Print books have certain qualities that give them an advantage over e-books. Chiefly, their permanence has great value, whereas digital content is more easily altered.
This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 12, 2012.
Books have long been considered objects of art. After the writing and editing is complete, serious publishers pay attention to typesetting, illustrations and even paper quality and bookbinding. An expert can recognize a printed book as a product of a certain era. Book lovers have long recognized that their tomes can be inscribed and given as gifts, and that the pages can be marked up with comments. Books can be passed down to the next generation or sold as valuable antiques. They can carry sentimental value. Many insist that the tactile "feel" of holding printed material in one's hand and the visual pleasure of scanning a page that has been painstakingly laid out cannot be mimicked by electronic media.
The rise of e-books has begun to change how people think of books. It is now easier to consider a "book" as its content alone, independent of the paper it may (or may not) be printed on. Ancient peoples, for whom books were rare and expensive, could not have dreamed of the kind of catalogues available today for instant download anywhere in the world. Consider the New Testament reference to the eunuch official of an African queen who traveled all the way to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, a journey that must have taken months, and who was in possession of the Book of Isaiah, presumably on a fragile, hand-lettered piece of parchment. (Acts 8:26-40) What would he have thought if he had been told that, two thousand years in the future, an ordinary person would have the ability to carry over a thousand books on a single device in her pocket? There is no doubt that he would have been impressed, but wouldn't it also be reasonable for him to suspect that, as books become economically cheaper and easier to carry and store, people will no longer have the same sense that books are precious and holy objects?
With all that can be said in favor of e-books, they are simply not precise substitutes for print books.
First, purchasing a license to read content is not the same as purchasing a material object of art that is one's rightful property forever and can be given as a lasting gift. While some e-book programs allow the legitimate temporary loaning of content – assuming, of course, that the recipient has a compatible device or app – other programs do not allow the file to be transferred at all. When the devices finally become obsolete or the companies go out of business, there is a risk that the content will no longer be retrievable by the consumer.
Second, the digital economy is fueled partly by the money involved in storing data about what has been read and who has loaned books to whom. While the "book recommendations" made by computerized algorithms can be helpful, there can also be great value in the sense of lifelong privacy when a print book is bought with cash and then finally – secretly – passed on to a used bookstore or to a friend. Whose business is your choice of reading material? With print, it is easier to keep it your own business and not allow it to become some company's data point about you.
Third, print books are currently perceived as the friendlier format in social situations, given the current relative ease of lending them and given their visible covers. When someone on the train is reading a print book, others around them can see the title. They can form an idea about what is trendy or intriguing, and they can even strike up a conversation.
Fourth, when one has a copy of a print book, one has more certainty that it's substantively the same copy that other people saw when they read the same edition. The publisher's imprint serves as a trustworthy historical record that the book is "real"; this is why people cite sources. If necessary, a particular book could even be carbon-dated to prove how old it is. With e-books, readers have reason to be a little more skeptical: how can one know that someone has not changed the text in the file? Does a recently digitized text contain exactly the same words that one's parents and grandparents read? What may have been misinterpreted, mistyped or deliberately purged?
There is no one right answer to the question of whether print books or e-books are "better." Each format uses different material resources and may be priced differently, taxed differently, reach different audiences and be read for separate reasons. Even with the rise of personal computers and e-reader devices, there is still much to be said in favor of print books.