A girl can only drop an 800+ page book on her face or her foot so many times before she starts to wonder: “eBooks vs printed books – which is better?”. I’ve always been a die-hard advocate for paper and ink, but reading Under The Dome really got me thinking about whether there might be a better way. I realise I’m probably poking another hornet’s nest here, but I figure it’s finally time to weigh in on another great debate of the reading world. I ask again: eBooks vs printed books – which is better?
History of eBooks
You might think that eBooks are a bit of a Johnny-come-lately on the scene, but actually they were first conceived back in the 1930s, after writer Bob Brown underwent the transformative cinematic experience of his first “talkie” movie (y’know, one of the ones when they finally figured out how to make sound match up with the picture). His theory was that book-reading had not kept pace with movie-watching, and he envisaged a machine that could be plugged in to any electrical socket and would allow him to read faster without any risk of nasty paper cuts (yes, those were his concerns, in that order).
It took about forty years for Bob Brown’s idea to come to fruition, but we got there. Of course, there are quibbles as to who did what first, but general consensus would suggest that eBooks kicked off in earnest when Michael S. Hart started Project Gutenberg in 1971. He typed up a plain-text copy of the United States Declaration Of Independence, and thought to himself: “hey, plain text copies of old documents would make them easier to access on this newfandangled Internet!” (I’m paraphrasing, but I’m sure it was something along those lines.)
Project Gutenberg now has over 60,000 digitised titles available (for free!) to anyone with an internet connection, using any device, but – of course – that’s not the only platform or format for eBooks anymore. With the ascendancy of Amazon and other mass-delivery infrastructure (which, sadly, wiped out early competitors, like Sony’s Data Discman – RIP), rapid improvements in technology (like the development of the PDF), infrastructural changes (ISBNs issued to books only available in eBook format), and the proliferation of devices and contraptions capable of reading eBooks (called, creatively, eReaders), eBooks have now saturated the book selling market and the public consciousness.
But the question still remains, eBooks vs printed books: is the shiny (relatively) new version really better than the OG?
Benefits of Reading eBooks
Ask any eBook convert, and they’ll rattle off a list of benefits of reading eBooks as long as your arm. Here’s just a few:
- Variety: There are literally millions (maybe billions, by now!) of eBooks available at the tap of a button, and they’re accessible immediately.
- Portability: An eBook library of 1,000+ books fits in your pocket. Can’t get that with paperbacks! This is especially great for travellers, and others who need to read on the go.
- Affordability: The price point for eBooks averages out around $3-4 a pop, far less than you’d pay for any print book. There’s also huge swathes of them available for free, and most public libraries now offer eBook lending services, too.
- Functionality: Come across a word you’ve never heard before? Tap it and the definition pops right up. Want to highlight a passage? No worries about the sacrilege of defacing print books, go right ahead and do it digitally! Want to pick up right where you left off with the audiobook version? Easy-peasy with an eBook.
- Accessibility: The flexibility of the format makes it easier for people to adapt it to their needs. Want to read with one hand while you’re breastfeeding? Much easier to do that with an eReader than a print book! Want to make the font larger, or even change it entirely? You can do that, too.
Sounds like it’s all beer and skittles, right?
Benefits of Reading Printed Books
Not quite. There are some things printed books give us that you just can’t get with eBooks and eReaders.
- Physicality: The smell of printed books, the feel of the paper, even those annoying paper cuts – all of that can make a big difference to how we enjoy the act of reading. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest that physically turning pages and the visual cues of printed books improves our recall of what we read. **Bonus benefit: their physical presence in our homes, their collectibility, is also a huge draw!
- Shareability: There have been all kinds of legal dramas – and resulting limitations – on sharing eBooks with friends. If you’re the kind of reader that loves pressing a book you’ve just finished into the hands of another, that’s something you’re only going to be able to do with the print version (legally, anyway).
- Durability: The thing about a printed book is, no matter how old it is or how long you’re using it, it will never “go flat” right before the shock twist or the happily-ever-after!
- Readability: For those of us looking to avoid screens and blue-light in the evenings, printed books are the only way to go. Many newer eReaders are marketed as being no- or low-blue-light, but the jury’s still out on how they affect our circadian rhythms. Plus, however you slice it, printed books are easier to read in direct sunlight or other glare-y conditions.
- Affordability: I know, I know, I just said that affordability was one of the main benefits of eBooks, but that doesn’t count the initial outlay of purchasing an eReader to begin with (if you’re not using your regular phone or tablet). The good ones can be pretty exxy, far more than you’d pay for even a new-release hardcover edition!
The (Environmental) Elephant In The Room
Yes, I’m ignoring one of the most contentious parts of this debate: the environmental impact of eBooks vs printed books. I’ve heard very strong arguments on both sides. eBooks eliminate the fuel used to print and ship books, not to mention the use of paper and synthetic chemicals to produce them. But there’s an equally strong argument that the manufacture and distribution of eReaders is just as big an environmental problem (the last thing we need is more plastic and electronic waste!), and most reputable publishers use responsibly-sourced and recycled materials to produce printed books now, anyway. The details of this part of the debate are complex, and constantly changing, so I’m just going to go ahead and declare it a wash. Whichever way we read, it’s going to have an environmental impact (as does our very existence).
Are people really buying more eBooks vs printed books?
Well, that depends who you ask (and when!). There was a huge spike in production and sales of eBooks and eReaders a few years back, but that didn’t last as long as everyone expected. Printed books are far from dead. The data I’ve seen suggest that eBooks are still a smaller chunk of the market: roughly $940 million-worth in the U.S., compared to $3 billion for hardcovers and $2.5 billion for paperbacks (as of 2019). That could be partially attributable to the lower cover price for eBooks, but the pendulum is definitely swinging back in printed books’ direction.
Well, then? eBooks vs printed books – which is better?
Sorry to disappoint, but I’m going to have to revert to the traditional fence-sit on this one: it depends. For some readers, eBooks are their preferred format for reading, and I can definitely see the benefits. Heck, I might even be convinced to give them a go myself one day. But, for now, your girl stays hopelessly devoted to printed books. Even though they hurt when I drop them on my face, nothing beats the look and feel of paper and ink in my hands.