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Are printed books an endangered species?

6 May 2014

We often read stories to the effect that printed books are an endangered species, and will soon become extinct.

But according to this article, that is very far from the truth — Data Point: People Still Like to Read a Good (Printed) Book – Digits – WSJ:

Given the news coverage, you’d think the conversion at last of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” into lines of ones and zeroes was some kind of nail in the coffin for the printed word. One of the last holdouts finally turned.

Not quite. Of the people in the U.S. who use the Internet, 46% say they still only read books that are printed, according to data from Harris Interactive that was charted by Statista. Another 16% say they read more printed books than e-books.


I only once read an e-book all the way through.

It was just before Western Hallowe’en a couple of years ago, and the people on the Coinherence-l mailing list for discussing the works of Charles Williams naturally started to talk about Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve.

I don’t have a copy — it’s out of print — and it would be too much schlepp to get in the car and drive 10 km to get a copy from the university library, so I downloaded one from Project Gutenberg and read it on screen.[1] I like having copies of favourite books in electronic format, preferably Ascii, for purposes of quoting and reference, but not for reading.

Why bother having a copy on your own computer when you can look up any book, including obscure ones, on Google Books?

But Google Books is a snare and a delusion. You can’t copy a paragraph or even a couple of sentences for quoting, and if you cite the URL where you found it, other people more often than not can’t find it. Google Books has much promise, poor performance. Project Gutenberg beats it hands-down.

It’s not just fiction, but software manuals too.

One of the reasons I still use MS Word 97 rather than the latest version is that I got a book on it, which I read in the bath, and so learnt to use it. I’ve never seen a hardcopy book on LibreOffice, and so I’ve never used it much. I had Evernote on my computer for some years, but never really used it until I found a hardcopy book on a sale that told me how to use it. If I’d found a similar book on Microsoft’s OneNote I might have preferred that, but I didn’t, so I’ve stuck with Evernote.


[1] All Hallows Eve may have been reprinted, but I haven’t seen a copy on sale in any bookshop in South Africa since the 1960s. And even back then the only place you could buy them was in the old Vanguard Bookshop in Johannesburg, which vanished long ago.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 May 2014 10:05 am

    I far prefer real books, but the reality is that e-books are often cheaper (or free) and one doesn’t have to pay postage on them, which can be substantial if ordering from the other side of the world. And sometimes I need a book quickly – for example, I have all of Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou’s recent books on the Kindle app on my laptop because I needed to get them quickly to use in preparing Evangelion. But I particularly don’t like reading books on my laptop and think it would be worth investing in a Kindle in the hope that I’d be able it more as a book – away from my desk and the internet!

    I still prefer real books – and as a bookbinder have a vested interest in them – but sometimes one has to be realistic.

  2. Ben permalink
    6 May 2014 2:27 pm

    I also prefer real paper books, but with my constant traveling, weight becomes a big factor. After investing in the Kindle Ereader, I have found it is much easier for me to find and source information without straining my eyes. Reading on the computer or iPad is just dreadful! However, the paper books have a much wider variety, especially when looking for history and theology books, so I’ll always have a full bookcase (or three) at home.

  3. 6 May 2014 4:22 pm

    Hi, Steve

    Personally, I prefer ebooks for convenience, although I appreciate the feel and smell of a printed book. I actually don’t think I’ve read a printed book in about three years!

    My eyesight is rather bad, so with an ebook, I can adjust the font size, background colour, and brightness of my tablet to my optimal reading style. For example, on my tablet, I read white text on a black background, with the backlight set very low so that the text feels more light grey than white. I find that that’s easiest on my eyes. My wife, on the other hand, prefers black text on a white background, with very loose margins and line spacing, but uses a slightly smaller font (my margins and line spacing are very tight, but the font I use is pretty large).
    Then there’s the advantage of me being able to keep pretty much my entire library of books on one little tablet. They’re all backed up to the cloud, so should I ever lose my tablet, I can still get all my books back (contrast with someone breaking into your house and stealing all the books off your bookshelf). Of course, there’s also something really amazing to me about the fact that I’m reading a thousand page book at the moment, but it only weights a couple of grams, and is just over 10mm thick! I’ve almost always got my tablet with me, so I can whip it out and read a couple pages whenever I have a spare moment.
    If you’ve ever tried to read an ebook on a computer screen, then I can understand why you didn’t like it! I’ve tried that before as well. It just feels weird, is tiring to the eyes, and puts a strain on your back and arms. If you have a tablet or dedicated ebook reader, it feels much more natural, and you get used to it really quickly.
    The cost aspect, that Macrina mentioned above, is also a huge plus for me. Just by way of example, Heritage of Deceit (my latest book) will cost R10.65 as an ebook, but no less than R70 (plus shipping) as a paperback. And you’ll have to wait for it! There’s just no comparison. Of course, you do have to get over the initial outlay of a device on which to read the books, and that can be expensive, but you only ever need pay it once.

    Compare all this to the disadvantages, the only ones I can think of, anyway:
    * Can’t read in the bath: Well, for me anyway, I never did like reading in the bath. I can’t see well enough without my glasses, and with my glasses, they get all foggy. Plus, generally when I’m in the bath, I’m pretty rushed. 🙂 But if you want to, I hear you get nice water-tight bags for your Kindle, and probably other tablets as well, although I haven’t tried them.
    * Your battery could run flat: Well, yes, that is a concern. But if you have a tablet, and all you use it for is reading, then these days you’ll probably get about a week on a charge. If you have a dedicated e-reader (like an actual Kindle), your battery could last you up to a month!
    * Like the smell/feel of books: This is a biggy for me, I must admit. But you get used to it. My tablet is still smaller than an A4 book, and when I read, I hold it like a book, so it’s very similar. The only difference really, is that I tap to turn pages, instead of actually turning them! I also have a nice leather cover for my tablet, which gives me a nice leather smell while I’m reading. Not exactly like paper, but it makes me feel good anyway. 🙂
    * You can’t sign an ebook and give it to someone: Okay, I have no answer for that one. When I wanted to sell signed copies of my latest book, I had to get paperbacks printed (But see below for a comment about just that). :/

    I watched a video a while ago, where they asked Stephen King to weigh in on the paperback vs ebook issue. His comment was that paperbacks will continue to fall out of fashion, but not to worry because, in his opinion, books are not paper – paper is the delivery mechanism, and it’s similar to music being delivered on vinyl, vs Compact Discs, vs MP3 files.
    To which someone else replied that, in his opinion, printed books will become very much like music on vinyl is today: serious collectors will still collect them, and if you want to give special, signed editions, etc, to someone, you might get them a vinyl. I tend to agree with that.

    But this whole argument might be moot anyway, because guess what else is coming back? Audiobooks! They might just over-take both other methods of delivering books!

  4. aquilakahecate permalink
    6 May 2014 5:09 pm

    I’ve read 2 ebooks completely: my son’s novella-length SteamPunk thingy and Chris Stone’s The Trials of Arthur.(I’d recommend that second one by the way). Oh, and I had Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle In Time a few years ago, but I switched from Kobo to Kindle and can’t find it again. Sometimes I read a few poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as well.
    All the ebooks I read either on my phone or desktop, not having a dedicated ereader. It’s good for convenience when stuck in a queue or waiting for the Chariot to arrive, but it’s just not the same.
    So I’ve voted for “I only read real books”, as they *vastly *outnumber my ebooks.
    As Graham mentioned, the biggie is feel/smell. I like to hold a book and inhale the pages,literally. I like to get peanut butter on the pages (yes, that’s blasphemy) and mark the place where I fell asleep with a real bookmark.
    Lastly, there’s the book-lined study, which I’ve had one of since I can remember. I’ve gained and lost entire rooms full of books and a house is not a home without shelves full of books. A cloud is somehow not the same.
    I’m over 50 and the habit of reading real books may have a lot to do with this preference.
    Terri in Joburg

  5. aquilakahecate permalink
    6 May 2014 5:13 pm

    PS, just read another interesting article on this topic here:

  6. 6 May 2014 7:35 pm

    The other point, that I forgot to mention, is that it’s not so easy to share e-books, something I’d see as a big disadvantage.

  7. 7 May 2014 9:53 pm

    Books are friends. Ebooks are antisocial the way Facebook =’s anti-social networking. A book you can fold down the pages, underline, and mark up for your use to your heart’s content. It’s yours and allows you to abuse or treasure it your way. The ebook has some changes you can make… but not many.

    On the other hand, I find Ebooks are practical in terms of going on vacation with 5 books you haven’t started… but I find reading them a bit more tiring for some odd reason. Found I prefer ereaders that are more or less paperback in size and weight. Hmmmm. I also find it’s the sense that it’s far easier to judge your progress/savor rate from hard copy. And with a book, I can find my place… much easier… whether it’s a place where I last read or somewhere else entirely. I suppose you can organize your ereader library, but I haven’t found that the case so far: More like it organizes itself in a way that may or may not be your way.

    But the best thing about an ereader is that the book remains with you. Many of the books I read I’d otherwise give away when I’m done… but sometimes…. all that personalization bothers the next person. Oh well. No pleasing everyone.

    Bottom line: I expect ereaders and ebooks to solve their problems and become much, much better. Long ago, Xerox prototyped a paper thin screen… literally as thin as a sheet, that could keep the text on the page “on” in it’s off mode. Guess that got buried in the tech wars.

  8. aquilakahecate permalink
    10 May 2014 10:54 am

    PPS. Here’s a link to some LibreOffice paperbacks on Lulu!

  9. 12 May 2014 2:44 pm

    I read a lot. And I love words a lot. So I read online a lot and then, to relax, I read my books. Nothing like ’em in the world. I love running my hands across their spines as I walk past our bookshelves. There’s something special about the way books feel and smell but, most especially, the way they keep a warm place cozy on the sofa late at night when I can’t sleep.

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