Some time ago, I read the following article about Ikea’s classic Billy Bookshelf. If you don’t feel like clicking the link, I’ll briefly summarize it for you. Ikea is redesigning their bookshelf to accommodate ornaments and photos, not books. Ikea is betting that the advent of devices like the Ipad and the Kindle has effectively killed the physical book as we know it.
Many readers of this might cheer this idea on, as there are many flaws with physical books. First of all, they have very limited functionality. They are a merely a collection of words that tell a story. Compare that to an Ipad, which can be used to read books, in addition to watching movies, tweeting ,throwing birds at pigs, and stalking exs on facebook.
Also, if you lose a physical copy of a book, it is gone forever. E-books are backed up on servers so they are effectively impossible to lose. Furthermore, for a book to exist, trees have to die, one could easily argue that anything that can slow the spread of deforestation should be quickly adopted and standardized.
The preceding points make a lot of sense however, I can’t endorse them just yet, because as it stands every e-reader currently on the market falls short when compared to a physical book. Allow me to go device by device and show how they all fail in comparison to physical books.
(By tablets, I am including devices such as the Ipad, the Kindle Fire, Nexus 7 etc.)
First of all, every single tablet is backlit. This might sound appealing on paper (I can read at night without a booklight!) But in practice it is a nightmare. As Jeff Bezos noted, reading on a tablet is similar to reading a piece of paper with someone shining a flashlight from the other side. It can easily cause eye strain if someone does this for a long period of time. So, if you plan on reading a novel on a tablet, don’t plan on reading for more then ten pages at a time. Unless you enjoy bleeding retinas. This back-lit also makes reading books outside utterly impossible. So forget about reading on a beach, by a pool, or anywhere near a window.
Also, tablet battery life can last for about 10 hours, which is impressive from a technological standpoint, but it makes the device ineffective for long form reading. If you have to stop reading because you have to hunt down an outlet, the truly immersive effect of reading loses some of its power.
There is a reason that both Amazon and Barnes and Noble released seven inch tablets as opposed to larger ones with larger screens (like the 9.7 inch Ipad.) Namely, that a screen size that large is really awkward for reading. Also, the newest Ipad weighs exactly 1.5 pounds. Which doesn’t sound that heavy but it can easily tire your hand out if you are holding it to read for any extended amount of time.
Furthermore, the multipurpose nature of tablets takes away the most unique ability that books still possess. When someone is immersed in a book, the rest of the world fades away. It is wholly unique and intimate act of creation between author and reader where the author’s words and the reader’s imagination combine to tell an epic and engaging story. The uniqueness and intimacy of this process is shattered when your tablet interrupts your reading experience to inform you that someone is challenging you to Words With Friends or tweeting at you. While this might seem small, it really does cheapen the whole experience of reading when you are consistently being bombarded with notifications.
True proponents of digital reading often cite the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook as the true evolution of the art of reading. They are much lighter then tablets, and their battery life lasts in the months (!). Furthermore, they are single purpose devices which means the gluttony of notifications won’t have as much of an impact compared to tablets. Also, their e-ink screens allow them to be read in direct sunlight.
However, e-readers still fall short when compared to actual books due to several negative factors.
For one, they are incredibly clunky to navigate. E-ink requires the screen to refresh every page turn or two which is ugly and slow when compared to the simplicity of turning a page. Speaking of page turning, there are few experiences as simply pleasurable as flipping through the pages of a book scanning the words and sentences till you find what you are looking for. There is no way to replicate this experience with a six inch E-ink screen.
An electronic device with a two month battery life in undeniably impressive, but it still fails when it is being compared to a book that never needs to be charged. Now, it is unlikely that the battery on an e-reader will go out if it’s owner keeps an eye on the battery, but is still possible. Which is something that readers shouldn’t have to deal with.
Phones (or PMP’s Like the Ipod Touch)
Every negative (minus the weight issue) from the tablet section applies here, plus one very large one.
Doing any serious reading on a screen this small is laughably bad.
Text is either so small that it is unreadable, or it’s legible, but each “page” is about two sentences long. It’s horrific, I really can’t understand how anyone can remotely enjoy this.
The Ownership Issue
While it is impossible to lose an e-book, something much worse could happen to them. The publisher could simply erase it from your device. This happened in 2009 when (of all books) 1984 and Animal Farm were yanked from the kindles of those who had purchased them without notification.
While all of these customers had their money refunded, that can’t help dispel the feeling that you don’t really own any e-book you purchase. The most telling portion of that article is this:
“Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.”
Considering this, would you feel confident buying an e-book knowing it could vanish at any moment due to large corporate motives?
The Customization Factor
One often lauded of e-readers (and e-reader software) is the ability to customize the text size and even the font that is used in the books. Many people cite this as a huge boon as it allows people to customize how their books look.
However, this level of customization actually damages the reading experience. Font and type set aren’t selected at random. They are carefully chosen to help amplify the story that the author is telling. Something like House of Leaves totally ceases to work if someone is changing the entirety of the font in the novel.
I know that might sound nit-picky, but technology is supposed to push things forward, and in my opinion, the benefits of e-readers are outweighed by the negatives. So, I firmly believe that the best technological innovation for long form reading is Gutenberg’s 15th century wonder.
But Magazines,Newspapers and Textbooks Need to Die
While I believe that tablets aren’t great tools for long term reading, they really are amazing devices that make consuming content (well, some content) incredibly enjoyable and easy. One such area where they triumph is reading shorter informative articles, like those found in magazines and newspapers. The articles found in both magazines and newspapers can often be measured in paragraphs (or 1-2 pages.) because of this, the short battery life of tablets and the notification and brightness negatives aren’t as much of a problem when you are dealing with short form reading. Furthermore, the added benefits of wireless delivery and deforestation prevention make tablets great tools for reading magazines and newspapers. Also, the ipad’s screen which is so large that it makes reading novels nearly comical, feels perfectly natural when dealing with an image heavy magazine page.
I believe that ipad’s also serve as a great replacement for school textbooks. Many college students pay exorbent fees for physical textbooks that none of them really desire. Giving them the option of downloading a light, searchable e-textbook is nothing short of a godsend for college students.
While tablets and e-readers might render traditional magazines and newspapers superfluous, they have a long way to go before they can replace the excellent experience of reading a physical books.
Also, books smell great. Tablets and e-readers don’t.