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2009-10-25 An e-Book Reader Is Not A Book

Stacking books until...

An E-Book (Reader) Is Not A Book

or why I'm not happy with e-book readers and still read paper-based books

Every year at home, we are reading and stacking more than 3 shelves of books. As you can see on the above picture, I'm forced to stack books on the top of bookshelves (here on the top of a classical "Billy" from a well-known Swedish supplier). Looking at my own use of books, electronic book seemed to be a nice opportunity. So I tried various e-books reader (on a 2+ years period) but without any success or even positive experience. I won't make a review of all the readers I tried from free software e-book reader to proprietary physical e-book reader. While testing those devices, I took some notes describing what was the issues encountered while reading electronic books compared to the reading of traditional books. I summarized my impression (at the end, this is just my own experience of reading so this is quite subjective). My impression are based on additional cost added by e-book reader compared to traditional printed books.

the set-up cost

Book doesn't need time to boot, set-up, charge battery, refresh page, index, recover or even crash. If you have 5 minutes while waiting for your friends, you'll need to open the book and start reading. With an electronic book, this is not the case. In the best case, the e-book is ready but you'll see that the battery is going low and you are stuck in your car waiting for someone without the possibility to read (and worst, you forgot the charger for the car. This happens). Right now, nothing beats a paper book on the set-up…

the social cost

An electronic book limits social interaction in the tangible and physical world. One of the classical example, if you are reading a book in a train, I can't count how many times this was the opportunity for starting a discussion. Often just because the traveller next to you was trying to read on the cover what you are reading… With an electronic book, this is a limitation factor for starting a conversation : how can the traveller read the cover of your electronic book? Today, this is not possible with an electronic book. The case is valid in libraries, book-store or at home while visitors are negligently looking at your bookshelves. You can socialize with books on Internet but shutting down your local social interaction by moving from books to e-book is not an option to me.

the comfort cost

I'm reading everywhere but my bed is one of the first place where I'm reading. Sorry but a computer or device in a bed is something strange (even a traditional book can be difficult). Reading a screen before sleeping is like having a light therapy just before sleeping. The traditional book is not emitting light, an indirect light is used to read what's written on the paper. So the comfort of a paper book is unbeatable especially while reading in your bedroom.

One of my great pleasure is to read a book while drinking tea. It happened that I spilled some tea on a book but the effect is fundamentally different with an electronic device. Water (and other liquid) is dangerous for the books but it's worst for an electronic device.

the annotation cost

I know it's bad but I'm doing annotations (margin annotation, highlighting…) in my books and often going back to those annotations. You'll need a pencil and that's it. For electronic books, this is difficult (sometime impossible the way you want it) and to query back your annotation is also a pain.

Conclusion and still living with my paper books

The cost of using electronic books is high and not bringing that's much value (at least to me) compared to a traditional paper-based book. The only useful usage of an electronic book is when you'll need a reference book and doing a lookup for a word. Beside being someone using and creating technologies, I'm still more convince to read and use all those old books. The ecological impact of printing books is high but starts to be more and more limited. It's really difficult for me to find some real and concrete advantages of using electronic books. Maybe the main advantage is the lack of bookshelves, but I would be a bit nostalgic when our guest are killing their neck by reading the title. So I'll continue to purchase new bookshelves… at least for the next few years.