One of the common things that non eBook readers say is that they like the feel of a real book and nothing would quite match it. Having had my eReader for more than a month I would wholeheartedly agree: reading an eBook (at least on my device) isn’t like holding a ‘real’ book.
It is much, much better.
Some of the attributes that my eReader offers over a traditional paper book are
- I can read single-handedly any time I want to even if the book is 600+ pages long (no more wrist ache from giant books or having to jam one of those cheap mass market paperbacks flat with both hands so you can see the words near the inside margins) (and as Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader points out the ability to read single-handedly on public transport might be the difference between life and death)
- I always have access to note-taking and highlighting without having to carry a separate pen or post-it pad with me (which I invariably forget)
- There is a built-in dictionary (multi-lingual too) available at a second’s notice
- I can change the font size to suit the tiredness of my eyes or the lighting conditions in which I am reading
- In a presentation/meeting it is much easier to hide the fact I’m reading a book and not paying attention to the boring drone at the front of the room/head of the table
I am not surprised that I find some features of an eReader to be preferable to a physical book but what has astonished me is that I cannot think of a single instance in which the attributes of a physical book are better than those of an eBook. Certainly on some points the two are equal but, right now anyway, there isn’t a single feature for which the physical book would be my preferred option (aside from the fact that not everything I want to read is available in eBook format) (yet). I suppose battery life of the device must come into play at some point but mine seems to be very robust and only needs a charge very 3-4 weeks which is not an onerous task for me.
A few years ago I had cause to read a book called The Myth of the Paperless Office (Abigail J Sellen and Richard Harper, MIT Press, 2001) which, as the title might suggest, ponders the question of why the much sought after paperless office nirvana had, at that time (early 2000’s), failed to materialise. The book’s central thesis was that computers are good at some things (storing, organising and searching huge quantities of data for example) but that paper as a medium also has its own particular attributes (the book called them affordances) that make it superior for other activities like carrying, folding, and writing on. An almost anthropological approach was taken to studying how people interact with both electronic and paper media and specifically tackled the curly question of why people continue using paper even when it is patently inefficient for a given job. At the time I thought the authors of the book were probably right, i.e. that paper and computers would continue to co-exist and be used for their individual strengths, but if I met one or other of them now I think I’d have a debate (assuming they hadn’t changed their own minds in the intervening years as I have done).
I now suspect that eventually, possibly even in my life time, paper will prove to have less and less attributes that make it more attractive than its alternatives, to the point that it fades from common usage. The thing we need now is to stop trying to recreate the form factor offered by traditional books and use the real strengths of computers. So far us old folk have built our bad habits and comfortable features into our new devices, often without even being conscious of it. This theory is expanded far more intelligently at 4oh4 Words Not Found where I was introduced to a new (to me) word which explains this hangover effect: skeuomorpth. But we are starting to see changes that deliberately ignore familiar features that aren’t needed in an eBook world. Kindles, for example, have done away with page numbers yet the devices have sold in their gazillions. If page numbers are not an essential part of the reading experience what else might we be able to do away with?
What about you? Do you prefer one format over another? Do you think we’ll see the end of physical books? If so, when would you predict it?