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Physical Books vs. E-Books (Again)

August 11, 2013


I find myself always interested in the back-and-forth about the virtues of either reading a book in the traditional way as opposed to e-books.  At times I walk on weekends to the local beach and do a tally of those reading and find the paper version always winning out.   Today in The New York Times there appeared another point to be made with this quirky topic, one that I found perfectly stated.

I finish reading a book on my iPad — one by Ed McBain, for instance — and I shelve it in the cloud. It vanishes from my “device” and from my consciousness too. It’s very odd.

When I read a physical book, I remember the text and the book — its shape, jacket, heft and typography. When I read an e-book, I remember the text alone. The bookness of the book simply disappears, or rather it never really existed. Amazon reminds me that I’ve already bought the e-book I’m about to order. In bookstores, I find myself discovering, as if for the first time, books I’ve already read on my iPad.       

All of this makes me think differently about the books in my physical library. They used to be simply there, arranged on the shelves, a gathering of books I’d already read. But now, when I look up from my e-reading, I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say, hidden under layers of software, tucked away in the cloud, utterly absent when the iPad goes dark.       

This may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it. It is a monument to the activity of reading. It makes this imaginary activity entirely substantial. But the quiddity of e-reading is that it effaces itself.       

In the past several years, I’ve read nearly 800 books on my iPad. They’ve changed me and changed my understanding of the world, distracted me and entertained me. Yet I’m still pondering the nature of e-reading, which somehow refuses to become completely familiar. But then, readers are always thinking about the nature of reading, and have done so since Gutenberg and long before.       

There is a disproportionate magic in the way black marks on white paper — or their pixilated facsimiles — stir us into reverie and revise our consciousness. Still, we require proof that it has happened. And that proof is what the books on my shelves continue to offer.

One Comment
  1. August 20, 2013 9:34 AM

    An intriguing commentary of the ebook vs print book debate – it really is hard to forget the almost social romanticism that surrounds owning and reading physical books compared to their e-counterparts. Check out this interesting infographic that outlines some interesting facts and figures behind ebooks and print books

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