The usual arguments for e-books boil down to these two: they’re “convenient” and “cheap.” You can have “thousands of books at the touch of a button on a practically weightless device.” That might sound alright, but after I spill these beans, you’re probably going to want to reconsider. I want to break down this argument for e-books and dig into it a little bit.
First, they’re cheap. Right? Wrong! If you consider the limitations imposed after point-of-sale, e-books look more like a scam. The concept of “buying” an e-book in and of itself is misleading, if not an outright farce. You don’t really “buy” e-books, you rent them. Think about it. When you buy a physical book, you can loan it to a friend, give it as a gift, display it on a shelf, or donate it to someone in need. In other words, you can do what you want with your own property. Can you do that with e-books? Nope. Because you don’t actually own the e-book, none of this is even a whisper of a possibility.
The problem is even worse if you’re a student. Some text books that I’ve used don’t even offer the option of a buying a physical copy, forcing students to buy a $200 access code for an e-book that can only be used through the publisher’s website and students may only have access to it for a year or even a semester. $200 is an insane cost of a rental! Not to mention there is absolutely no resale value for an e-book.
That’s not all. If you read the terms and conditions, you’ll see the full extent of the limitations that the publisher puts on you for purchasing an e-book. The service provider or retailer reserves the right to deny access to any e-book you’ve purchased and can even wipe your e-reading device. This has happened before. In 2009 Amazon deleted George Orwell’s book about government censorship 1984 and the classic Animal Farm from the devices of Kindle users who paid for it. Apparently, some copies of the book were illegally uploaded and sold. When amazon discovered this, they immediately deleted the books from their store and from the devices of everyone who purchased it. Amazon did refund them their money but some of the books had no other copies even available for purchase. This only exposes the lie that you “own” your e-books — you don’t.
And just as with any device that uses the internet, who really knows who may be watching? Amazon pays authors and publishers on the basis of how many pages are read; if they are actively tracking which specific pages you have and haven’t read, who knows what else they are tracking?
Second, they’re weightless. Okay, sure, but is that really what you want? Think about the whole experience of reading a book. Think about the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink, flipping through the pages or seeing it on your bookshelf. By using an e-book instead of a real book, you are missing out on all this — the whole sensory experience that e-books simply can’t replicate.
There’s more. Research shows that e-books don’t stick in our memories like physical books do. A 2014 study found that readers who used Kindles were less capable of remembering the plot and events in those books, compared to their paperback-loyalist counterparts. Researchers believe that this may be attributable to all the physical sensations that accompany reading a physical book.
This lack of retention could also be related to the digital nature of an e-book. Because you are reading the digital text on a tablet or smartphone, your reading experience is much more likely to be fragmented and your experience of the content constantly interrupted. Users are bombarded with visual distractions, notifications, little cues that cause readers to temporarily navigate away from the book. These little breaks while reading affect the reader’s focus much more than you think it does. Lack of focus dramatically reduces reading comprehension and memory of content. Physical books make it easier to concentrate.
The physicality of a book communicates more than you usually recognize. Think about turning real pages. You actually feel one side of the book gradually becoming thicker and heavier as you approach the final chapters. Physical sensations build anticipation for the ending. With an e-book, sure you get to see a numerical countdown of how many pages are left, but that doesn’t create the same anticipatory sensation. And, the countdown doesn’t tell you how many of those pages were acknowledgements, author’s bio, an index, or some other thing nobody cares about; whereas, with a physical book, you can so easily flip to the last few pages and see for yourself.
Think about it. Do we seriously need more screens in our lives? Give your eyes a rest, people! Literally — the light emitted from screens has been proven to cause problems for your eyes, too. Reading before bed helps you unwind, de-stress, escape from the world of screens that you interact with constantly all day. A 2009 study found that just 6 minutes into reading silently your heart rate slows down and tension in your muscles begins to ease. Reading a physical book helps you relax and fall asleep; e-books, on the other hand, make it harder to fall asleep. According to the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, repeated uses of devices like mobile phones and laptops have been linked to higher levels of stress, fatigue, and even depression in young adults.
So, when you look at the “cheap” and “convenient” claims more closely, they don’t look nearly as convincing. You have to make up your own mind, of course, but it sure sounds like a scam to me.