Mark Bauerlein’s observations about the decline of e-reading and the “Persistence of Print” ring very true to my own experience. I have now tried on two separate occasions, and with two separate e-readers, to invest in digital books. Both times I just couldn’t do it. My Kindle Paperwhite is a fine device, elegantly crafted and certainly convenient. It’s not that the technology just isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s that its over-sophistication sours the experience of reading.
There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about e-books, except for the e-reader itself (which never changes and which one dares not mark up). Even the full-color e-books that you get on tablets look more like blog posts than books. That’s probably because, if we’re being honest, there is no meaningful difference between an e-book and a blog post. They both subsist on the same ether. Their ontology is identical, which means the ways I experience them are also identical.
For me, the pleasures of reading go beyond the printed words. A physical book is a physical experience, one that I come back to not just to be reminded of the text but also to be reminded of the pages, the binding, the cover, the underlining, etc. Books are truly owned, whereas e-books are merely “licensed” (if you don’t believe in this distinction, read this). The difference is not just legal, it’s personal. An ebook cannot be “owned” in the same way a physical book can, because its constituent nature is simply not own-able the way a printed book is. This is a big reason why book buying is such a happy event for readers. It’s one thing to know the words that are inside. It’s another thing to know the book as a material whole.
Speaking of book-buying—I suppose someone at some point is going to bring up the fact that ebook prices are just not very competitive? Unless you find one of those flash deals for $2.99, most ebooks I’ve encountered are not that much better off than the Amazon print price. If you live within a reasonable distance of a good used book store, that comparison gets even worse. There is no “secondary market” for ebooks, which means the price that you pay to download something to your Kindle is a fixed fee for licensing, and nothing more.
As tech goes, I actually admire my Kindle a lot. And there are obvious advantages of e-reading when it comes to traveling. But for my money, I prefer to have something to hold onto, something to shelve, and something to rediscover through dust, rather than just a dim backlight and a wifi connection.