E-books degrading traditional reading experience

Picture this: it is nighttime. A small child lies in bed, her mother sitting close by. The room is filled with a soft, warm glow. “Goodnight moon, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere,” says her mother, reading from the cold  plastic and metal she holds in her hands, as it casts a harsh white light onto her face. Does something about that scenario seem a bit off?

In the last few years, we as a society, whether we are aware of it or not, have assisted in, or at least played witness to, something horrible and disturbing: the decline of the physical book.

Since the 2007 release of the Amazon Kindle, it seems that the use of e-book reading devices has become much more widespread. In 2009, e-books accounted for about 1.5 percent of all book sales in the United States; in the first quarter of 2010, this number grew to approximately five percent of the market (bisg.org). Although five percent may not seem like much, just think about the rapid growth in the prevalence of e-books.

While admittedly there are some advantages to e-books, especially in the case of e-textbooks, they pale in comparison to the long-term disadvantages their growing popularity suggests.

For one thing their cost is prohibitive. Yes, an e-book costs less than a traditional book, averaging around $9.99 (barnesandnoble.com). This lower book price would be awesome, if not for the pre-requisite e-reader purchase. These “revolutionizing” electronic devices, like any state-of-the art technology, run from $140-$350—the Apple iPad (starting at $499), which can also function as an e-reader, not included.

This high starting cost, and medium operating cost, implies a dark future in which only the affluent have access to books. Yeah, in the long run maybe digital books are more cost effective, but not if you cannot afford the e-reader to begin with.

Some might argue that with time, e-book readers will become more accessible, like computers did. While I have no doubt this is true, there will always be those in the lowest income bracket who can barely afford enough food to live, let alone buy some fancy piece of technology. Do they not deserve to read as much as anyone else?

Another issue is sustainability. Though the use of e-books might seem greener, since it uses less paper, think about the energy used to make the e-readers. It has to take a lot to make something that complex.

Plus, based on the current speed at which technology is developing, consumers will find themselves presented with “better,” models to purchase at least every few years. And in the long run books will biodegrade, while e-readers will remain in dumps and landfills for many more years.

Then there is the scary possibility that this digital reading revolution could cause a decline in literacy. Right now we are moving from reading books to reading electronic text, but what about when we move from reading to listening, and then to nothing at all? Surrounded by all of this fabulous technology, people are not reading as much as they used to, and who’s to say they would read at all if there were some faster way of getting the information to their brains?

We are faced with the loss of something special when we lose the physical book. We lose the memories associated with a favorite book. When we read a book off our e-readers for the first time, it will be a cold and unfamiliar experience. We will be unable to see the dog-eared corners, worn bindings, and age-yellowed pages that tell the story of each time we read a particular book—because they will not exist. There will be no physical representation of how much we loved a book. History will be lost.

Remember the first book you ever read by yourself? And the satisfaction you felt at knowing that you had read those words, physically evidenced as you watched the number of pages in your left hand grow while the number of pages in your right hand shrunk. Without a physical book you would have only the memory of paging from screen to screen, reading alien words on a bright white display.

Without books, we will also lose libraries and bookstores. Never again will we have the humbling experience of walking into a room and finding ourselves surrounded by the multitude of perceptions of the human experience—the physical representation of the history, experience and emotion of humanity.

If we lose books there will be nothing old or different—only brand new, homogeneous machinery. We will be left only with the digital echoes of one of humanities greatest creations.