Oh, this is a favorite question. Do I own an e-reader? Yes, I do. Wait, conservative elements, don’t leave yet! Let’s talk about this.
I could ramble for some time about the overall trend of digitization and what it means for readers, reading culture, and print books (not to mention book collecting). Perhaps I’ll create a miniseries on the subject so we can discuss it at length. But for now, let me throw out one main preliminary thought:
Print books and digital books both have unique advantages and drawbacks.
Which medium is right for you (or which medium is right for which book) will depend on what advantages you most desire, and which drawbacks you mind the least.
Follow me? It’s simply a question of your personal reading and studying habits.* Let’s consider some of the advantages of each medium. I’m willing to bet that your preference fits the medium whose advantages most fit your sense of value in your reading experience.
Advantages of digital books
Keyword search. Remember that story about how people used to think mice could reproduce asexually in salt? No? I can simply keyword search “mice” in Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and find it in an instant.
Highlighting. I can highlight quotes, facts, references to other books, etc. on my digital copy without feeling like I’m defacing my book. Then I can pull these highlights up all at once in order to review, compare, or use.
Access. I used to have to haul a number of books within my suitcase whenever I traveled. I never knew how much or how little time I’d have to read. I might get through none—or six—but the tragedy to be avoided at all costs is be marooned without anything to read. Now I have hundreds of books at my fingertips.
Price. Classic works are cheap. Most new books are also significantly cheaper in e-format. When you buy as many books as I do, such facts are worth mentioning.
Privacy. No one can judge me if I’m reading Fifty Shades of Grey in public.
Advantages of print books
Sensory experience. The feel of the paper. The binding. The type of ink used. The layout. The illustrations. There are companies making strides in digital versions of some of these things (particularly the latter two), but as a rare book dealer I can tell you with professional expertise that holding a book from the 18th century is different from holding one from the 19th century. Physical books are all different creatures and produce their own unique sensory experiences.
Sharing. I imagine digital books will get easier on this front in the future, but for now this really requires a paper copy. You recommend a book to someone. The next day, you lend (read: give) your bruised paperback copy to them, sharing the love. I’ve discovered many a wonderful book this way. Further, the culture of book sharing is one of the most rewarding (if one of the only) social aspects to being a bookworm.
Cathexis. This builds on the previous two. In our context, cathexis is when one attributes emotional energy to an object that is inherently neutral. What I mean is: do you still have the copy you read of your favorite book from 6th grade? If you were given a new copy of that book, would you value it as much as the one that first brought you that joy? We transfer our feelings of affection and gratitude created from the reading of a book to the book itself as an object. Individual copies of books can become special to us.
Note taking. I’m not going to dive into whether writing in your books is ok—but if you do, and it’s an important part of your study habits, sometimes highlighting a passage in a digital copy just doesn’t allow the information to stick in your mind as well as physically underlining it yourself or writing in the margin.
Collecting. As a combination of points 1 and 3 (sensory experience and cathexis), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that collectors value physical books as historical objects that are reflections of particular their time and context. (An e-reader is also an artifact that reflects its historical context, but by its nature it does not reflect the physical materials of the various printed books that have their own individual history.)
So what do you value in your books? And what advantages did I leave out?
*This leaves open the question of the next generation growing up with so much digital content, and so much education in the digital sphere, that perhaps their reading habits will naturally default to prefer digital over paper books—unlike the current generation that grew up developing habits with paper books. But that’s for another post—stay tuned!