Why Aren’t E-Books Great? | TheBestSchools

by TBS Staff

Updated September 9, 2022


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Reasons Paper Books are Better Than E-Books

[This is intended as satire. The author is not yet ancient, cynical, technophobic, or curmudgeonly. He’s actually a pretty pleasant guy who enjoys many modern conveniences. — David Ferrer]

1. Zombie Apocalypse Test

When the zombie apocalypse knocks out the electricity in town and the internet is down, your books will still work just fine. You might even be able to fight off a zombie or two by swinging a sizable Oxford Dictionary.

2. Book Smell

No one raves about the ebook smell like they do about the “old book smell.”

3. Focus

Ebooks are designed to distract you with links and “helps.” Books are designed for focus.

4. Feel Your Progress

You can physically feel your progress through a book as the upcoming pages get fewer and fewer. Not so with ebooks.

5. Gravitas

The physical weight of the book imparts a sense of gravitas. In reading a book you are dealing with a real thing and not just digital wind, so it feels like something to take more seriously, respect more, and value greater than an ebook.

6. Marginalia

You can write in the margins of books, but not with ebooks. Ebooks won’t let you write in different sizes at the same time, use cursive, or draw lines from one sentence to a note. Some of them won’t let you write anything at all. I like to write insults and complaints in my margins.

7. Patience

Ebooks are designed for speed with skimming, scrolling, and linking. But physical books are designed for slow processing, with larger pages, no links, and concentrated singular lines of thought. The effect is slowness and patience instead of frenetic haste.

8. Bookmarking

Ebooks have “bookmarks” but it’s not the same and it doesn’t work as well as real books. With real books, you can hold multiple places at once and flip back and forth between them in split seconds without losing your original place. Moreover, since the text never changes locations in a real book, it’s easier to find your place in the book.

9. Used Books

real books have a used-book market, which means you have access to tons of cheap books. This also leads to endless recycling of old books for new people and new shelves.

10. Used Book Shops

The iconic used-book shop is an important piece of academic noir that calls all participants to be thoughtful, conversant, and intelligent. Having coffee, a pastry, and a good book to talk about — that’s an irreplaceable experience with no equivalent in the ebook world. Ebooks have no “used book shop.” If used book shops are an endangered species, ebooks are like poachers.

11. Decoration

Books aren’t just for reading, they also decorate your walls and nightstands (and stairs, and floors, and counters, and rafters, and chimneys, etc.). Even as decoration, books breathe an air of intelligence into the room — unless it’s the Twilight series.

12. Eye-Strain

Ebooks are hard on the eyes, at least when read from tablets, phones, or conventional computer screens. Regular books don’t cause the eye-strain that ebooks do. Some E-Readers have “low light” and “no glare” screens. That’s good, but even these are hard to read in direct sunlight. With regular books, that’s not a problem.

13. Multiple Books

If you are in the thick of a research paper and you need to have five different books open at once, physical books afford that option. But your E-Reader or you phone does not. On a tablet or computer screen, you can keep separate “tabs” for different books, provided they are all on different sites. But the more tabs you have open, the slower your computer will run, and the more likely it will crash. Physical books don’t have a hard drive, so you can “tab” as many locations as you want (i.e., dog-ear the corner), and they will never crash.

14. Haptic/Tactile Pleasure

Books have a feel to them, with texture, thickness, and weight. There’s more interactivity with the physicality of the book than there is with an E-Reader. Many people find the “feel” of books more satisfying and nostalgic than with ebooks (see, Baron, Words On Screen, pg. 142–7). Compared to the substantial tactile experience of books, a thin little E-Reader feels like a toy.

15. Deep Reading

Perhaps the most glaring singular advantage of books is their fitness for deep reading. Nicholas Carr’s bestseller The Shallows (2011) centers on this point; deep reading just doesn’t work with social media, ebooks, or most anything online. Ebooks permit too many distractions, use smaller pages, and reduce physical interactivity, making it hard if not impossible for regular readers to engage in deep reading — that is, focused, higher critical analysis for hours at a time.

16. Emotional Connection

Related to the deep reading, the physicality of books invites a physical person-to-object relation, lending more “realness” to the characters and stories. The effect is that books enable emotional connectivity where ebooks do not. Naomic Baron summarizes this point: “I wonder if anyone has ever cried reading an ebook?” (Words On Screen, 149). Good question.

17. Storage

Moving from a serious note to a trivial note, physical books are great storage for old letters, receipts, notes, lists, pressed flowers, leaves, or similar thin things. A well-worn book can be veritable storehouse of old memories.

18. Stationary Text

Books keep the text stationary; the paragraph on page seven is always on page seven; it will not shift to page eight or page six when you turn your phone sideways. Ebooks ruin this verbal stability by moving the text all around depending on the orientation of the phone, keyword searches, font-size, and which device you are reading it from. D.T. Max expresses this concern with keen insight, asking, “What is a culture if the information that forms it never stands still.” ("The Electronic Book,” The American Scholar 16, no. 3, pg. 18.)

19. Spatial Memory

The stationary text is an advantage in its own right, but it has the added benefit of serving spatial memory. A great deal of our memory and comprehension in reading involves visual-spatial memory. We can find quotes, or remember lines, or retrace a course of thought on the basis of where those words were on the page. Location in a text can help us remember things about the text, but it won’t help you remember where you put your glasses.

20. Batteries Not Included

Books work just fine without batteries.

21. No Charger Needed

Books don’t need a charger, a plug, or an outlet.

22. No Wi-Fi Needed

Books work fine without a WiFi password, and no one in a foreign country can hack your book and steal whatever you wrote in your book. They’d have to steal the book, and that’s just not that likely.

23. No Phone Signal Needed

Your E-Reader may still allow you to download a book without a wifi signal, if you at least have a cell phone signal. But if you don’t have that either, well, your E-Reader will disappoint you worse than a Veggie-burger. A trusty old book will not disappoint. He’s like a good hunting dog. He will be just fine, curled up with you, in a log cabin isolated from the rest of civilization. #heaventome

24. Off the Grid

Combining the last three points, books are perfectly suited to keep you off the grid. You may not appreciate this point now, but when Big Brother is reading your emails, and tracking your phone, and monitoring your social media, and just generally creeps you out, you’ll be glad that you can turn all that off and have a little privacy, a comfortable chair, a pot of coffee, and a good book that no one else is monitoring.

25. Theft Protection

Most books aren’t interesting to thieves. You can leave your book at your table and go pick up your coffee from the counter, and no one will snatch it like they would with a laptop, tablet, or phone. Fancy electronics are a liability. Your copy of 50 Shades of Gross has no street-value whatsoever. No one will steal it. Trust me.

26. Unique Experience

Each book you read is a new physical experience while ebooks are all just new ways to experience the same old cell-phone (or E-Reader, or tablet).

27. Pagination

This is a real pet peeve of mine. Have you ever tried to cite a page from an ebook? Me too! Did it work? Me neither! Ebooks don’t care if you are writing a book, an article, or a research paper that’s due tomorrow morning at 8am. Most of the ebooks I’ve encountered break the book into “percentage completed” or they paginate the screens as if that helps any. You simply cannot reliably cite page numbers from ebooks, so they are effectively useless for academic citations.

28. Beach Reading

Just try to have a nice long reading session, with your ebook, from a lounge chair on a sunny beach. Go ahead. I dare you. Good luck with that. #booksarebetter

29. Shame Reading

Even life-long readers can slack off and don’t finish the books they should finish, or read the books they’d like to. This is a matter of personal character, and a shelf full of books can help. Physical books “shame you from the shelves.” They remind you of the promissory notes you wrote to yourself when you said, “I really need to read that book someday.” Well, if today isn’t someday, then someday never comes.

30. Serendipitous Reading

There is a special book-lover’s delight in stumbling across a gem in a stack of books, or on the shelf. Used bookstores can have some real finds you’d never encounter online. Physical shelved books enable serendipitous reading. Meanwhile, ebooks are listed on sites organized by impersonal algorithms and semantically obtuse keywording programs. The effect is that you end up with books similarly titled and keyworded to the other books you’ve read. But you will miss those books with unusual titles, or those which haven’t been keyworded, or those which otherwise defy the algorithm metrics. Essentially, you have a pseudo-smart computer program presenting you book recommendations instead of letting you truly see for yourself the bookstore or library of randomized titles that might strike your fancy.

31. Personalization

Books can be personalized in a way that ebooks cannot. You can draw pictures, add book-covers, create flip-books in the bottom corner, or scrawl XOXOXO and arrow-hearts around the author’s picture. You can’t do this with ebooks.

32. Ownership

Maybe you didn’t realize this, but you never really own an ebook. You are only renting them permanently. A digital library owns the book, doesn’t charge late fees, and then reclaims it whenever you die (or whenever you forget the password on your device). If you transition to a new device, or a new account, you are liable to lose some of the books you purchased because they aren’t transferrable to that format, or to that brand, or to that device. With physical books, you have real genuine ownership to go along with your personalization. If you wrote along the side of the book, “David Hasselhoff is a god among men,” your book will stand out as uniquely yours compared to every other book in the world.

33. Side Writing

You can write on the side of the book. But you can’t write on the side of an ebook — that concept doesn’t even make sense. You can write on an E-Reader—that’s a physical object — but ebooks don’t even have “sides.” They are literally two dimensional; the pages don’t take up space, so an ebook has no “side” on which to write anything about Hasselhoff even if you wanted to.

34. Vertical Writing

As I was researching for this very list, I felt the urge to turn the book sideways and write vertically on the back page. Once I turned that corner, somehow, I was able to unlock another level of creativity and write thirteen more points on the list. Take that ebooks!

35. No software update

You will never have to download an update to your book. When you open it up, the text is there to read. It’s not hidden behind some screen saying “Update Now or you’ll never see your precious little story again.”

36. Reduces Multitasking

Most everything digital cultivates short-attention spans and multi-tasking distraction. On the average E-Reader or ebook app on your phone, there are scroll-down lists, alerts, and call-outs which are designed to make you look at something else. Now distraction is a problem and we mentioned that already. But some of you may think you’re good at doing a bunch of things at once so you excuse these distractions under the banner of multitasking. According to studies at the University of Utah, only about 2.5% of people can multitask without signficant loss in quality (cited in Baron, 180). That means for 97.5% of people, they are doing several things poorly at the same time. They aren’t really “multitasking.” The multitude of tasks are shallowed and weakened by one’s attempt to do all of them at once. Your book reading works the same way; it’s less-engaged and more trivial when you submit it to the distracting whims of your cell phone, even if you think you are “multitasking.” This is one more way that books are better in print than on screen.

37. Low Risk

We mentioned one liability above — theft. But books are also low risk in other ways. Typical new books cost maybe $5–20 dollars. An E-Reader or cell-phone allows you to store up hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of books, games, and apps. What happens if you drop it on the street? With a physical book, you just pick it back up again. You brush the scuff off, and move on with life. With your $300 E-Reader, your $800 cell phone, or your $1,000 tablet — if you drop it hard on the street, the next reasonable thing to do is scream bloody murder then cry like a baby. Life is over. The day is done. That wouldn’t have happened if you were just carrying a book instead.

38. Addiction-free

Rarely do people get addicted to physical books. Meanwhile, digital addiction is like cholera for moderns. It’s the most pervasive and growing epidemic of our day. If you don’t want to be another statistic, you may want to use a book for your next reading binge.

39. Reduces Power-Browsing

Many people have embraced the internet age by adapting their reading habits for the absolute glut of information pouring in every day. One adaptation is “power-browsing.” It’s actual reading, but works like skimming in that it’s a fast-paced and far-reaching form of browsing. Power-browsing is fine for what it is, but it’s the polar opposite of deep reading. If deep reading is an inch wide and a mile deep, power browsing is a mile wide and an inch deep. Book reading caters to deep reading while internet surfing, and E-Reading tend towards power-browsing.

40. Mental-Mapping

Books are three dimensional physical objects with length, width, height, weight, texture, and smell. They carry information in a physical way, enabling you, the reader, to create a mental map of their stories and ideas. Our minds gravitate towards physical illustrations, mnemonic devices, and memory cues when we try to formulate a comprehensive understanding of something. Books work well for this since they have all the same verbal cues to aid your memory and understanding, but they also have physical cues to help you too. E-Readers don’t work as well for mental mapping because there are fewer tangible and stationary qualities to grasp at in organizing your mental map. The result is that books allow you to follow the whole course of an argument, like you are tracing the path on a map. Meanwhile, ebooks break the text into searchable snippets that don’t hang together as a whole text.

41. Memorization

Related to mental mapping, the fact that book texts are stationary allows your memory to seize upon that object permanence and remember lines, ideas, names, and dates with great ease. They have a reliable physical location on a given page. That location will not change in the book. When you want to seriously study a book, and remember key ideas, quotes, and data, you are far better served with a book than an ebook.

42. No Fine Motor Skills Required

E-Readers are often hampered by touch-sensitive features. They are supposed to be convenient, but what if your hands are cold and shaky? Or the screen display is wonky and won’t let you touch the corner you want to highlight? Or what if your fingers are too fat for the tiny little keys on the screen? Books won’t give you a hard time, but most everyone with a phone, tablet, or E-Reader has had to wrestle with their device for their lack of fine motor skills.

43. Fewer Car Accidents

Texting-while driving is against the law in many cities. But people still check their phones for messages, notifications, and even E-Reading. Of course E-Reading while driving is no better than texting, and it might be worse. Besides the threat to life, property damage, and the foolishness of this, the greater crime is that people who do this have just weaponized literature. For shame! Books don’t do that. People don’t drive while reading books, not normally at least. And if they do, call the police.

44. Tradeable

Physical books are tradeable. You can gift them to friends. You can pass out copies of books you’ve read and don’t want anymore. You can donate them to charity. Ebooks are stuck in your device and can’t be recirculated into the community, the economy, or the rest of the world.

45. Tangible Reality

Physical books are real, concrete objects. Ebooks just don’t hold the same tangible reality, the same felt value as traditional books. One student in Singapore demonstrated the difference. Speaking of a story she read first as an ebook, “I loved it so much I had to save up and buy this,” . . . stroking the printed version of fantasy novel The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. She added, “Holding it makes it more real.”

46. More Noir/Romantic

Reading a good book on a porch swing, or on a train, or at a coffee shop or bookstore — that’s an iconic setting for meaningful human experience. It’s a romantic/nostalgic scene to be engrossed in a book within the beauty of natural scenery. That iconic scene crumbles if you replace the book with some electronic device. Existentially speaking, books help connect you to the natural world while ebooks tether you to the artificial world.

47. Artifacts

Books are artifacts, tangible human creations. Books are the stuff of archeology, history, and anthropology. They are part of our physical culture. Ebooks carry information, and they are fine for what they are, but they aren’t suited for museum displays. They aren’t precious expensive artifacts of bygone civilizations. They aren’t mementos of important times in our life, or childhood memories. Compared to books, ebooks are ephemeral wind.

48. One-on-One Conversation

The simplicity of books allow the reader to have a one-on-one conversation with the author. You can read what they are saying, write comments in the margins, take notes in the back, and reread important sections. But if books are like a one-on-one conversation, ebooks are like a crowded noisy room where the whole experience is stuffed with distractions and cross-talk.

49. Some Volumes are Best Suited for Printing

For short books, short stories, news, and otherwise small reading tasks, ebooks are adequate. Form follows function. But for long, deep, and analytic texts, a print book is necessary. Print demands also raise other problems. Sometimes, the formatting of the book requires a full, static, page. For example, long lines of poetry would break unevenly, or against the author’s intentions, if they were forced into the small screen format of a cell phone or palm-sized E-Reader.

50. Object Permanence

Books have a lasting power unrivaled by anything in the digital age. We have books from thousands of years ago. And if we don’t die in a nuclear holocaust, we’ll have books for thousands more years. But, chances are, you probably have a iPod or E-Reader that’s broken and useless. That thing is only a couple years old. And it probably has content that is forever lost unless you can repair it. Books have lasting power where ebooks are unproven and possibly fleeting.

Where do we go from here?

Despite my ranting and raving against ebooks, they do have some value and they aren’t going away any time soon. The likely forecast is that people will continue to use print books for some purposes and ebooks for other purposes. They’ll pick and choose, buffet-style, however they desire at the moment.

The digital revolution is here to stay, but if we can keep our wits about us we don’t have to vomit from the nauseating pace of change, and the endless drivel from utopian futurists who expect every little gadget to make the world a better place. Consider that people have tried for decades to shift education to digital books and E-Readers. Perhaps they think these handicapped tablets will make learning “cool.” Bah humbug! Next they’ll be telling us how to make tasty zero-calorie chocolate cake or how to have a happy marriage with no commitments. I’ll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile, I’ll keep my books on the shelf right where they belong and you can keep your E-Reader as long as it lasts.

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