Wired’s Five Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet

This Wired article from a few weeks ago (“5 Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet”) caught my eye. It’s always fun to discuss the pros and cons of emerging book technology, so I don’t have a particular axe to grind on any of this, other than to weigh in with some of my own thoughts. (Ok, that’s a lie. I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as this sentiment did: “I am hooked — completely one with the idea that books are legacy items that may never go away, but have been forever marginalized as a niche medium.”) It’s really hard for me to envision books being relegated to a niche medium any time soon … but let’s check back in ten years and so who was right: me, or Wired.

First, to summarize the Five Reasons:

1) An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it.

2) You can’t keep your books all in one place.

3) Notes in the margins help you think.

4) E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way.

5) E-books can’t be used for interior design.

And some thoughts —

#1 (An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it.) I suppose for some people that could be true. That may also depend upon how an individual person uses the e-reading device: do they carry it with them as often as they’d carry around a printed book? Do they leave the e-reader under a pile of other seldom-used gadgets? The fact that your ebook can exist in more than one place adds a convenience factor; I rather like the ability of a book that I can read on my Kindle, and then can also read on the Kindle app on an iPhone.

#2 (You can’t keep your books all in one place.) I suppose this critique is true enough in the way that there is something very gratifying about having your personal library sitting on your bookshelves. I will agree with this one: “But on tablets and smartphones, the shelves are divided by app — you can’t see all the e-books you own from various vendors, all in one place.” Having ebooks divided by how you’ve purchased them, whether it’s an ebook bought through Kindle or Barnes & Noble, etc., and the proliferation of ebook apps that entails, is not as slick as it could be. Quick, somebody invent an app for that already!

#3 ( Notes in the margins help you think.) Writing in my books is probably the one thing I care about the most. I love writing in the margins, and no ebook is ever going to replace that for me anytime soon. I do think better when I’m writing in my books — it’s a way for me to actively interact with the words on the page. There is some argument to be made that ebooks enable easier copying and sharing of favorite passages, but still not as satisfying as putting pencil to paper.

#4 (E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way.) For another perspective, also from Wired: “Why Do E-Books Cost So Much?” This has more to do with the logics of the publishing industry than anything else. Possibly another topic I’m going to be revisiting later.

#5 (E-books can’t be used for interior design) I was originally going to put this in the ‘meh’ category, but broadly speaking, I agree. If we think of books as objects that physically inhabit the world — either to decorate a bookshelf, or just have as tangible, physical reminders about our experience of reading that book, then there’s something to that.

Sure, ebooks have room for improvement (as discussed elsewhere here), but when you look at the bigger picture of ebook history, it’s come a long way.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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