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The Real Freedom is in Paper Books

In recent years, for various reasons, I have had to pack my books several times (moving residences or moving some of them to the basement to occupy less space at home). Having thousands of books means lengthy related tasks and heavy boxes to carry.

If all of my printed books were digitally squeezed into an ebook reader, I would carry minimal weight and could access them wherever I went; I would have my complete library at my fingertips. I could also free some space in my house. Nonetheless, I do not regret having purchased and carried my paper books.

Recently, I wanted to try an ebook reader and bought a number of ebooks, especially for traveling. However, I ended up also buying the printed edition, even though this meant carrying they physical books back and forth between Europe and Asia.

Printed books offer a freedom that is still unsurpassed by digital technology. Now that summer is approaching, I can leave my printed books on the beach without fear that they will be damaged by sand or a ball, or be stolen. Coffee and other liquids can stain a paper book but the book will not be completely damaged.

Having a baby around paper books is not a problem. The baby may tear a few pages, stain or step on the book, or use the book as a toy, but the usefulness of the paper book remains. A paper book as an “analogical” technology degrades gracefully, but digital technologies either work or do not work.

Reading a printed book in the sun is easier than reading a screen, despite the best and most impressive advances in screen technology.
When electricity will be interrupted because of energy prices, and I cannot recharge my electronic gadgets, my paper books are still available for reading.

When the failure of only one electronic component jeopardizes an entire ebook reader, my paper books are still around, even though they may be yellowish, damp, or have torn pages.

If I cannot afford to upgrade to ever more sophisticated iPads and Kindles, my paper books will not need an upgrade. When the rare earth metals required for electronics are gone, paper books will be cheaper than their electronic counterparts, when considering the price of the hardware. Paper is a highly renewable resource if used with the right criteria.

A few companies control the ebook market and governments are able to know and potentially control the types of books we read by deciding on what’s good and what’s not good and by interfering with our uploads. If this happens (we are not that far from its occurrence), I will still be able to read my preferred paper books. Prohibited or controversial paper books have always been available, even under the most repressive regimes (though with greater difficulty), whereas electronic information can be easily traced and blocked.

My printed books simply need to be carried, whereas an electronic reader requires the right lighting conditions, electricity or batteries, cables, and often an Internet connection.

My printed books age with me, whereas an ebook reader becomes obsolete and needs to be replaced at regular intervals. My paper books do not blink, do not require Internet connections, do not see others’ annotations and comments, do not connect with readers’ social networks, do not talk, and do not do anything except exist to be read.

Thus the words from a printed book can resound inwardly because of the surrounding emptiness, like the beats from a well-tuned drum.

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E-clipsed Books

Ebook readers and announcements of titles are multiplying. After at least 15 years of false starts, this time it looks like ebooks are going to take over, driven by products like Amazon Kindle ebook reader.

When I was a book publisher I used to go to the Frankfurt Buchmesse. It was around 1993 when there were big announcements about “The Year of the E-book” (it was spelled with a hyphen then), which would soon replace paper books.

The ground floor of the book fair was dedicated to ebooks, but publishers didn’t really rush to convert their titles into a digital format. At that time, as a young publisher of computer science books, I blamed the conservative nature of the traditional publishing industry and experimented with digital formats. As it happened with other digital publishers, the market didn’t answer positively. So I blamed the conservative nature of the reader instead and kept publishing paper books, which were successful.

There were more waves of the craze for ebooks, a bigger one a few years later. We tried to believe in that second wave as well, but even this time there wasn’t much interest. In the meanwhile the Internet came into our lives and I noticed, starting from the US, that something was changing in the traditional book publishing industry.

Books were becoming smaller and the writing style more journalistic. Some publisher colleagues told me that “the reader doesn’t have much time any more to read complicated and big books, as they are used to Web pages,” or that “the writing style should be more catchy and entertaining.”

I won’t blame the Internet for this per se, but for sure it represented the low point of the prolongued attention capacity, already weakened by fast TV edits, by the remote control and the number of available channels and overall by the information overload industry.

The new generations of ebook readers improved much on readability and it seems that this new wave is the one which is finally about to grow in popularity. The thing is, it won’t be the same thing about books any more. Even though ebooks won’t substitute paper books, they will get an important share of the traditional book market, which will probably reduce – as we have already seen about the traditional newspaper market.

But…things just change and we shouldn’t be afraid of that, right? We shouldn’t be overly attached to the traditional media but be open to technological advances, as the techno-enthusiasts (and the ones who have direct economic interests in it) tell us.

True, but it could anyway be interesting to know what’s going to change in our inner reading experience through ebook technology. Ebooks will probably set different standards about length and writing style, and much time won’t pass before they will “open” to links and to connecting with other people who read the same book, making the reading experience more social and shared. Maybe videos will be available when the ebook readers technology will improve. Advertisement will come too. Ebook readers and publishers are going to compete for developing more and more features, “enhancing” the experience.

Wonderful, but some things give their best with less instead of more. For instance, organic food is healthier because there are no preservatives, no chemicals, no GMO, no colorants.

Ebooks won’t make books extinct: they will just eclipse the inner experience of reading books, in spite of what tech people say that supports don’t matter. What are usually taken into consideration are the technical issues around clarity of the screen, available memory, and the facility of reading in different light conditions. But since many technologically-oriented people don’t give much attention to the subtle inner changes, for many of them it’s probably the same. What matters for them is what we can do, not what is being done on us by technology.

Being alone with a book, electronic or paper or whatever, with no Internet, no links, no videos, no electronics and nothing and nobody else popping up on the screen while we read, will probably become rare, but it is that very solitude which can give non-interrupted mutual feedback between the words, as the semantic bricks of our awareness, and the depths of the soul.

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