A few years ago, after four-plus decades of reading print books, and several years after Amazon launched the ebook revolution, I finally took the plunge and downloaded the Kindle app for my iPhone and started buying and reading ebooks.
I quickly became hooked on the convenience of being able to pull my iPhone out of my pocket, purchase an ebook with the tap of my finger, and, within seconds, start reading it.
My shift to ebooks helped me save real money--and not just from the much cheaper price of the ebook compared to the print edition. Buying ebooks instantly chops off the 50 percent surcharge that Amazon slaps on my credit card to cover the cost of shipping physical books thousands of miles from the US to Taiwan, where I live.
But as much as I've come to enjoy the convenience of ebooks, and while I will continue to buy them, digital books just don't deliver the same sort of visual and tactile satisfaction I get from reading physical books.
I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way, either, especially if you look at the shift in sales of ebooks versus print books. According to The Wall Street Journal, sales of traditional print books rose by 5 percent in the US last year, while sales of ebooks plunged by 17 percent. It will be interesting to see if this represents a one-time phenomenon, or if it's the beginning of a trend.
Regardless of how this plays out, this shift in sales led me to reflect on what makes print books so much more special than ebooks. Here are a few reasons that come to mind. I'd love to read what you think in the comments:
Physical books are more easily shared.
Print books promote sharing. Print books on shelves in book stores or home libraries or office book shelves invite potential readers to browse and then to borrow and read and potentially to buy. Ebooks are selfishly hoarded by the owner on his or her reading device. Want to share your favorite ebook with a friend or family member? Not going to happen.
Physical books make more meaningful gifts.
Some of the most meaningful gifts I've ever received were books. The beautiful coffee-table-sized hardcover edition of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which my mom bought me, made me understand more about how we all got here on this earth--and where we're headed--than any course at school I ever took. And I remember the time our managing partner in Shanghai gave me a copy of Bill Bryson's book about Shakespeare's life, in recognition of my writing and editing work for him over the years.
These were gifts I still remember today.
Physical books offer a much wider variety of fonts.
Reading as a kid, and even as I studied my way through college and then graduate school, I never really noticed the incredible variety of fonts that books sport--until I discovered just how few fonts that ebooks offer. Whether I'm reading a novel or memoir or how-to book, the sameness of the font scrubs away one of the unique and defining features of print books. Part of the unconscious ritual I go through when I first open a new (or used) book is to see if there's a mention of the font used in the book. Very often it's an exotic-sounding name, and sometimes, the font was invented or modified just for that book.
Ebooks promote sameness with their incredibly limited font selection. This is hugely ironic given the ease with which so many other computer applications use different fonts.
Print books can be easily scribbled in and marked up.
I have to admit I have a particular aversion to writing in my print books, and prefer to keep them in as pristine a condition as possible. But on occasion, I do like to underline passages that I want to refer back to again. Other readers, however, are more wanton with their treatment of books and jot lots of detailed notes in the margins, underline large chunks of text, and otherwise do what they please with it.
With ebooks, the most I can do is very neatly highlight passages using one of four different colors.
Reading print books sets a good example for my kids.
Since I've switched to reading ebooks at home my kids and my wife assume I'm surfing the internet and checking my LinkedIn notifications on my latest articles and updates. While that is partially true, I often have to show them that I'm in fact reading a book, a more noble and productive activity of course. When I read print books it's immediately transparent what I am doing, and I like to think it sets a good example for my kids.
Print books smell good.
Besides the crisp, delicate, yet firm feel of the pages of a book, I also like to take a gentle whiff of the thing. Yes, I like to smell my books. The memories and associations that are triggered by such an act are random and sudden, and that's why I like the sensation. Sort of like getting a quick physical high from the scent of the book, before I've plunged in and gotten my intellectual high from the ideas and images within.
While I have a hard time ascribing specific descriptive adjectives to the smells that emanate from my hard and softcover books, a couple of very diligent researchers have recently figured out a way to systematically categorize and describe how books smell.
According to The Guardian, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič describe how they analyzed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a "historic book odour wheel", which connects identifiable chemicals with people's reactions to them.
"Using fibres from the novel, they produced an 'extract of historic book', which was presented to 79 visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. 'Chocolate', 'cocoa' or 'chocolatey' were the most frequent words used to describe the smell of a copy of French writer Bernard Gasset's 1928 novel Les Chardons du Baragan, followed by 'coffee', 'old', 'wood' and 'burnt'."
"Given that coffee and chocolate come from fermented/roasted natural lignin and cellulose-containing product, they share many VOCs (volatile organic compounds) with decaying paper," wrote the researchers.
Print books last longer.
In graduate school, one of our libraries displayed an original copy of the Gutenberg Bible in a glass-enclosed case. Many decades later, on my first trip to Israel with my family, I came within inches of the Dead Sea scrolls: Visible, tangible evidence that a print manuscript could survive the wear and tear of millennia.
Ebooks? In theory, at least, digital content should be device independent, operating system independent, and otherwise immortal in every way. I don't believe this though. What with the annual and biannual upgrades of hardware and of operating systems on both sides of the Mac/PC divide, I tend to think device and software makers don't want us to retain our information and pass it on.
In Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman whose job is to burn books in a society that loathes them. As ebook sales have swelled, and print book sales have slowly declined over the past few years, I find it ironic that today, the biggest threat to print books is not a censorship campaign à la Fahrenheit 451 (though censorship is once again rearing its ugly head.)
No, one of the greatest threats to print books today is their conversion into the ones and zeroes of ebooks.
This article also appeared on LinkedIn.