Friday, June 10, 2011

'tis silly to ignore the flaws of e-books

E-books are here to stay. The subject of this log was prompted by the fact that next quarter, I am required to use the e-book version of the textbook for my Art History I class. Call me antiquated, old-fashioned, and behind the times, but I still prefer a printed book to a digital file.  Yes, yes, I fully understand the economics and the benefits of e-books, and I am not some kind of technological nihilist nut, but I would like to discuss a few disadvantages that I see with e-books.

Let me be clear: I enjoy and appreciate computer technology.  I have been writing computer code since the mid-1980s (ah, basic and pascal) when my father purchased for me a state-of-the-art Commodore 64.  My next purchase was modem, and in no time at all, my friend and I were surfing the internet back in 1984.  Okay, it was not called surfing back then, but we did check out all kinds of bulletin boards online.  Soon enough I was in college, learning Fortran and AutoCAD (a very early text based version, ugh). Before I knew it I was learning fourth-generation languages, eventually followed by html and Coldfusion, and even a little Php.  I once built a PC from parts cobbled together from 5 defunct machines, and I did the same with a scanner.  I’ve created relational databases, three-dimensional models and dynamic websites.  I write all of this to show that I am neither a digital illiterate, nor a technological novice.  And as much as I understand the advantage of technology, I find the e-book to be fundamentally flawed.  I’m not going to talk about e-book’s advantages, everyone know them, I want to point out, however, that by eschewing print and adopting e-books at this point, the reader loses something.

First of all, you cannot keep all of your e-books in one location, because it depends on what vendor you have purchased them from (this also brings up the point that I am very much against single purpose machines…a Kindle ought to be allowed to do much more than download and display a book). I do not like vendors telling me how I have to arrange my books and how I have to read them.  No one comes into my house and tells me that the paperback I bought on Amazon cannot sit on the same shelf (platform) as the hardback I bought at Barnes and Nobel.

When I am on a plane, no one comes by and demands that I shut off my Black Belt Magazine during take-off and landing.  Furthermore, if I leave my copy of The Gone-Away World in the seat-back pocket, I’m only out $14, not $200.  On the same note, when I’m reading on the beach, and a particularly large swell comes further up the sand than I expected, my $.99 cent Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep will dry out and I can continue to read it (this actually happened)…let’s see a Nook dry out and keep functioning.

What about sharing a great book? (I’m looking at you, Dan). Currently there is no way to share an e-book.  Personally this is one of the best things about the culture of the printed page, and until the powers-that-be do something about this I will continue to avoid, as much as possible, e-books.

As a researcher, I cannot tell you how many times while in a library I happened upon some amazing resource while searching for something else, simply because it was in the vicinity of my original goal…technology currently cannot replicate this experience.  Moreover, with the e-book, what real need will the researcher have of going to a library?  Who cares, you ask? While conducting research in the American Academy in Rome Library, I happened upon several eminent scholars, all of whom were interested in talking about my research and providing me with insights…how does that happen while sitting at home browsing digital files?

And finally – marginalia.  Depending on the book, I very much like to write notes, comments and exclamations in the margins.  While doing research, this is particularly helpful when going back over old material. Currently, this too is not possible with e-books.

Several of the deficiencies listed here can be overcome with future versions of e-books and their platforms, some cannot.  I will end with two thoughts: First, I assume that my dissertation will be among the last generation of printed versions, but I do take pleasure in the fact that it is sitting on the library shelf of a major research university and second, I cannot express how thrilled I was to receive in the mail, and hold in my hand for the first time, a printed version of my first scholarly co-edited volume on Pompeii.  Sure, I had a pdf file already, but the touch of the smooth finish of the glossy cover of my book, and the feel of the pages as I thumbed through it, can never be replaced by some 1s and 0s.


  1. Yes...I get it...I still have your copy of The Gone Away World. Sheesh...

  2. Aw. I just want you to read it already! It isn't like you are busy or anything...

  3. very intresting and a good read as well i do prefer a book over a ebook there is just something about it thats better.