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Why ebooks will simply never replace the real thing

It’s all about permanence.


Rachael Berkey


Don’t believe the hype. Books are forever. Literally, they are sunshine photosynthesized into a living tree, turned into wood and then paper, printed with ink that resulted from complex chemical process. When they eventually break down, disintegrate, or burn, they become the air and ground around us. They’re never really gone. 

You just can’t say the same for ebooks. 

It’s been suggested that books—real book—are dead, but here’s a newsflash: Ebooks are not the future. Your Kindle will not save your life, though it may save your back. If you look around at the people in your life, you’ll likely notice that they are reading stories on paper just as frequently as they are reading them on a screen. If anything, ebooks are just one sidestep in the grand tradition of storytelling that follows the mass availability of reading material following the advent of the printing press in the 15th century.

Right now there are roughly 7 billion humans on the planet and only a little more than 3 billion of them are online. Technology and the internet have brought a whole new level of accessibility and opportunity to the reading public, but that doesn’t mean that a five hundred year old technology is dead. 

In comparison, there are 7 billion humans on Earth and roughly 757 million adults are illiterate. Right now there are organizations that are bringing ereaders and ebooks to poverty stricken schools and communities around the world. Once those devices get into the hands of those who want and need them, communities have to figure out how to power them and connect them to the world wide information highway in order to download the books they say they deliver. This is undoubtedly a good thing. 

Aside from physical accessibility to the technologies, ereaders, electronic ink, and the ever-adapting legal system that are the gatekeepers to ebooks face challenges traditional publishers have never dreamed they would have to face. Once you get around discussions of intellectual property theft and a consumer’s ability to share a digital book, similar to the debates the music industry is still neck deep in 17 years after Napster launched, there are still workers to be paid and supplies to be bought. 

Every aspect of ebook consumption has been commodified, and everything costs money and requires maintenance. Add a battery and an internet connection, and the price just goes up further. Ebooks may be more convenient for the gainfully employed, first world denizen, but at the end of the day, publishers are still trying to figure out what to do with the leftover copies of a book that was bestselling 3 years ago.

Ebooks are great, and I will be the first to sing the praises of my ereader to anyone who will listen, but they’ll never truly replace books. The feel of a pulpy page under your fingertips and the smell of must, dust, and mold combine so beautifully that there are whole sections of literary criticism devoted to the human connection to books. 

No digital post-it note or highlighted line of text can evoke the same emotions that a thoughtful bit of marginalia in the handwriting of an old friend can. Take the ereader at what it is: a pretty toy that makes your life a little bit easier. Look for innovation elsewhere in stories that are being told with embedded games and new paths that let your life interact with someone else’s in new and exciting ways. Our next printing press is out there, just waiting to be invented along with new platforms and ways of sharing our experiences with each other.

Photo via latteda/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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The Daily Dot