Books: Digital vs. Analog

Digital vs. Analog

Since the invention of the printing press, books have been a dominant and iconic paradigm in our culture and throughout the world. During my years in elementary and high school, the digital world was on the rise sparking the conversation: Are Books Obsolete. Over the last year (or 2 at the most) that the term "Book" has started to make the shift from a physical object to the concept of a written work. 

The number of gadgets available to read iBooks, eBooks, or whatever lowercase letter you want to throw in front of "Books", has increased dramatically over the last year. Off the top of my head there is: iPad; iPhone; Kindle; Kindle touch; Kindle Keyboard; Kindle Fire; Nook, not to mention the apps that are available to download for the tablet market. With this type of growth in a niche section of the market, it is should be safe to say the physical book is closer to obsoletion than ever before.

The debate over digital verse printed work is not new. A the same time this digital age that we are living in has heavily contributed to the amount of printed materials that we have (rather than pushing printing obsolete as was expected during the initial rise). Since the focus here is on books, I will try to stick to that conversation.

Before going any further, it will be helpful to understand the perspective in which this is being written. Reading is not a casual activity for me. I would never be found "curled up with a good book." Reading in my life is for the pursuit of knowledge. Learning how things work, or creating something that does is what fuels me. I particularly have a soft spot for technology, learning the latest and greatest in advancements; including how to do old things in a new books.

The arguments below will be broken into three categories: Microwave Society, Everyday Living, and Environmental Impact. The information is a mix of my opinion combined with information that I have gleaned while stumbling upon media on the subject.

Microwave Society

North American is very much a want-it-now focused culture. The comedian Brian Regan explains the "microwave society" well in his sketch about pop-tarts saying, if the minute in a toaster is too long you can zap-fry them for 3-seconds.

Our consumption of information is no different. If there is new information to be had, we want it now. Unfortunately the publishing process can not keep up with this type of demand. From the time a book is penned, edited, designed, formatted, and finally printed, then packaged and shipped, the information inside is very likely outdated, inaccurate, or culturally irrelevant (I have personally seen the latter in culture-orientated books). Moving to a digital format cuts out much of the time needed to get the information into the hands of the consumer.

Keeping published work current is very important in many fields. One that springs to mind instantly is education. Learning from beat-up, damaged, and out-dated textbooks was the story of my early education. Moving to a digital textbooks, which Apple Inc. is putting a lot of effort into, has great benefits. On top of being current and available at extremely competitive rate, the digital style textbook can accommodate different styles of learning with interactive features. It also allows the student to fully used the "book" by allowing note-taking and highlighting directly on the text.

The downside side to all of this leads directly to my next point...

Everyday Living 

Having affordable, up-to-date, and interactive textbooks is all well and good except for the consumer's start up cost. For example, if you want to take advantage of the features listed above, you will hand out $500 for the device (iPad) and $15 for each textbook. Did I mention that would be for each child you have enrolled in school. Suddenly the affordability factor is wiped from the table and the $100 refundable textbook deposit is looking great.

Then there is living with books, a two-sided coin (Rabbit-trail: if anyone finds a single-sided coin, please send it to me). Books are beautiful. Though we are told not to judge a book by its cover, a well thought out cover will begin to tell you the story before you even open the book. Chip Kidd explains this well in this TEDtalk while also briefly addressing the digital book phenomenon. Books are art that fill our furniture and spark conversations with their presence, a role that their digital counterparts can not fill.

The other side of the coin is: they take up space. The eReader very simply solves this issue. Having an untold number of books and a singular device that has been designed for portability out-benefits lugging bulky books around. 

The last thing to consider is the readability. This one is a toss up. Depending on your preference, or even down to the device you are looking at. The options available at the moment are the traditional printed book, LED back-lit device, or eInk technology. Personally, for periods of extended reading the real thins wins, hands down. Using and LED back-lit device will not allow me to read more than a couple of pages and leave me feeling "cloudy" afterward. The new eInk technology (as seen in the Kindle) is a great alternative to paper copy as it is just as friendly to read. The downside to such a device is its limitations for other functions.

Environmental Impact

Even though my passion is with the side of technology, in terms of the environment I side with the traditional book. I admit, that sounds backwards. Every years trees are fallen for the production of paper. While there have been great improvements in both the process and recycling factors of paper production, there is still a large environmental impact. However this digital age is not with out waste.

The crew over a produced the video below. While MJ is specifically speaking about the new iPad, most of the eReaders today would fall into the same category. So why is this so bad? When you are finished with a physical book you can proudly display it in your collection, read it again, or pass it on to a friend. For the eReader or tablet, once the new iteration is available on the market your device quickly loses value and, not too long after that, function. It is literally not good for anything accept hold a spot in the landfill (hopefully not, please recycle your devices responsibly).


While there are great benefits to grabbing an eReader and loading all the books you've ever wanted to read, there are drawbacks as well. Some of them the most basic things, like being able to fan through the pages remaining.

Is the age of the Book dead? If you ask me, not quite yet.  

What side are you on? Do you own an eReader? Or do you still thumb through the physical pages?

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1 Comment

Very interesting - I like what you have to say about "microwave society" and I think you're probably right when it comes to scientific/technology writing etc. I read mostly fiction which doesn't date itself in the same way. I do think digital textbooks are the way to go in the future though. i don't, however, ever see real, live books with covers going away. Most people I know who love books, still love their physical copies, even if they have an e-reader as well. Personally, if I love a book, I'll go out and find a copy I like to keep on my shelf. I like displaying, swapping, reading, and sometimes even smelling real books! I'm also wary of digital books because so far I'm not sure that they're beneficial for authors. The cut of a physical book price that goes to the writer is not large (for the average writer, authors like J.K. Rowling aside) and I wonder how writers will be affected by the lower prices of digital books. (As a reader though, I like lower prices. Conflicted!) Thanks for sharing this, Byron!

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