Firstly, you can now lend e-books from the local library. Second, Amazon will allow you to lend certain books indefinitely from their own collection. There are some caveats though. The local library, at least in my city, ‘stocks’ only few copies of an e-book, usually just one or two licenses for the entire library system as opposed to a few hardcopies of the same book per branch. Thus there is typically a very long waiting list for the popular books (but I did manage to borrow couple of books that were best sellers only a few years ago). The Amazon lending feature is also somewhat limited – only members of its Prime program can borrow, and borrowing is restricted to only one book at a time and also one per month. Additionally, they do not have any system by which you can list books you want be borrowing next e.g like a Netflix queue. But the collection of lendable books is pretty good, and I have a feeling that the program will be extended as e-books gain more popularity.
Also, as a side-effect, and if you are into that kind of thinking – reduction of traditional books should help the environment by reducing paper usage. Saving trees and the rain-forests is probably not a bad idea (Used electronics is a source of environmental pollution too – not sure if they balance out).
On the flip side of all these wonderful advantages that technology provides, the reasons for coveting regular books are usually sentimental and romantic – the touch and smell of paper, the physical act of turning of the pages, the memories associated with the dog-eared copy of that one favorite novel and so on. I have to agree that there is some intangible feeling provided by a paper book that does not convey as well on e-formats.
On a more mundane, practical level, paper books are still the best when you want to lend or borrow. This is important especially if you have friends who share similar reading habits. Sharing books makes it so much easier on your pockets. Finally, if you extensively read any Indian vernacular language books, e-book options are practically non-existent.
In the end, the Kindle/e-book versus paper debate obviously comes down to a personal choice. I would however, encourage skeptics of e-book format who haven’t tried reading on proper reading devices (e.g Kindle or Nook) to give the format a shot. Personally, I see myself moving gradually over to e-books just for the convenience, while continuing to buy some paper books, especially those I would love to display on my bookshelf.
1. And somehow kick re-start the moribund blog.
2. Never tried the Nook.