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I have tried to get into ereaders. Really I have. First, someone was kind enough to give me a Kindle. It seemed pretty cool at first. I could download books instantly. I didn’t have to weigh down my carry on bag when traveling. What a treat.

I read two books on my Kindle and got tired of it.

Then I tried reading books on my iPad, definitely a better reading experience in my opinion. I prefer the white page and back lit screen over the electronic ink. It was exciting to think (again) that from now on I could purchase most books whenever and wherever I wanted to. I could buy something new while on vacation. I could finish something in the airport and get a new book right from my seat, without having to lug around any extra pounds. The iPad even allows you to flip the page with your finger just like the real deal. What a gift.

I read two books on my iPad and got tired of it.

Perhaps I am a wishful thinking bibliophile, but I just don’t think the physical book is going the way of the dodo bird. No doubt, many scholars and students will house parts of their reference libraries on an electronic device. Some frequent flyers will stick books on their tablets instead of in their brief cases. And some techno-geeks will conclude that everything is better on an Apple product. I’m sure  ereaders will make inroads. They serve a useful purpose. But only to a point.

Old books are like old friends. They love to be revisited. They stick around to give advice. They remind you of days gone by. Books, like friends, hang around.

And they prefer not to be invisible.

I can’t tell you how many often I sit at my desk, push back my seat, and allow my eyes to drift around the room full of bookshelves. I’m not procrastinating, not exactly. I’m scanning the room to see my friends. Their covers jog my memories. They remind me of what I learned once. More than that, they remind me of my life–where I was when I first read Lloyd-Jones on the couch, how I knelt by the bed with tears when I read Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, how my life was so different 15 years ago when I read my dad’s copy of the Institutes as a college student. If all my books disappeared on to a microchip I might have less to lug around and I might be able to search my notes more easily, but I’d lose memory; I’d lose history; I’d lose a little bit of myself.

The other problem with ebooks is their bland sameness. This is why I can’t make it much farther than two books on any electronic device. The books don’t feel like anything. The font is the same and the white space is the same. There is no variance in paper or size or weight. Each book, when read on an ereader, loses its personality. I can’t quite explain it, but I simply couldn’t read the new Jeeves and Wooster book I downloaded for my iPad. On my computer screen–looking and feeling like the last book I read–there was no joy in Wodehouse, no novelty, no new experience to be had. It was just another PDF or Word document sent my to inbox.

Books have not been around forever. There are other ways to put words together on paper, papyrus, or cow’s hide. So it’s possible something else will come along to take the book down from the shelf. But it won’t be the iPad I’m using right now. It won’t be the laptop on which I’ve written books and blogs and sermons. In a virtual world, with all its ethereal convenience, there will be many–an increasing number I predict–who long for what is real. Something solid. Something you can hold. Something that hangs around even when you are finished with it. Something like a book.

And kind of like an old friend.

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82 thoughts on “Why I Hope Real Books Never Die (and They Won’t)”

  1. Erin says:

    Loved this! I’m a fellow bibliophile and newer-generation librarian, and while I don’t mind reading on my Nook, it’s just not the same connection that I feel holding a book in my hands. I’ve realized that I read actively… underlining, taking notes, sharing with friends. “And they prefer not to be invisible.” That nailed it! Professionally, I embrace new technologies (and libraries are!) to meet the needs of all readers… I know friends and patrons who have started reading for the first time in their lives or more often because they’re “techie” and love their gadgets. It’s actually a draw for many reluctant readers. But personally, I tend to borrow e-books through the library, or buy e-books when I’m traveling or unsure of whether I’ll like a book/author. When I know I’ll love it, though, because it’s a favorite author, there’s no question: long live the printed book! :)

  2. Les says:

    I agree, thanks for a great article. Where would I be without the checks and underlines in books. Ebooks scare me because they are ephemeral. Once a word is printed on the page it’s there until the page is destroyed but an ebook can be altered and who would notice? What do we do if a publisher decides a work isn’t politically correct or doesn’t agree with modern thought so they alter the text for us. What will we compare the ebook to in order to prove it’s been altered? What happens if the electricity goes out for a week or more after a natural disaster? How will you read your ebook without recharging? Ebooks are limited in that only current human tastes will be preserved. Little known writers or writers whose works will fall out of fashions will be deleted and forever lost. We won’t be able to dig up a palimpsest showing that Archimedes first discovered the concept of calculus from deleted files or lost digital formats but we can do these things with long lasting vellum or parchment.

  3. Sherri says:

    We are a 4 Kindle family: myself, my husband and our two children still at home. We are also missionaries in the Majority World. We have paid the price literally to have scores of books carried over. Now we LOVE our Kindles. My kids can get books in seconds instead of waiting months at a much higher cost when you consider the price to ship them here. We so enjoy free books though I am very picky on my free books. My son is reading many classics as they are free. While I prefer to hold a REAL book in my hands. I agree with another poster. E-reader are a very blessed gift from God to missionaries!

  4. David says:

    As a librarian, I believe there is room for both “ebooks” and print materials. While, I don’t have a Kindle or Nook, I can see the tremendous value in them, particularly for people who travel or for scholars.

    Besides DeYoung’s remarks about memory and experience, I see two advantages of print. First, print will last longer than one digital formats. I have a book in my collection from 1697. Can you imagine trying to read a 300 yr old digital format? We have trouble even reading some 20 yr old formats. Print is far more stable, as a medium, than electronic formats. Second, print enables one to possess the book or material in a way that one cannot with a digital format. Whether fair or not, publishers exert greater control with digital formats than print.

    Again, I see great advantages to both. Digital offers unprecedented access opportunities while print offers preservation and stability advantages.

  5. Aimee Byrd says:

    I am a fellow-real-book-lover. I resonate with you on needing to feel the paper. I wrote an article a while back ago, contemplating the library aspect of the digital world as well:

  6. OFelixCulpa says:

    I have known many people who feel exactly as you do, but usually they are not able to explain their preference so well. Some have told me that they love the feel of a book in their hand and the smell of a book. Though I don’t share that with them, I do understand the way in which our minds link the ideas in the book with the incidentals of the senses.

    But these things really do show that people love books not primarily for the ideas (which are more readily available in electronic format), but for the kind of experience they have with that particular medium. There is nothing wrong with that, except that it is a very expensive experience. When alternative means for accessing the information become available, insisting on preferences which require a much greater consumption of resources is just wasteful.

    Consider, for example, seminary libraries. Untold millions of dollars are spent on buildings, shelves, labor to organize and maintain, etc. Eventually—as the alternatives become better and cheaper—it will be inexcusable to waste the church’s resources on buildings full of paper and ink, and it would be sinful to insist on that preference.

  7. Scott says:

    I love books. I appreciate my Kindle because I have very poor eyesight and it allows me to amplify the font size to a comfortable place (and less eye strain than the backlit ipad you love). Still, if were not for the ease on my eyes, I prefer a good old fashioned book. And while “search” features are helpful, I still prefer to thumb through a book, looking for that highlighted note. My brain is someone “photographic” so I remember quotes on a certain position on the page, etc. Don’t get that with e-readers. For all those reasons, though the blessing of the Kindle are appreciated, I predict the predictions are wrong and people will still want real books.

  8. jb says:

    what has bugged me the most in reading electronic books is the inability to flip back and forth in them easily – to find that one thought you want to revisit to compare to what you are now reading, to see them both – the new and the old – virtually side by side, and to make notes and revisit those too easily. I find it too difficult to read an ebook version of more serious books. I’ve been using it for fiction I really want now and for lighter nonfiction. Even with these, it’s just not been as comfortable to read, but then I’m using my iPod so it’s rather small.

  9. The affordability (if you stick with 99 cent and free ebooks) and handiness of ereaders are worthwhile, say when waiting in a doctors office and you forgot to bring a book. I’d rather read something on my Kindle app than most magazines laying around.

    But otherwise, give me paper and ink!

  10. Owen says:

    I could not agree more. I’m no Luddite–one must forever give this qualification today–but I just plain don’t like eReaders. It’s kind of like reading lots of Internet text; I can do it for a little while but then get a headache and have to drop off.

    Books are not perfect, they won’t last forever, but I must confess, rather embarrassingly, that I love them. I love the heft of a huge, massively-researched biography. I enjoy the slimness of a volume of elegant essays. The same is true for me of magazines–I hugely enjoy them.

    The funny thing about all of this is that aesthetics are widely acknowledged to be hugely important to functionality today. The various Apple products show this (and Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography makes the case from the lips of Jobs nicely). But in my view, there is no more aesthetic experience than a book–the font, the feel, the cover, all of it (as Kevin mentioned).

    The aesthetic experience of the eReaders pales in comparison to nicely produced books. They may catch up. But in my mind there’s no contest as to who wins in the “total experience” contest. It’s the physical book by a country mile.

    Support your local bookstore, by the way! (Which is now typically a national chain.)

  11. Karen Butler says:

    “publishers exert greater control with digital formats than print.”

    Scary to think about, really. A strong argument in favor of the hard copy: What the Amazon giveth in a download, the Amazon can take away in a similar nanosecond. Or amend or delete, or censor in any way the Maker sees fit.

  12. @Karen Butler: Agreed!
    Everyone go read 1984. Don’t read it on your Kindles. hahaha!

  13. Joe Watkins says:

    You’re neglecting one major point, the next generation of readers has zero emotional attachment to the way they receive their media be it movies, news, books, music, whatever. They’ve only known digital. They don’t relate to physical books just like they don’t relate to Compact Discs. When they are the majority of the buying public (in about 10 years) the shift will occur and books will rapidly dwindle (look for a rise in print on demand services for us old farts that require a souvenir copy of a book we could just as easily purchased for whatever electronic device we own).

    Anyone who’d like proof of this dynamic can come over to my house (a confessed audiophile) and visit all the LPs and CDs that are packed away in boxes and closets in my house. Despite how much I love the feel of a real CD or the artistry of an LP cover, I love the opportunity to carry thousands of my favorite songs around with me because I love the music more. It will be the same with eBooks when the kids become adults and have never known having a relationship with their books.

  14. Hunter Starnes says:

    Another thing about real books is that you can escape into them and not be interrupted. The Kindle and Ipad intrude on your reading by offering easy access to your email, web, social networks and media.

  15. David McKay says:

    Hunter, I agree that the Ipad and the Kindle Fire have built in disruptions, but the standard Kindle is a dedicated e-reader and does not entice you to bunk off. [But I do admit I enjoy downloading free samples of new books and often do this, but at least it is enticing me to read a book, and not play Words with Friends.]

  16. Hunter Starnes says:

    @David McKay, Sorry for not specifying! I had the Kindle Fire in mind. :)

  17. Marc Axelrod says:

    Theres a place for both books and ebooks in the life of the reader. If its a big fat heavy book, the ipad is great. When Im on vacation, I don’t want to lug around a suitcase full of books. Its much more convenient to have the ereader.

    And let’s talk about cellphones! They may be the best ereaders of all. I had my iphone 4s with me the other day. I have like 3000 Logos Bible software books, and probably about 200 Kindle, iBook, Google, and Nook books, and they all fit in my pocket! Sermon prep can happen while I’m in line at the store, or waiting for the dr, or waiting in the lawn and garden section of Menards while my wife shops. And I can listen to Slacker Radio at the same time, and write this post!

    With cellphones or ereaders, you can make the print bigger. Try doing that with a book.

    Both books and cellphones amd ereaders are tools, receptacles that carry information. I am not nostalgic for the format as much as I am for the information in the book itself.

  18. Scottie says:

    The have with real books must remain. After all how do you explain to your 5 year old that all his Cat in the Hat collection split the scene with Dr Seuis on a computer malfunction.

  19. Alyssa says:

    Oh – thank God. For a second I thought I was the only one. Having gone to a school where everything is done on computer, from classwork to homework, I am so sick of things I can’t hold. I actually want the worksheets back.

    On the other hand, I’m guessing the new generations aren’t going to realize the character of books, and that the Kindle and other readers are going to become the norm. (That is, presuming they actually read.)

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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