My Love Triangle With Paper Books and Digital Books

I love reading. I love books. In an effort to reduce the clutter in my life, however, I am committing myself to a 100% conversion to a digital library by the end of this year. It is going to take considerable effort, and possibly quite a bit of cash to complete the task. I’m confident, however, that the reduction in stuff laying around and stacked on shelves will be hugely beneficial to my ability to focus. As I start on this journey, I catch myself wondering why I have such a hard time letting go of paper books. They aren’t that special, are they?

Paper Pollution

Paper. It is a necessity of every day life, filled with so many positive uses and applications. Books, newspapers, magazines, checks, workbooks, receipts, greeting cards, letters, envelopes, business cards, brochures, posters, the list goes on.

Yet, paper can be such a negative influence on our environment and wellbeing. Paper mills contribute to air, water, and land pollution through their production of paper; discarded paper is a major component of many landfills (about 35% by weight according to this Wikipedia article on paper pollution); and deforestation and many other environmental factors can be attributed to paper production. Even so-called positive paper recycling can be a source of pollution due to the sledge produced during deinking.

Paper Books Provide Comfort

So, why do we keep producing all this paper?

Simple. Paper provides sensory feedback. Our sensory receptors enjoy the opportunity to be put to some use. When we read a book that is made of paper, we get to experience multiple responses to the experience of reading a book. If it is a new book, we get to inhale the smells of the paper mill, the glue, and the ink on the page. If it is an old book, we get to enjoy the many aromas that only an aged, used book can have. That scent of knowledge, or adventure, or romance fills our nostrils and excites the brain. And that’s just the scents.

Paper books also provide us with the ability to use our hands; we get to touch, and feel, the pages. The paper may be smooth, with perfectly straight-cut edges, and neat typesetting; it may be rough, with uneven, old-world cuts on the edges of each page.

Paper provides a new visual experience with each new book. Some books use bright white stock, others sepia tones. Images on a printed page have the ability to feel as though they are jumping from the boundaries of the page, encapsulating us right into the story itself. Paper books allow us to fully immerse ourselves into the experience of reading the written words on the page.

Paper books provide us with the warm and fuzzy feeling that we love. They give us the mental impression that we are actually reading something of value. In our information-overloaded society, we read things constantly, mostly in digital form: emails, text messages, Facebook status updates, tweets, blogs, e-books, news articles, etc. None of these things provide us with the same depth of feeling that reading an actual book does. We can take notes in a paper book (with a pencil or a pen). We can tear pages out (if we really want to). We can let someone borrow a paper book, quickly, easily, and without any licensing hurdles to jump.

The Challenging Shift To Digital Books

Digital books have been around for many years; long before Amazon came out with the Kindle, PDFs were being distributed with information and knowledge for anyone willing to pay the price.

Digital books (often referred to as e-books) are creating a firestorm for publishers that are currently experiencing the same frustrations that the music industry went through with the advent of digital music. Unfortunately, it has taken many years for publishers (and authors) to see the light, just like it did for record labels and musicians.

The shift to digital books is by no means an easy one. Music probably had an easier go at the digital shift simply because music in a compact, digital, and transportable medium was in high demand. The difference between music and books: sensory reception. A CD has almost no sensory benefits. We don’t get to hold it when we’re using it, and we actually learn, rather quickly, that if we touch a CD the wrong way, it gets cranky and spews out audible nastiness that would ruin the happiest of people’s days.

It was a lot easier to let go of old music protocols. Books are a lot harder.

I have hundreds of books. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was some sort of book hoarder. One of my favorite past experiences was going to a local book resale shop, finding 50 books for less than $5 each, and buying them all. Sad to admit, I still have a few of those books, and I’ve never even opened some of them to the first chapter.

iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Oh My – They’re Changing Publishing

When the iPad came out, I immediately recognized (or so I convinced myself and my wife) that it would have a profound functional use for my business, my family, and me. I could show clients cool websites and other work. I could pull up websites without pulling out a huge laptop. I could read books and save a ton of money by purchasing the digital versions of them. So, naturally, I bought one.

I have all three of the major e-book platforms installed – Kindle, iBooks, and nook. I haven’t used nook yet, as I haven’t needed to, and I’ve found that typically I get better prices with Amazon, anyway. Admittedly, I don’t put a lot of effort into price comparison, but I like Amazon; they’re good to me. I use iBooks for the free books that I download from various sources, but only because I haven’t found out a way to get those same books into Kindle.

It is taking me a long time to force myself to get comfortable with the idea of using a digital device to read my books. I am a very tactile person, so I love the feel of a book in my hands. I love to go to a library and breathe in the aroma of knowledge. Some call it musky; I call it savory. Okay, maybe that is a bit of a stretch. I do struggle with letting go of the desire to put a book in my hands, though.

I’m not one for making specific or detailed predictions – probably why I’m not a gambler – but I have been known to fire off a general assessment of things to come. When I look at the future of books, I don’t see paper; I see RBG color values (device monitors). As minimalism grows more popular, and the concern for the environment actually takes root in those that are ready to put in the energy to make a difference, digital books on a mobile device as a replacement for shelves of books will become commonplace. It could be four years; it could be forty years. Either way, Star Trek predicted it right (and yes, I’m aware of how much of a nerd I look like for mentioning that).

The Problem With Digital Books

Digital books don’t pack the emotional quotient that paper books do. I have a first edition copy of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I bought it at a flea market 10 years ago. It’s old, in need of repair, and I love it. I don’t read it though. Heavens no, it’s too sentimentally valuable to me for that. I have two other paper copies that I have read a few times, and I have it on my iPad.

Sentiment builds a strong case against digital books. People like paper books for sentimental reasons, such as the situation I just described. People also have books that have been given to them, or handed down through generations. People simply do not have the same ability to do this with digital books. It is unfortunate, that some of the emotion that comes from sharing books with one another will slip away because of the expansion of the digital era.

I recently learned that Amazon has created a program that allows people to loan out their digital books to other Kindle users. This is definitely a step toward thwarting this problem, though I believe it will take some time before it becomes commonplace for people to digitally loan out their books to each other. Time will tell. Regardless of the implementation of digital books into our daily lives, their invention will forever change the way we absorb new knowledge and information.

Why I Love Digital Books

Though I see all the problems with digital books when compared to their older, more established, more comfortable paper counter-parts, I am fully behind the digital wave. I love the fact that I can find an awesome resource, like Feedbooks, download over 100 books for FREE, put them on my iPad, and read them at my convenience, all in a matter of minutes.

Instant gratification is one of my favorite things. When I want to learn about something, I don’t want to have to wait 2-3 days for the guy/girl in the brown truck and brown uniform to drop it off on my doorstep. I want to learn about it now. Digital books make that a whole heck of a lot easier.

I love that I can carry hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books with me in my own personal library, at all times, no matter where I go. I used to want the big personal library, with hundreds of books on shelves twenty feet into the air with a rolling ladder to access them. That just seems wasteful now. Now I want to be able to travel the world; and now I can do that without leaving any of my books behind.

Paper Books, The Apocalypse, and The Book of Eli

And yet, paper is what will save us during the post-apocalyptic times (assuming they get here…). If you have not seen The Book of Eli, and want to, be advised, I may spoil the movie for you here. I’m not sure yet. I’ll try not to, but no guarantees.

If we lose the ability to utilize electricity, or the Internet, as multiple doomsday movies predict, then all the fun of digital books will be tossed out the window in an instant. Granted, initially, this will probably be the least of our worries. But for those of us that don’t have a library full of paper books, we will lose access to all that knowledge, information, and human potential.

Without access to mentally stimulating knowledge and information, combined with heightened survival energy, we will lose our ability to think creatively and expand our horizons. Paper books are the only solution to this dilemma. With paper books, we can rebuild, we can relearn, and we can evolve, again.

So, while paper books may have their problems with pollution, bulkiness, and the ability to wear and age; they have a distinct place in our hearts and minds. Without paper books, we would lose connections with some of our oldest ancestors, and we would fall out of touch with who we are and where we came from. I guess this is why I have such a hard time letting go.