Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction.
Those are facts about books, but advantages? Stray bits of paper fall out of books, and then you’ve lost your place. You can’t access your highlighted passages when you’re at the office and your book is at home. You can’t read your matchstick etchings two months after they were written. A ripped out page gets quickly lost. The natural shield against distraction means that if you do want a quick distraction, you have to put the book down entirely — and then you may not pick it back up.
Moreover, I don’t think we have any clear concept of how good eBooks are going to become. I wasn’t at all impressed with the first generation of eBooks, or eBook readers. When asked to review the first-generation Kindle, I reviewed it poorly and sold my device as soon as I’d finished the article. But now? I have the Kindle application on my home computer, my work computer, my iPad, and my phone. Wherever I am, my books are there, too. My place is always saved. My highlights and notes are automatically uploaded to a central Amazon server that I can access from any internet connection. I get more out of my books now, can read them in more places, can search back through them with more ease, can integrate them into my job with less hassle.
I was resistant to eBooks, but I’ve become a believer. In a matter of a few years, they’ve gone from worse-than-books to, for my purposes, anyway, better-than-books. There’s a part of me that doesn’t like that conclusion. But it’s true.
And it’s early yet. The advances have mainly been transposing common technologies like search, sync and storage to text files. What happens when authors begin writing eBooks rather than writing books? When a few big-name writers decide to test the technology and create something that could only be done electronically? When the market tips such that eBooks become more economical than traditional books?
I like books. And I feel guilty every time I look up from my iPad and see the hundreds of books lining my walls, looking at me like Woody and Buzz watching Andy discover video games. But it’s getting easier and easier for me to see how they get replaced by eBooks, and harder and harder for me to come up with arguments about why that’s a bad thing.