Digital Books Have their Place

But Print Books Should Never Become Akin to Dinosaurs

I know that as a young adult (I am 24), I should embrace all things digital, and by and large I do. I love shopping online, wasting hours on Facebook, playing with new apps, and texting people which seems so much more convenient and less intrusive than calling them. But e-books are where my digital devotion starts to waiver.

I will admit that e-books have their advantages, especially for me as a blind person. I cannot read traditional print books. I can tolerate audio books if the reader has a pleasant voice, but I retain what I read better if I can read it for myself in braille. But braille has to be embossed on thicker paper, and requires a lot more space than print. The same book that you can hold with one hand often requires multiple volumes that fill an entire shelf in braille. As you probably can imagine, this means that braille books are very expensive. (As a child, most of my books were provided by nonprofit charities that produced braille books and sold them at half what it cost to produce them.) So I should not throw stones because I actually read a lot of digital books on a special computer that allows me to download books and read them on what is basically a braille screen. Without digital books, I would not have access to as many books as I do. Even if cost were not an issue, the truth is that if just the school books I will be using this semester were in hardcopy braille, our house would be overrun.

Print textbooks are ridiculously expensive for sighted students too, not to mention heavy. So I can understand why colleges especially, but even high schools like the idea of eventually going exclusively digital. Digital books are far less expensive and would make backpacks far lighter.

However, there is also peace of mind in having a hardcopy print book in your posession, even for me as a blind person. Pretty much all colleges have a disability services department that will provide digital book files for any blind students. However, publishers require that the blind student still buy the print book and show the receipt to disability services before the digital files can be given to the student. My computer has always been very reliable, but I do rest easier knowing that if the computer were to crash, or there was a problem with the digital file, I could always ask a family member or friend to refer to my print copy of the book.

But I hope that even sighted students will always continue buying print books too. They do not have to take these books with them to class by any means. I love the idea of sighted students using an access code included with their book to access the book on their laptop or tablet during class and leaving the print book at home. But if everyone went exclusively digital, with no backup print book at home, and some calamity like an extended power outage or cyber attack rendered everyone’s computers useless, we would all be brought to our knees. As expensive and heavy as print books are, they never run out of battery power, freeze, crash, become corrupted or get infected with scary viruses. I hope that my generation will not take for granted the peace of mind in having a trusty paper book to turn to and read by good old-fashioned sunlight or candlelight in the event that technology lets us down.

There are also a few occasions where it would not be wise to rely on digital books, and I have a few paper books in the basement for such occasions. The most obvious situation I can think of is the beach setting.

Imagine you are lying on a beach, enjoying a wonderful book, when a sudden rogue wave drenches you and the book you are reading. If it is a paper book, you could get it far away from the water and possibly resume reading it after the sun has a few hours to dry it out. If the book is swept away or damaged beyond repair, you may have to replace it, which would be a hassle as it would cost you a little money you weren’t planning to spend. If the beach you happened to be at isn’t near a bookstore, you may have to make do with a different book or activity for the rest of your beach day. But if this had happened to a digital book, the outcome would be so much worse. People love computers and tablets because they can store a whole library of books on them, not to mention basically live their lives through them. I am no exception to this. My braille computer is what I use to check e-mail, look up contacts, surf the internet and complete all of my school assignments. So if something happened to my computer at the beach, the one book I was enjoying so much before the catastrophe would be the least of my worries. A catastrophe involving my digital device would mess up my whole life, just as it would for you if something happened to your computer or tablet. My braille book would be more costly to replace than your print book, but this extra cost would still be nowhere near the cost of replacing my whole computer in terms of both money (around $5,000) and in terms of the time it would take to re-configure my settings, re-download all of my books, or redo anything I forgot to back up. Fortunately for you sighted folks, the cost of replacing your computer isn’t near as steep, money speaking. You can get a Kindle Fire HD starting at $139. If you happened to be reading from a college textbook on the beach, replacing your tablet may actually be cheaper than replacing the textbook. But with the exception of college textbooks, I rarely see books that cost more than $20. So for sighted folks as well, print books offer the peace of mind of enjoying things like a boat ride or day on the beach, knowing that if something happens to the book you are reading, it is relatively inexpensive to replace, and only that book will be effected, not your whole life.

Even when I am not in a high-risk setting like a beach, sometimes I just like to pull out a paper book to just have a break from the screen. Experts recommend this for sighted people because screens strain people’s eyes in ways that good old-fashioned paper does not. But while the risk of eye strain is not applicable to me, when I am feeling stressed out, it is restorative to put the screen, yes even the braille screen down, and just read a book the old-fashioned way. Perhaps since our computers store our whole lives, at the same time we are reading any book on a screen, even what is supposed to be a pleasure book, it is inevitable that the screen on our lap will be a constant, nagging reminder of another assignment saved on that computer that we really should be working on instead of reading this book, or an e-mail we should be following up with. But when you read a paper book, that book is all you have immediate access to, and sometimes to restore ourselves, I think undivided attention to a good book is what we need. I hope it is a means of escape we will always have.

I can also speak from the perspective of an aspiring author regarding this subject. Unable to find a summer job, I decided to spend this summer fulfilling a dream I have had since my elementary school years when we were encouraged to write silly stories that the teacher would turn in to little books to take home and proudly share with our parents. I always wondered what it would be like to write a real, published book that could potentially be read by people all over the world. But to be honest, I do not think I would have had the motivation to write this book if digital publishing was my only option. I will never forget what a thrill it was to receive that first proof for my book in the mail. It took five days from the time I ordered it until it arrived, a wait that was agonizing. A digital book could have been published instantly, I know. But the wait is part of what made the process exciting. If I had gone with a digital publisher, I would have received my book instantly, but then it would have become just another file, stuck in a folder with a bunch of other files and possibly forgotten. But there is something about a tangible book, with its glossy cover, sleek spine, and crisp pages that makes you want to cherish it. Every few days, I find myself picking up a copy from my nightstand where it lives, holding it in my hands, stroking that glossy cover and letting the pages slide through my fingers and thinking “how beautiful.”

I also could not have had the joy that I experienced in the human interaction of passing books around to friends and family and autographing them if my book had been exclusively digital. Heck, my grandparents who got left in the dust by the technology revolution would not have been able to read my book if it were only digital. But when I gave them a copy of my tangible book, they loved it and are in fact the best book promoters you could ask for.

I did make my book available digitally too when another relative told me she has bad arthritis and it hurts her thumbs to have to hold a book open and thus prefers to read books on her Kindle. I have nothing against e-books. As I mentioned before, they definitely have their place. But in the course of browsing the web this summer, I noticed a couple articles predicting that someday, the tangible book may go the way of the dinosaurs. Digital books are less expensive for authors to publish and for readers to buy, and for that reason, their popularity is steadily growing. I do understand the reasoning behind this view, but at the same time, I desperately hope I am not the only one in my generation who believes tangible books should always have their place too.

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