When I first got a Kindle in December of 2010, I was so excited. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to buy a book and be able to start reading it instantly. And e-books were cheaper! I can’t resist a good bargain. Not to mention that that Kindle made travel far less of a back-breaking endeavor. I thought it was brilliant.
I read a lot of books on my Kindle over the next few years. I occasionally checked them out from my public library, although the selection was limited, the good stuff always had a long hold list, and a few times I wasn’t able to finish the book before it disappeared. I bought plenty of books, and found services that sent advanced reader’s copies of not-quite-published books for free. But in the last year my feelings about e-books have been souring.
The first thing to start making me a little fidgety is the whole ownership question. I knew that I didn’t actually own any of my Kindle e-books from the beginning, but I allowed myself to ignore the issue. But I hate the fact that I can’t legally lend an e-book to a friend, and that even under the rare circumstance that it’s “allowed” it’s for brief periods of time determined by the software, not by the reader or book owner. And I brindled at the terms that forbid me to migrate my books into a different format and read them on a different device. I hate being told what I can and can’t do.
Then I saw a few notifications that a book I’d previously purchased had been “updated.” Updated? I looked to see whether an errata had been added to the book, but none of the changes were obvious. As someone who cares about the integrity of the written record, this is unsettling. I know it reeks of paranoia, but I have images of history books and political works being altered to reflect majority opinions, or at least the opinions of the strongest shareholders.
Over time, I also started hating the intangibility of my digital library. I never felt that I had a sense of what books were part of my collection. I couldn’t remember buying things that were there, and worse, I often couldn’t remember reading them.
This has been the final nail in the coffin of e-books. My retention of digital material is much, much worse. For me, the first indicator of this was the realization that I didn’t have a physical sense of where a particular idea, phrase, or scene was in the book I was reading. When I read on paper, I can often recall where on the page something occurred, which makes it much easier to go back to it, and also makes that idea more real and concrete somehow. The physicality of reading a print book makes its content more solid in my mind. Ferris Jabr wrote about this over a year ago in Scientific American, saying “When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.”
Jabr’s article points to many studies that have been done showing that reading a physical book is better for reading comprehension and retention, and nothing but my own anecdotal experience has proved that for me.
In the Library where I work, we’ve been building our e-book collection rapidly. In general, the default format for purchasing books at this point is to purchase them digitally. While there are many positive aspects of this for our collection and for the Library, I can’t say that I believe this is the best choice for our students. Several people have claimed that our students prefer them, but we have no evidence of this. And I’m not sure we should let students’ desire for convenience trump their learning experience. I’m a big meanie like that.
I never thought I’d be the person to take up arms for the print book, but the more I learn about learning and the act of reading, the more I want to fight for our print collection. And while my husband may sigh in distress about the size of my personal library, I know that for myself, I’ll be buying a lot fewer e-books in the future.