Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Why Hard Copy Books, Magazines, and Newspapers Are Better Than E-Readers

Source: Liam Quin (2003)

As a disclaimer, let me say the following: Different people have different media needs.  I recognize this.

As for me, I’m happy to read the newspaper online (if it is on a well designed website, like  I’m fine with reading blogs online and short pieces (under 1,500 words, say).   I frequently digitize public domain books so that I can keyword search them.  I build websites and love them; I blog. (Duh.)  So, I am not a Luddite.

Yet, I am just not sold on e-readers.  Sure, the iPad is an incredibly alluring piece of technology, and I have fiddled with a  Kindle and found it interesting.   But I don’t think e-readers are true replacements for hard copy books, newspapers, magazines.

My reasons for holding this viewpoint are manifold and diverse, so I won’t even try to fit them into a smooth reading narrative.  I’ll employ the lazy list approach.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I hope that folks will contact me to tell my the various ways in which I am wrong, wrong, wrong. Who knows, I might just be persuaded that an e-reader is worth buying.  For as my wife sensibly points out, “Wouldn’t moving be easier if we didn’t have to box up so many books?”  Yes, it would.

Reasons Why Hard Copy Books, Magazines, and Newspapers Are Better Than E-Readers

  1. Often I stick rolled-up magazines in my pocket and stroll somewhere.  I couldn’t do that with an e-reader.
  2. Magazines, newspaper, and books do not need batteries and cannot suffer software crashes or incompatibility issues.
  3. I often find it difficult to read for long periods of time when I am near a computer.  It is just too easy to put down my reading and surf the web or check my e-mail.  With an iPad or web-connected e-reader, I’d face these sirens more frequently, thereby cutting further into my reading.
  4. The disaster scenario #1: Often I like to read in bars. Having a piece of pricey technology next to a big glass of beer is just inviting a disaster.  And while I can leave a magazine, newspaper, or book on the bar top when I go to the loo, I’d be a fool to do that with an e-reader.
  5. The disaster scenario #2: What happens if I buy an e-reader, and in 10 years the maker is out of business or the book format it uses is obsolete?  In short, I might be screwed—my entire library could vanish. (The same could happen to a paper library, for sure—a fire could torch the collection.  But the former disaster seems more probable than the latter.)
  6. The disaster recovery hassle: Lose your e-reader, and you need to drop some serious cash to purchase a new one.  Then you need to re-download/re-install all your previous titles.  That’s a major hassle. One might here object, “But you have the same issue with an iPod.”  My response is twofold: (a) Yes, you do.  However, for me, the iPod provides a portability benefit that an e-reader doesn’t.  Specifically,  I mostly use an iPod when I am exercising—its a goad to work harder.  But, pumping iron while reading the latest copy of The New Yorker?  No, not so much. (b) I still have the compact disks of music that I used to load up my iPod. Why? Because I worry that the software that powers my iPod and PC could become obsolete in the near future.  Thus, my iPod didn’t eliminate CD’s; it merely made my existing music media more portable.)
  7. I can lend or give a hard copy book, magazine, or newspaper to someone.  Similarly, I can share a newspaper at the breakfast table with my wife and son.  No can do with an e-reader.  I’d need to buy an e-reader and attendant subscriptions for each of them.  That’s just crazy expensive.
  8. Scribbling marginalia in books and tearing useful bits from newspapers and magazines is easy.  Try doing that with an e-reader.
  9. Photocopying pages  of and creating PDF’s of books, magazines, and newspapers is easy—I’ve built quite the trove of research materials this way.  I don’t see how I could do that with an e-reader.  The iPad might allow one to cut, paste, and e-mail something one is reading, but egad that is cumbersome.
  10. Old books aesthetically appeal to me.  It’s wonderful to crack open and old volume and see the looping signature of a previous owner, their marginalia…. And the feel of the paper and the smell can be very pleasant too. (o.k., that makes me a bit of a bookworm and a  fogie, but I am what I am.)
  11. Many of the books I currently own are not digitized and they may never be migrated to an e-format.  They are just too esoteric or small market, or those who hold the copyrights just won’t let it happen (in my lifetime). So, I have to keep them.
  12. So far, I do not think illustrated books reproduce on an e-reader very well.  Maybe this will change one day.  Time will tell.
  13. Sometimes I like to read in the bathtub.  I’d be nuts to take an e-reader in the tub.
  14. This is a reworking of reason #7—both my workplace and my apartment building have free libraries that are stocked with books that people donate from their collections. No hard copy books, no more free browsing libraries.
  15. This builds off of reason #14—It’s such fun to rifle book shelves every once in a while and find something unexpected.  Get rid of hard copy books, magazines, and newspapers, and one gets rid of bookstores, used book sales, etc.  The thrill of exploration is reduced to staring at a computer screen.  Thanks, but I do that 40+ hours per week at work already.
  16. Used books are very inexpensive. Thanks to the Internet, I can shop easily for them from vendors around the world.  The other day I picked up a nice hardback for $5 (after shipping) from a seller in California.  I walk away from used book sales with armloads of 50 cents and $2 hardbacks (the proceeds of which benefit charitable causes.)  It’s a buyers market. I doubt any publisher would sell me an e-version of the same for just $5.  (But maybe I’m wrong.)
  17. If I really felt the need to read an e-book, why buy a pricey new piece of equipment do it?  I could look at it on a piece of technology I already own—my PC’s desktop monitor, or I could open my lightweight laptop flat and turn it sideways.  (Some folks even read on their phones, but that’s a bit too miniature for my taste.)
  18. Censorship: This story on the Ipad is very unsettling. Attach yourself to a book machine, and the book machine maker can control the content you can access. (Added July 28, 2010.)

On the whole, then, I cannot see getting an e-reader—not soon.  It could not replace my hard copy books, magazines, and newspapers.  Nor do I see it as a way to acquire books more cheaply.  (The upfront costs alone are so high that it would take a long time to recover any savings.)  Nor would it allow me to toss out one of my current pieces of technology (desktop computer, laptop, iPod.)  Ultimately, an e-reader just doesn’t really fit any of my media consumption needs.

At best, I could see using an e-reader to read true ephemera—which for me are silly spy and crime novels that I read once and then pass on to others.   But, as reason #7 indicates, I take pleasure in sharing books with others, so this pleasure would be lost if I switched to an e-reader.

Reader Comments and Critiques

(1) For the business traveler, the person who rides trains and planes frequently, an e-reader is great because it minimizes one’s luggage.  No toting newspapers, magazines, and books—just pack the e-reader and go.

(2) 9/28/10 update: A Wall Street Journal article suggests that the economics of e-books is hurting authors.  See Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, “Authors Feel the Pinch In Age of E-Books,” Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2010. So, quit kidding yourself, Katherine.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill West Bill West
    February 28, 2012    

    Agree 100% While I enjoy technology, but at the end of the day I look forward to the simple pleasure of reading a book. I also enjoying going to old used bookstores and library booksales, it’s almost like digging for treasure, you never know what books your going to find. And I agree that there is something very “1984” about e-books. Records of what books you purchase, as well as what newspapers and magazines you enjoy, are recorded and later used by marketing to focus new products on you via email. So one day hardcopy books may disappear, and we will all be poorer because of it.

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