Photo by Jaemi Yoo
When was the last time you flopped down on the couch and watched a VHS tape? Probably when you wanted something nostalgic that you only have on VHS, like a Disney movie. Doing things digitally is becoming the status quo, as evidenced by DVDs, cell phones, and iTunes.
Books are one last physical stronghold, though. Many of us still have physical copies of our favorite stories on our shelves, along with textbooks and religious texts. But with the rise of e-books, that may change.
E-books take up no physical space. You can store them online, on your e-reader, or on your computer. If you set them up right, they’re accessible wherever you go. Before e-books, if you wanted to go on a trip and do a lot of reading, you would have to put up with the weight and space taken up by every book. In airport baggage-terminals with weight limits, this was especially annoying. Now your entire library fits in a gleaming machine smaller than most hardbacks.
An application particularly useful for students is buying or renting textbook e-books. Lugging three or four huge textbooks to class is irritating and bad for your back.
Despite the space advantage of e-books, their lack of physical presence has social disadvantages. The swirling letters on the covers of physical books on a shelf draw the eyes of people stepping into your room: “Oh, you’ve read that too? What did you think?” Unless you’re mounting your Kindle on your wall, you would have to go way out of your way to show someone an e-book library. You can also lend out a physical copy more easily than a digital copy. For example, in Amazon’s Kindle store some e-books can’t be lent out at all (it’s at the discretion of the publisher), and the rest can only be lent once. On the other hand, you can give a physical book to someone to read and then they can then decide if they like it enough to buy it.
Although e-books lack this communal quality, they never have the problem of wear and tear. The pages don’t get ratty, the ink doesn’t fade, and they never stain. Age won’t yellow the pages into a crumbly mess, and if you ever regret a note you made on one, you can erase it without wearing out the page by rubbing off pencil lead.
If you’re studying, you can also search for words within your e-book. Unless you’re using a book that has a comprehensive index at the back — and we all know how annoyingly incomprehensive our textbooks’ indexes are — you can’t search for a specific word. Even with the best index, you can never search for an entire phrase.
Not all books are available as e-books, but that will probably change in the future. However, some books are out of print and out of mind and might never be released as e-books, while a used bookstore like the Ave’s Magus Books might have them.
We still read physical books for the same reason that we still watch old Disney animated movies: It’s nostalgic. We can smell the paper, touch the words, and let the memories attached to that exact piece of matter draw us back. Practically, physical books can’t compete with e-books. Emotionally, some people who grew up with paper between their fingers don’t want to give up physical books yet. It’s a victory for e-books, but a Pyrrhic victory to many of us.
The verdict: e-books, not physical books
Reach reporter Andrew Rodgers at email@example.com. Twitter: @AndrewRodgersAU
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