REFLECTION: Ebooks vs Physical Books

One of the recurring themes between by classes this semester is a warning against the tendency to give into Gnosticism. We often value spiritual experiences over practical, daily life. Especially when it comes to literature, I long for the physicality of a “real book.”
A few years ago, it seemed like people were afraid the ebook was going to take over the book printing industry. More recently, we have seen ebook sales plateau. I believe there is a place for ebooks, but I’m not afraid they will replace physical books entirely. I am confident that physical books will always be desired by people.

Although I have been tempted by the fantasy of an e-reader, I have not yet owned a dedicated e-reading device. When I try to read books on my phone, I rarely make it through. I have not yet been able to justify spending money on an ebook I probably will never read. I have acquired probably 50 PDF ebooks on my computer I have never read.

One argument I have heard is that ebooks are cheaper than physical books. Although ebooks look, the cost adds up eventually. In fact, some ebooks are now almost as expensive as their physical counterparts. My intuition tells me that is absurd because the ebook includes less than the physical book: the “real” book includes the text of the book PLUS a physical copy.

Another argument is that ebooks are easier to gather than physical books. However, if I want to acquire a book, I prefer used bookstores and library borrowing. If I want to own a book, I want to own a physical copy on my bookshelf. I guess I’m a pack rat. On the other hand, I have no qualms about buying my music digitally, while I have friends who must own the physical CD.

Because the physical can be risky, another argument is that virtual books are less susceptible to natural disasters. Indeed, a few years ago a flooded basement destroyed hundreds of my parents’ books. However, I would rather lose a physical book, feel the void, and replace it than feel over-confident in my virtual book collection.

Despite my responses to these arguments, I do not look down on ebooks. There is certainly a place for ebooks, such as when you want to take more books on a vacation than you want to carry. In fact, I read a lot of non-fiction on my phone: Google searches, Wikipedia pages, and PDFs. I may as well read non-fiction electronically because I can consume lots of information without lugging around heavy encyclopedias anymore.

However, when it comes to my pleasure reading, I prefer to hold a real book in my hands. I like the physicality, the smells, textures, and colours. The crinkle of the pages and the heft of the weight in my hand. Reading a physical book reminds me that the story is weighty and takes up space. Ebooks often feel empty.

Because the medium is the message, it matters how we consume a book. The experience of reading a book shapes the conversation you have with the book. Let’s be conscious of the contexts we read ebooks in and when we desire to hold a physical book.

Stay tuned: in a future episode, I am planning on musing about the intersection of the physicality of books and the physicality of tobacco pipes. The best part about a pipe is that it reminds me not to be a gnostic.
Art: I am almost finished writing a research paper on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XXII. I have written at least four different types of papers on it this semester.
Article: This piece provides an interestingly personal perspective on Tolkien and Lewis–and Walt Disney.
Link: Check out these charts explaining why readers put down a book.

Leave a Reply