What We Lost in the Switch to Digital Books

The ability to consolidate dozens of books on a tablet or electronic reader is a very convenient and productive way to engage with reading material. The swift way you can acquire a book and then read it instantly is truly a more efficient process compared to housing dozens of hardcover or paperback books on a wooden or metal bookshelf. Toting a single electronic device with the ability to call up your book of choice frees you from having to decide what book to bring along with you in advance.

The Allure of Efficiency

With all that digital books provide serious deficiencies exist. I took the journey to transition to digital books and 4 years into the process, as of this writing, I have learned much about how they improve things but also what is missing from the experience. I like the ability to access a small library of books from a single, flat, rectangular device. That is a very efficient situation.

That efficiency, it turns out, can be short-lived.

Affordable Books

When you consider digital books, near the top of desirable qualities is the cost of the books themselves. You can easily build up a nice collection of books for the cost of 3 physical hardcover textbooks. That is an appealing prospect that can mean more leisure titles, reference materials, and knowledge at your finger tips. That is a valuable thing for lifelong learners, readers, and researchers.

Cost of Entry

The price for this abundance of information, besides the digital books themselves, is in the devices to read the books. The first time I tried to get into electronic books, I started with what is called a cheap, off-brand tablet 4 years ago this month. It did not work out. The quality of the device and support level made it painfully difficult to get the proper version of the reading software I wanted and the speed of the device was excruciatingly slow to use. I didn’t return it as I was well past the return period. I ended up throwing it away.

Matching Device to Lifestyle

Each new device I tried afterwards was better than the last. At a greater cost. The common thread was cost of the device. I was unsatisfied with that outcome, but I persisted. What drove me was I had a living situation at the time, that posed a steep challenge to maintaining a physical collection of books. An electronic reading device would be useful. I settled on a popular, mainstream electronic reader instead of a tablet.

Electronic Readers versus Tablets

Which is better, an ereader or a tablet? A black and white ereader typically has a longer battery life than a tablet. They are the best electronic tool for reading digital books in terms of an engaged reading process. As of this day, they are the closest approximation of the qualities of physical books. Tablets are useful for many things, but they can fall apart easier than an ereader and the battery situation has not improved much at this time. You are often more mindful of battery issues with tablets in terms of reading books to the point of distraction.

Downsides of Digital Books Devices

The single, greatest downside to the digital book concept is that for an individual, a digital reader in the form of tablets and ereaders do not last as long as a single physical book. A physical book can last decades but you are lucky to get 3 years out a digital reading device. That means you will not only pay once for the digital book, but you will pay more money than for physical books replacing the device to read it and that could cost you $80 to $300 every 3 years (if you want 3G wireless capability). That works out to about $30 to $100 a year for the technological capability to read books as conveniently as physical books.

We have gone backwards in terms of the lifetime accessibility of books. We have drifted into a model in which we pay an implicit maintenance fee in the upkeep of digital reading devices for the privilege of reading books we have purchased. Physical books situated in a single physical location are more appealing in perceived cost of ownership versus digital.

All Your Eggs in One Basket

Let’s stay with black and white ereaders for a moment. On the surface, their technology is simpler than tablets. Electronic ink technology does not require the kind of power you have with frequently refreshed displays. Such devices have simpler electronics and very low stress in terms of computer processing. A device like that could last for years but you have several problems that could arise.

The battery can lose the ability to retain a charge. That is expected. Eventually batteries go out. On an ereader drawing less power, you expect that time frame to be much, much longer than for a tablet. Say, on the order of a decade.

Internal storage can decay. A form of flash memory is used. This kind of memory is great for quick retrieval of information so books load quickly in this case. The design of this kind of storage leads to thinner, flatter devices and you have no moving parts which helps you in the physical stability department. Still, consumer versions of this kind of memory is not known for keeping data long-term. That means that errors will eventually develop on the data. This will manifest itself in the files that maintain the list of books or some of the software that runs on the ereader. All you see is lock ups and freezes when you cannot get your books.

Case in Point

The more technologically astute among us can attempt to bring new life into the devices. One of my devices I have had since 2011 started having battery recharge problems in 2014. For the first time, I thought about the insides of the device. Previously, I only looked at it as an ereader until I remembered that it is a computer. I carefully peeled the back cover, studied the components and decided to reseat the battery and power connector. That resolved the battery charge issue and there has been no issues in that department since that I can recall.

I made it sound simple, but it was a far more involved, hours long process involving multiple device resets and restoring information.

Months later, I started having more frequent freezes and lock ups that would interrupt reading and encourage a factory reset. I have done about 20 such resets in the past year. They are increasingly less effective over time. Other people have gone to further lengths. Such is the case of another individual who sourced parts from eBay to fix his ereader. He shares his journey in an article titled, Repaired Kindle 3 Keyboard 3G that was freezing. After reading that article, I remembered that physical books do not require that level of troubleshooting just to use them.

What About Tablets?

Anyone reading my experiences with an ereader may ask about tablets as a better alternative? The short answer is batteries. A really nice, top brand 10″ tablet I bought in 2011 was a dream to use. Then, I decided to do some other things for 2 months in which I didn’t use the tablet at all. Let’s just say that near late 2012, it would not recharge at all, no power, nothing.

I do have a tablet now. It is an 8″ tablet from a top brand. Battery sometimes holds at 46% despite several hours plugged into a wall socket. Recently, I did a reset involving holding the power and volume up buttons at the same time. That put me in a boot menu and I was tempted to load CyanogenMod when I found out not even they support the tablet I use. I will be using the tablet for the foreseeable future, as I feel my ereader is finished. The entire ordeal has hardly delivered on the ideal promise of technology.

Perpetual Replinishment

When you encounter problems like these with digital reading devices you have several thoughts. The first thought, depending on income level is simply to replace the device. With regular income at a certain level, spending $80, $300, or $400 every 3 years may not seem like an issue. The passage of time actually dulls any sense that we are perpetually renewing access to a digital experience.

My Own Regrets

I do wish I could have stayed with physical books. I believe I made a mistake investing in digital books. It is an error I am going to maintain for myself since I have gone too far in digital books to turn back. I decided to live with my error.

Life situations may change and I selectively revert back to physical books. In the meantime, I will continue to advocate for digital books as a concept but I am aware that the reality can be more turbulent in terms of the swings to either side of the spectrum of bittersweet improvement that digital book technology represent. Value does exist with the present form of digital book technology, but it is an investment that has to be more actively maintained than what seems to be the case, to me, with physical books.

There is a broader, nuanced lesson about technology that becomes apparent. Some of it is not entirely good. It is not entirely bad either. I can only hope that the next ereader or tablet I buy a few years from now will be a far less pleasing experience. I am under fewer illusions as to what they can and cannot deliver.

Conclusion

The digital technological replacement for physical books that have all the useful qualities of a book does not exist today. What we have is an approximation that we as a society are collectively funding. In a sense the vast numbers of us who contribute funds to this enterprise are indirectly supporting the R&D and refinement of this kind of solution. A process that will take many decades to unfold to a broadly satisfying level. Hopefully, for those of us with far smaller incomes, the cost will not grow into a barrier to the continual reception of knowledge.

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