Paper books vs. iBooks and Kindle books

There's an interesting debate taking place about the merits and virtues of modern electronic books like Apple's iBooks or Amazon's Kindle books and their traditional counterparts -- old fashioned paper bound and proper.

They're qualitatively different, inarguably. The feel of board and cloth and leather is warm and textured compared to the crisp coolness of glass, aluminum, and plastic. The gentle sound of pages flipping is vastly different than a tap or swipe or click. The sharp smell of a fresh new novel or musky scent of an old tome exists in a different dimension from the relative sterility of chips and displays.

Yet the weight, permanence, and nostalgia of traditional books can be a disadvantage when it comes to carrying them, correcting them, and moving the state of the art of knowledge forward once again.

Ben Brooks laments this, almost romantically.

I can tell you from first hand experience that the reading experience is very different on each of the different mediums and that’s why the distinction matters to me. I don’t care which version you bought because it changes what you read, but I do care because it may not be the same as the book I read (sometimes in the minor content differences, but always in experience and layout).

Marco Arment does not, functionally.

When I start reading, the form of the book quickly disappears. Just as I don’t notice the individual letters in each word, I stop noticing the layout, the font, the paper, the binding, and every other physical artifact because I’m focused on the writing.

Dieter Bohn thinks we're getting ahead of ourselves.

With ebooks, we're still looking at the equivalent of the day after Gutenberg printed his first Bible. We need to decide which paper book "specs" are important and ensure that they get recreated in our new digital world. We also need to ensure that these digital equivalents are at least as free and unfettered as paper books are now. We've already surpassed paper technology in a number of areas. However we are not giving nearly enough attention to the very things that made paper books flourish in the first place. The most important specs are the ones you take for granted.

Here's the thing -- once upon a time we passed down our stories between generations. Then we carved them into stone, brushed them on papyrus, illuminated them on scrolls, and eventually pressed them into print. We lost the voices of our parents, the lines of our hand, the power of our art, the uniqueness of our craft. But we gained volume and the democratization of information. Beauty gave way to volume.

Each transition has been painful. Each transition has been decried and denounced. Yet, inexorably, the new has overtaken the old. Even if it's never fully supplanted it. We still tell stories. We still practice calligraphy. We still work at leading and kerning. iBooks and eBooks won't wipe out traditional books any more than non-traditional books wiped out message mediums older than they. Those mediums will shrink, perhaps, and become the providence of craftsman and collectors, enthusiasts and artists, and the very same folk who still enjoy wooden toys, vinyl albums, and pre-iPhone phones.

Meanwhile, iBooks, Kindle books, and other forms of digital books will continue to crawl out of the primordial ooze and make more content more available to more people (and children) than ever before. And perhaps they'll recapture some of the magic of mediums past, the way Audible has voice and InDesign (opens in new tab) has done digital press.

iBooks, Kindle books, and their ilk are not perfect, not yet and maybe never, but they're the future. Until the next transition.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Concur
  • Having a masters degree in the arts, I'm quite familiar with vast libraries of paper books; I've spent YEARS there! But, I can actually read faster with an e-book, more easily access notes, search them, and carry my entire collection with me. This advantage quickly out-weighs the nostalgia. (If I miss that too much, I can, and do, head down to the library for some research work!)
    I'm not sure the above advantages are appreciated by everyone or necessary for them (does everyone read faster on e-books? My wife also does. I though I read some study that differed with that though.). But, the downsides are pretty big too. I can't just lend a book to a friend (at least not as easily; it could be WAY easier if the e-publishers allowed it). How will I pass my book collection on to my children or to a library? My library doesn't consist of pop-novels that I just read and toss. If I kept my collection in paper form, it would be somewhat valuable. Now that I've converted most of it to e-books (and donated the paper ones to libraries), does it have any value, other than to me? Currently, probably not. This needs to be addressed!
    I've heard that some people are very visual with their books for remembering the content. In other words, they actually remember things by where they fall on the pages and approximately within a book. Most e-book formats kind of ruin this, though I've never remembered things like this anyway. For me, being able to pull up an index of all my notes and highlighting is WAY superior. Being able to search is awesome. Having my whole collection with me is priceless. For me, there is no going back, yet I'm more than a bit nervous about the future of my collection.
  • As with the last commenter, Steve wilkinson, I too am pursuing my education and I am currently working on my bachelor degree. I plan to go on to get my master degree, so the research is not done. I echo many of the same comments and thoughts as he does, with one caveat. I have found that about half of the required books are in e-format. I am glad to see Pearson get on board, as this is a major publisher of most of the required reading books. I hope to see the percentage go from 50% to close to 100%.
    I am excited to hear that Apple is offering a iBook SDK, so professors can author their own material in an easy way. I know this will excite many professors at my campus. They have wanted a way to produce supplemental materiial, but currently limited by technology and time. I hope this will elicit creativity in them and spur them on to do research in each of their own disciplines.
    As I am 42 years old, I am of the generation that spans the analog and digital age, so I see the valid arguments for both sides of the e-book/paper-book arguments. I remember the torment of committing to my first e-text, as it was truly,"foreign" to me. The only thing I miss with paper books is being able to look at multiple pages at once, something you can't do now with an e-book.
    Although ther are many arguements on both side of the fence, e-books are here to stay. I welcome them as it allows me to have the world of knowledge at my fingertips. As a father, I look forward to both of my daughter NOT carrying roughly 30+ lbs of books in their backpacks. Yes I did weigh them, considering that my nine year old is on the small side, and the books put a considerable stress on her frame, and she and her sister are NOT allowed to have rollable backpacks! That might just make too much common sense, now wouldn't it?
  • On a side note, I'll take the smell of a new electronic device over the smell of a new (or old) book any time. That "electronicky" smell right when you open the box, that beats any paper smell for me.
  • "smells like sex in here"
  • What is missed is options... I like the ease of having many items to read in a package, but I miss the freedom to buy used and the ability to share my books. The eformat benefits publushers/sellers (itunes, amazon, & BN) more than the purchaser od the content-just my opinion...
  • Ideally your ebooks will already cost new - sellback so that you don't miss that at all. Share your books? With who, friends? You do this a lot instead of selling them back?
    Point them to the library? Which is really the crux of the article here. Are all these ebooks with different DRM and in different estores like itunes going to be cataloged? Who oversees the standards?
    Already we have so many wanna be authors in the kindle store selling works for free or cheap. I want to see all works carry forward and preserved but it's already fragmented. Google will save us, i'm sure. Well, at least if it's an android version. Perhaps libraries should just be aggregate data centers for all types.
  • I don't think it matters what you read as long as you read it.
    The problem with giving each kid an iPad in school is that kids drop things, lose things and have a bad tendency for "I don't know what happened to it." that could cost schools and parents money neither has to lose.
    How many cases of people stealing kids iPad we would see?
    These are the questions I would like to see answered before kids in my area are trusted with them. I pay enough in taxes already. I dont want to see any more wasteful spending that I will pay for later.
  • That is a good point for sure, especially for smaller kids. But, I'm sure if it wasn't tablets, it would be laptops eventually. It's going to happen, it's just a matter of how long. We're going to have to find ways to deal with it.
    Maybe (if the schools provide them) there could be special versions (iPad Scholastic) with chips or firmware to build in protections of various types so that they would be of no use if stolen. In other words, if stolen, they could be disabled remotely even if not connected to the Internet and/or limited in some way at a deep level so they wouldn't easily bring a price on the market.
    Damage is a problem, but a tablet is better than a laptop for sure in that regard. But, I just don't see technology not progressing due to these things. Like I said above, it is a matter of when. There are a lot of advantages, so we're better to figure out how to deal with the problems rather than put effort into resisting.
  • I think that a fiction 'book' has a better chance of success in any eReader (start at the beginning, work through the middle and when you get to the end, stop) than a non-fiction one, like a text or reference book, where the reader may be encouraged (or wish to) refer to earlier or later material or footnotes, better found by flicking through real pages.
    I use both real and virtual books (again, the virtual ones are almost all fiction), though the pleasure - visual and tactile - of reading a real book is my first choice.
    And, as with, say, digital photography, I worry that we are in real danger of leaving behind no lasting legacy with this virtual world. I can still view photos that are over 100 years old and books that are even older, but one electronic hiccup or technology change (floppies or, for that matter, CDs anyone?) and our visual and literary output is vapor.
  • I agree that some of the readers are better setup for fiction (esp. pop-fiction) books, and that the limitations (ie: DRM) on the formats favor that kind of reading. The Kindle, for example, up to the new 'touch' versions would have been horrible for a student (though schools tried to use them) because taking notes with that interface was incredibly difficult and time consuming. This problem goes away with a tablet like the iPad.
    I just don't get the comment about reference works though. IMO, the e-book is vastly superior. You can search it (try that with a paper book!). You can pull up a list of all your notes (sure, you can thumb through a paper book and look for notes and highlights fairly quickly... but as quickly as seeing a clear list?). Eventually, you'll probably be able to search across all your books, which will be really handy. I agree about footnotes, but to solve that, they just have to use a 'pop-up' rather then endnote style (which I hate in paper books too!).
    I do agree on your final paragraph. I've talked to people in archival who share this concern. With enough of a technology disruptions, much could be lost on a long time scale.
  • I think it's important to contrast ebooks not with books in general but with modern books as one can buy them today. I find modern printed books mostly lack the romanticized qualities you find in older books -- smell, texture, unusual fonts and well-crafted bindings. Our culture of Wal-Mart cost and quality cutting got to the printing industry years ago. Old books are as available as they would otherwise be, and I think ebooks hold up pretty well to the real alternative of most modern printed books.
  • I think it depends on the book. Modern textbooks, say, would be perfect for the electronic book treatment, as Apple is showing us. Any extra bandwidth in the learning process is always good. Adding interactivity and a little animation adds some of that extra bandwidth to what otherwise might be a dry, terse reading exercise.
    On the other hand, fiction old and new, and the classics may or may not work well as interactive electronic books. The artistic use of words and language should be enough to hold the reader's attention. And in some cases it's best for the reader's mind to create its own images.
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  • The sound of "metal" rusting will be deafening...
  • The only thing that would motivate me to move to an electronic textbook would be if the price was significantly less. I'm a student and one thing that amazes me is that people still buy textbooks from the campus bookstores. I usually go to find out who has the books I need for the cheapest price, then sell them back at the end of the semester for a profit, since I got them so cheap from the site.
  • double post sorry