Ebooks—What We Gain, What We Lose

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone. This iBooks edition included the entire text of the 656-page hardcover book, endnotes and all. And though I enjoyed the book—and the experience of reading it on a tiny screen—I’m reflecting on the benefits and costs of embracing this medium.

So what do we gain from ebooks? 

Plenty, actually.

Start with convenience. Thanks to online retailers, just about any book you want is a few clicks away. Book buying can now be an impulse purchase—something that potentially benefits publishers and authors.

Loss of clutter is another advantage. As an adolescent, my goal was to own every great book ever published. The result: apartments crammed with books. Books in every room. Books on every shelf. Books piled on the floor. Books crammed into closets. Books coming out of my ears. And major pain when it came time to box up all those books and haul them into a moving van.

I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times that I’ve searched for a particular title and given up, frustrated with having to comb through the masses of books in my living space. I’d go out to buy a title only to later discover that I already owned a copy (or two). Embarrassing.

Ebooks eliminate this problem. I simply search my collection. Any title is instantly accessed. Nothing is lost.

With ebooks, annotation also turns into a sublime tool. My Kindle app allows me to highlight passages in a book and then display all those highlights at once. For nonfiction books, especially, this is a dream. With one click you get an instant summary of the text.

Then there’s the built-in dictionary that comes with ebook readers. Maybe the definitions are not the greatest. But they’re good enough so that I never lose comprehension due to an unfamiliar word.

As for other benefits, let’s not gloss over the subtle feeling of power that comes with carrying dozens of books on a device that fits in your pocket or purse. It’s my e-library, and I don’t leave home without it. While standing in line or idling in a dentist’s waiting room, I can always pull out something to read. Never again do I have to waste time.

And what do we lose? 

Again, there’s plenty.

Bookstores, for one. I remember when I could spend every night of the week at a different bookstore in Minneapolis or Saint Paul—all thriving, all independent. Today most of them are gone. And they’re not coming back. People are curled up on couches in their living room, buying books with a credit card and keyboard, huddling in digital isolation.

Beauty is another downside. Every time that I open an ebook with my Kindle app, I marvel at the ugliness of the type. In contrast, the crisp and clean type that adorns a page of high-quality paper is a genuine pleasure to behold. And for large-format books with lots of visuals and those that are designed to be read as a series of 2-page spreads, print is clearly the medium of choice.

Finally, there’s the loss of ownership and access. Do you realize that you don’t really own your ebooks? You merely purchased a license to display them on your digital devices.

Will it be possible to pass our ebook collections to our children after we die? Honestly, I don’t know. Hardcover books, on the other hand—no sweat.

I worry, too, about software and hardware that fades into the digital void. Any of you who have tried to open a Microsoft Word file that you created in 1997 can sympathize.

How long will we be able to fire up our Kindles and iBooks apps? No one knows. Maybe the tools we’re using today are strictly transitional.

In a recent email newsletter, David Byrne summed it up well:

I also have a funny feeling that, like much of our world that is disappearing onto servers and clouds, eBooks will become ephemeral. I have a sneaking feeling that like lost languages and manuscripts, most digital information will be lost to random glitches and changing formats. Much of our world will become unretrievable—like the wooden houses, music, and knowledge of our ancient predecessors. I have a few physical books that are 100 years old. Will we be able to read our eBooks in 100 years? Really?