On Books and Ebooks

Among book lovers, there continues to be an prevalent negative feeling about electronic books, or ebooks. The reaction, one I myself have experienced, goes something like this: I enjoy reading books, I enjoy the feel and the tactile feedback, touch, smell, look, books can be marked up and carried around, they never run out of batteries, I can keep them on my bookshelf, they look great, and they are permanent; they are easier on the eyes than screens, and dammit, I just love them. I do not want to read a book in an electronic format. And so I don't think ebooks will succeed, no matter what Oprah says about the Amazon Kindle.

While I'm sympathetic with that reaction (indeed I feel the same way about paper & ink books), it entirely misses the point of ebooks.

Ebooks are not in opposition to print & paper books; they are a parallel tool to get the content contained in a book.

There should be no tension between loving the object of the book, and recognizing the usefulness of ebooks - whether or not you choose to use ebooks yourself.

Ebooks offer a host of advantages: portability, choice, access, convenience, searchability, quotability, among others. You can download any ebook in a matter of seconds. You can carry around tens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of ebooks with you, on any number of devices: your laptop, your phone, your thumbdrive, your Kindle, or your Sony reader.

The good old paper & print book offers a different set of important advantages: permanence, tactile pleasure, dog-earing. And much more.

But why can't we have both? Why can't I sit by the fire reading my hardcover War & Peace, and also take my iphone out and read the War & Peace ebook while I am waiting in line at the bank? These are different contexts when and where I might want to read, and they call for different tools. Here's what a friend of mine has to say on the topic:

What I do is: I listen to Middlemarch on the way to work, courtesy of LibriVox. Read in bed from old hardback edition. Read on the train (in Lounge, when wife is watching TV and wants me there) from Stanza on my iphone.

Reading an ebooks is just "another way" to be reading, it's not necessarily a replacement of a hard copy of a book.

After all, I prefer to talk to people face-to-face, but I recognize the utility of the telephone. One does not replace the other. In fact, they are complimentary. I'd suggest the same could be said of ebooks and books.

And, if I haven't convinced you about ebooks, consider this: you could spread the entire corpus of written human knowledge (pre-1923) everywhere in the world, essentially for free, using ubiquitous ebook readers already in the hands of just about every teacher in even the poorest countries in the world: that is, the mobile phone.

That's a powerful idea. The days of "we cannot afford textbooks" could and should soon be over.

UPDATE: I should have listed some places where you can get free ebooks:
  • Project Gutenberg, the grandaddy of free ebook projects, they've been building a free electronic library for all since the early 1970s
  • Bartleby.com a collection of ebooks, some not in the Gutenberg collection
  • Manybooks.net, nicely sorted collection of ebooks
  • Internet Archive, the huge repository of free content of all kinds, including scanned (and text versions) of collections from libraries around the world
  • Google Books, the most famous of the book projects, late to the party, but hugely influential nonetheless