Pick up that Kindle! One Reason E-Books are Better Than Print Books

I previously published a post that was a response to this post.  But in this post I want to kick about just one point made in Drop That Kindle! 10 Reasons Print Books Are Better Than E-Books. The claim in that post is:

1. Print books have pages that are nice and soft to the touch. Paper makes reading physically pleasurable. Reading an e-book, on the other hand, feels like using an ATM. And after staring at a computer screen at work all day, how relaxing is it to curl up at home and stare at another screen?

The aesthetics of a physical book is the most common reason I’ve heard from ebook haters. Their point is true, but sorry, it’s still makes you look like a Luddite.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love print (actually I’ll expand that to publishing). I spent a fair amount of my life building computer systems to create print (initially typography, eventually full color pre-press systems, the first fully integrated one). In figuring out how to create a print book I learned a ton about what goes into that. Typography is a fascinating and beautiful art (but sorry, another antique technology, hot lead is way inferior, in aesthetics, to modern typesetting). Color printing is a phenomenal technology and at the moment my monochrome Kindle is a terrible device for a gorgeous cookbook (yes, a tablet is good enough but I hate the power waste making light and thus the shorter battery lifetime, but as a color publishing device, including the possibility of adding sound and video, even interactive illustrations, a tablet has it hands-down over a static, even beautiful book).

I had to good fortune to show my prepress product at Drupa, in Germany, a gigantic trade show of all the technology for printing. All sorts of things I couldn’t even imagine were on display there (and readers just see the product of all this, go watch a binding or folding or cutting machine in action, there is a treat). And color, wow, I thought 4-color printing was cool, what about 8 or even 12 colors, or using multiple types of varnishes to create “depth” in the printing. Printing is a fantastic technology that can produce artifacts electronic devices have yet to duplicate. And a great job inventing all this stuff.

But I’m going to rebut this common claim, that touching paper and smelling ink (and moldy or dusty paper) is “physically pleasurable”.

First, this is partly a romantic view. Often reading a real book means wrestling with the binding, trying to get the entire page in focus of my aging eyes, arm fatigue holding that heavy thing up, getting enough light in a dim environment. As often as not it is NOT pleasurable to hassle with a physical book.

Second, “pages that are nice and soft to the touch”, but in a binding that, not so much. My first Kindle (the first generation) slick and unfriendly plastic, but hand-feel of the electronic devices has improved a lot. Plus, guess what, I can choose among a huge variety of covers for my Kindle. Its touch is just fine, thank you very much.

Third, tell me you’ve never gotten a paper cut with a book, where’d that little detail go in your euphoria about “soft to the touch”.

I’m sorry, touching dead trees is right up there with standard shifts in cars (vs automatics, which I resisted for a very long time too) or cotton vs synthetic (sorry my biking jersey out of synthetics is a whole lot more pleasant to wear than a T-shirt). Making a souffle with a whisk is fun, but frankly I’ll take my KitchenAid. I made bread and kneading dough is pleasing, but for a long kneading time, sorry I’ll again use my KitchenAid. Handwriting a beautiful note, a great skill, sorry I prefer a keyboard where I can easily obliterate my mistakes.

People denounce technology as cold and sterile and physical objects as warm and cuddly, but: 1) that’s not always true just on the facts, and, 2) it’s often a criticism of immature technology (tell me you want to lug around the books made on a Guttenberg press when paper was thick and heavy and the ink was blurry). The early plastic Kindle was short on tactile appeal but try a new one. EBooks are very young and the progress they’ve made in a very short time is huge. And makers of ebooks are not insensitive to these aesthetic issues and have made significant strides and will continue to. So comparing a very old and mature technology (and print is just a technology, not something magical or mystical) to a rapidly evolving, but still immature technology, ducks the point of which method of getting works (and images) to your eyeballs inherently works best.

So I’ll shift gears a bit and say that I mostly think the fondness for the physical book is just an expression of nostalgia for venerable old things and a rebellion against today’s life that technology creates. Even having created lots of technology I hate seeing people with their noses buried in their phones (their right though, more power to them) or taking stupid selfies with mediocre cameras (photography was another love of mine). The hectic pace of today’s world and even unexpected consequences like terror groups using technology for abhorrent acts. Yep, technology sometimes degrades our lives, as the price for the benefits it provides us.

And reverie for the old is entirely understandable. Once visiting Smithsonian I saw marvelous mechanical devices made of beautifully finished wood and brass (and remarkably accurate), no match for a modern computer but certainly a valued artifact in its own right. My first luxury purchase in life was a Nikon F camera. I dreamed of it for years, saved almost as long to purchase, and lovingly used it in my early photography habit. I still have it, almost certainly it works (they built ’em tough) if I could find film and processing. My first digital camera, while convenient, more flexible, and affordable didn’t hold a candle to my treasured Nikon. But my latest Nikon simply blows away my first one; it takes photos I couldn’t dream of doing with my old film Nikon. But I keep my old Nikon, now as just an antique and it brings back memories of the fun I had with it, how excited I was to be able to buy it, how carefully I protected it. But I wouldn’t trade it for my new one.

Technology can degrade products or it can enhance them. Technology is automatically better, even if it is almost always more convenient (where ebooks are the clear winner), but all that means is we need to put as much aesthetics into our current digital technology as we did in the older stuff.

I think we also lament the lost arts of the publishing process, beautiful handwritten drafts replaced with word processors, carefully typesetting with sloppy but resizable and flowable print, maybe even the writing process itself, getting the lines right in the author’s mind rather than innumerable easy-to-do revisions on the word processor. Yes, lost virtues, but still possibly we gain more than we lose (and after all as the reader it’s the final product I consume, not the author’s or printer’s process).

I once bought an electric saw with every attachment known to shape wood. The few things I made were junk. My dad with his old, but lovingly cared for, manual tools, had the skill to make things my fancy high-tech tools, but with no skill in my hands or eyes, could never produce. Books are electronic medical records or business documents, they are works of art, so naturally the art of the book itself is held in high regard by readers.

But is the reading process really impeded, I mean really once you subtract nostalgia and anti-technology attitudes (and is it the technology or how it changes society that you’re complaining about) is the printed book really a superior way to read.

Well, here’s the good thing. You get to have a book if you want and I get to have an ebook (and an occasionally printed book, for those types of books where ebooks are inferior). But perhaps, this is part of it too. I constantly hear how tablets will drive PCs into extinction. And I lament that. As a programmer (and other content creator) tablets suck (although as passive readers they excel). I look at a lot of dumbed-down software that has a much larger market on phones than PCs and hope my choices don’t disappear (and given the nature of mass markets they may). Some people may have revived 33s instead of giving into CDs but the choices sure are limited (and as CDs die out to downloads, it may get worse). So perhaps these holdouts for the book are trying to protect more than they realize and that is their choice – if they love books and hate Kindles, will someday Kindles make books be some uneconomical they’ll mostly cease to be available (I suspect this will happen).

And that would be shame. But lots of things from the past have disappeared and we can mourn their passing, but, sorry folks, wake up and smell the coffee – for better or worse it’s called progress and denouncing it probably won’t stop it. So I’d suggest you adjust your thinking and learn how to embrace the Kindle you’ll own one of these days and demand that its manufacturer put as many of those features you enjoy now with books in the replacement device. Let’s not have Kindles just be cheap and convenient and just barely good enough to accomplish their purchase – let’s demand that they be great.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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