Physical Books vs. E-books: How is technology changing our reading habits?
by Becky Tandy
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about whether print or digital books are better. Although I typically read print books, I argued that it’s very convenient to have possibly thousands of books on one device, especially with a subscription service such as Kindle Unlimited. But they made an interesting counterpoint: does this unlimited access actually devalue the books we read?
In a previous blog, we discussed the popularity of physical books and e-books in terms of sales data. Now, let’s consider what benefits they provide and the value they have in the modern world.
Why do so many bookworms cling to physical books, but others carry their e-readers everywhere they go? Do different types of books hold different values in our society? Let’s look at why people enjoy each type.
Why do we value physical books?
As the traditional form of reading, there are many reasons why people love print books:
- Some studies suggest that we may find it easier to read, remember information, and navigate text when reading physical books.
- Despite the environmental cost of book production, there are several ways to reduce its impact, such as borrowing from friends and libraries or buying from second-hand bookshops.
- Owning a collection of your favourite books can be an expression of your personality and interests, or even functional decor in your home, which the pandemic popularised in the form of bookshelf Zoom backgrounds.
- There’s just something nice about holding a book when you read. The physicality and the sense of progression as the number of pages left slowly decreases are a great part of the reading experience.
What benefits do e-books offer?
There are plenty of pros to reading e-books that show why people are increasingly embracing this type of book:
- They are easily portable — it’s really convenient to have every book you own on one small device in your hand.
- They are also more accessible to those with visual impairments; you can adjust an e-book’s font, size, colour, layout, and more to make reading easier and more suitable to your needs.
- You can search within the book. This is useful for when you read something and want to show a friend, but later struggle to find the right page in a print book, as they all look the same.
- Anyone can publish an e-book, which makes publishing more accessible to authors whose stories might not be supported by traditional publishers or who might not have the means to self-publish physical books.
- E-books reduce the environmental impact of the publishing industry.
How might e-books devalue reading?
My friend thought that e-books could devalue the content we consume because of our tendency to binge-read, which I discussed in greater detail here. Binge-reading, while common for readers of print books, seems to be facilitated even more by e-books and digital platforms.
My friend argued that bingeing is an easy way to pass the time, but its value to your mind isn’t as great as more purposeful engagement with media. A study into binge-watching proposes a similar idea — that bingeing a television show decreases enjoyment and lowers long-term retention of its content.
Kindle Unlimited presents authors with a model that rewards them for the number of pages read on the platform, which suggests that quality is less important quantity. As a result, some authors focus on writing as a “production”, catering to binge culture, which is a different approach to that of most traditional authors, who consider writing a book to be a passion project.
Similarly, readers can take advantage of Kindle Unlimited’s enticing all-you-can-read offer for one monthly fee. As they pay a monthly subscription instead of buying individual books, there’s less of a commitment to read a whole book — if you’re not paying for that content specifically, it doesn’t matter if you read one chapter and then abandon it.
And the consensus is…
Whether e-books devalue reading really depends on your approach to it.
I personally believe and love that there’s something you can learn from every book, fiction or nonfiction, that can impact your life and how you view the world. This means I try to select books I’m interested in quite specifically. Although there have been books that I simply couldn’t put down, refraining from bingeing, building anticipation, and allowing myself to reflect on the book as I read creates a better experience, so I make use of subscription services far less.
But for many other people, reading is a way to unwind — they just want something fun and casual to dip into, and aren’t concerned whether their book is a literary masterpiece, which can make e-books more worth it.
The accessibility of e-books
As mentioned, e-books are increasing accessibility in terms of publishing opportunities and for those with sensory impairments, which is an incredible thing.
However, there is an undeniable privilege in being able to access e-books, too. Reading them is not as simple as paying a few pounds per book — you also need to buy and power a device to read them on, and that is potentially hundreds of pounds that people may struggle to afford. For people with financial difficulties, libraries provide access to a great range of reading materials, but when the world locked down and libraries closed, where could they turn?
Perhaps in the future, we’ll be able to distribute e-readers so that everyone can access and benefit from digital books in the same way; it could increase literacy rates and make people’s lives more enjoyable.
If this becomes possible, then I do believe that e-books could hold great value in our society. But for now, I think the print books and services provided by libraries generally benefit more people.
So, which is more valuable?
There’s a place for both print books and e-books in the world, and neither one looks like it will be wiped out by the other. E-books offer convenience and greater accessibility for readers with different needs; in terms of travelling, environmental impact, and the range of books available, I prefer e-books. But buying second-hand books and owning a personal curated collection also brings me joy, so I don’t see my use of print books decreasing either.
Who knows? With technology becoming more accessible and younger generations being more exposed to e-books in their childhoods, maybe they’ll start seeing them as the norm and print books as a novelty or collectible.