Paper Books vs. Digital Books

There has been a long, highly repetitious discussion of eBooks vs. proper books, fueled mostly by a mention in Freshly Pressed (which highlights sites on this service) and I don’t see a good reason to post any additional comments but rather will post a few considerations here.

First, the viability of printed books in the growing age of digital books is strictly a reflection of market forces. No matter how many subscribers to a weblog dedicated to reading announce that they prefer books, the smell of books, the juvenile prestige of being seen reading a big fat book, the love of idly flipping through pages or desperately flipping through pages looking for a vaguely remembered passage, or the glory of bookshelves full of books (read or unread), if the publishers can make a bigger profit off of digital editions, the traditional books will soon be priced as luxury items and effectively disappear from most of the reading market.

I don’t suspect all books will disappear. There are many that are more easily accessed in traditional book form, at least for now. Two types of books I have heard mentioned are children’s picture books and student text books. These are bad examples.

Printed books are a relic of the past and will never improve whereas digital books are today mostly just copies of traditional books with a few digital enhancements like a keen search feature that eliminates endless page flipping to find a passage. But we are beginning to see more digital books incorporating other digital media which expands and enhances the book. I have several digital books today which are interactive, embed video or audio, link to footnotes or alternate texts, allow changes to text size, bookmarks, notes, etc. The best I have ever seen a proper book do in this direction is to tape a CD on the back inside cover.

Some first edition hardbound books are printed using different colored text where the author indicates and including color plates but this is very expensive and usually disappears after the earlier editions. By the time the book comes out in paper it is all black and white. Multiple colors (not just four but thousands) are trivial enhancements to digital books. True, color requires a color reader but most vendors have been enhancing their readers and a color option is readily available.

The development of digital books parallels the introduction of computers into the business world. Starting in the 1960s and continuing for too many years, most business related computer programs were faster versions of the same manual procedures that the company had used for decades. It took a long time before the business community recognized that they could use the features of computerization to radically alter the way they did business. Computers nowadays are in most households or at least accessible in schools and libraries. Digital books started out completely mimicking the printed books, in fact, that was their initial selling point:  making the digital reading experience as close to the reading of a real book as possible (they never did try for the smell of musty old books, however). Now the digital books are expanding, assuming more of the abilities that computers and the internet represent.

My bookshelves are full of several hundred books I hope to read but I have two problems, both the result of old-age and a previous stroke:  I need bigger fonts (and hate the way large-print books jamb the large print into about the same space on the page making it harder to read than an old Signet edition of David Copperfield that was left out in the foggy, foggy dew), but also, holding on to most printed books is tedious and besides, my hands shake. Therefore, I read with the book in a carrier standing on my desktop … but I still have to flip the pages and that often entail digging them out from the book-holder and then slipping them under the page-holder on the other side. It’s really so much easier with the digital book where I just tap on the side of the page and the reader flips the page for me. Add increasing the size of the print to the semi-automatic page turning (and in my case the backlit screen eliminating the problem of room light) and I can read faster and easier on the digital reader (I use my iPad) than I can with the real book.

I heard an argument that not having books to pass down to you heirs was a major reason for not buying or using digital books. I’m sorry but this suggests a stack of paper backs from the front rounder at Barnes and Noble constitute a valuable library that will live through the ages. Truth is, today’s publications have limited life so unless you are buying the leather-bound editions, they are not treasures but trash. Very few books are worth passing on and theirs a good chance a better edition will be available in the future making that 1962 Signet edition of David Copperfield worthless.

I expect school books to be developed in digital editions and firmly believe this is one way we can begin to transform education in this country. Unfortunately, the flip side of the marketing question also suggests that the major textbook publishers will push back hard in order to preserve their profits and markets. If your industry is set up for the very profitable printing of all those textbooks, why take a chance on new technology? (this is strongly enforced by the education leaders in Texas). So I suspect the United States will again be playing catchup with the rest of the world.

Another point for digital books:  the publisher or school board (listen up Texas) can easily make changes and modifications to the text that are essentially instantaneous. Image how much easier it will be for some school book committees to censor the information contained in digital textbooks … facts will become even more maleable.

Yes, America is going backward and we will soon be hard pressed to find examples of American Exceptionalism … unless we wake up and stop sniffing old books and begin to challenge those things that make us feel good and begin promoting those things that may make us better.

What are your thoughts on this?

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