The Library Basement
Reading under ground

In praise of dead trees

Published: 2010-11-27 12:13:00
Category: books Tags: technology

The Amazon Kindle and other electronic book readers solve two problems:

  1. For readers, they provide a convenient device on which any number of books can be stored, or even downloaded on the road, and provide a decent reading experience.
  2. For publishers, they solve the pesky problem of libraries and lending among friends. In other words, e-readers make it so that people have to buy every book they read.

As far as #1 goes, more power to the consumers. I'd love to be able to have a huge stack of books with me at any time in a small package. But #2 is where the problem lies for me. Nobody should be surprised by this coming from a blog with "library" in the title.

First of all, I am not going to argue from the aesthetic experience of reading books. Some people like the feel, weight, and smell of genuine books. Other people prefer to have a sleek and lightweight gadget on which to read books, papercut-free. As a public transit commuter, I admit that I would much prefer to carry an e-reader. Big bulky books bring bad looks on the bus. On the other hand, I do appreciate the variety of book smells (with the notable exception of mildew), and there is something appealing in the act of physically turning pages, especially near the end of a book. But I do not think that aesthetic considerations are most important here.

The important aspects of e-reader devices come from the restrictions which digital text place on the reader. Because of the digital restrictions management put on e-book files, you cannot share books with your friends. You cannot borrow them from the library. You cannot make a copy in a different format. That is exactly what the publishers and proprietors of e-readers want. Content providers want each consumer to be in a silo. Every good and work they want to consume would be purchased directly, and sharing would not be possible, since every purchased would be bound to the original consumer.

Clearly these restrictions are disadvantageous for us (the "consumers"). Libraries provide an important function in our society - allowing knowledge and culture to be shared for free amongst everyone. And there is something to be said in favor of loaning a favorite book to a friend. I currently have several books loaned out to friends, and in turn I have some of their books. Books are also good from an environmental standpoint, because they are a durable good which do not require any additional material or energy after their initial manufacture.

I like e-reader devices. Perhaps some day contemporary works will be published in a digital format without restrictions. If that happens, I'll be first in line to buy an e-reader. Until then, I'm content with the tried and true form of dead-tree books. And I think that paper books will hold their own in the market, because of their intrinsic merits.

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© Nathan D. Smith
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