eBooks or Paperbacks – an anthropological answer*

(*From a non-anthropologist)Screen Shot 2011-08-12 at 20.47.47

There is a grand cultural switch taking place, in which the old consumer formats of (for example) books or CDs are being traded for digital copies, for the sake of the inevitable benefits: price, portability, accessibility. Why go out and pay more for a hardback which takes up space when you can instantly download a digital copy for much less onto your (often multi-functional) portable device?

It’s important to mention that it is hitting both the publishing and the music industry, a fact with which we have been long familiar. But in response to the challenge from WordPress’s Daily Post I wanted to make a particular point about this as it pertains to books.

The question posed is, do you prefer paperbacks or eBooks? (Hardbacks are presumably excluded following the evidence that in the first quarter of last year, eBooks outsold hardbacks by some margin.) I was relieved to see as I cast my vote that paperbacks seem to be winning the clear upper hand at this stage in the contest. Many of the comments too revealed the unsurprising reasons people have for making their choices – the aesthetic value of physical books, the conveniences of eBooks all playing a part.

But for me there is another factor that I don’t want to lose in owning physical books. It relates to the wider question that I mentioned at the outset. As our culture becomes remoulded around digital communication (if I can sweep books and music under the great umbrella of ‘communication’ as well as everything else the internet offers) we need to somehow keep a check on our anthropological roots, and make sure we’re giving ourselves what we need as human beings.

One of those things we need is, I believe, ongoing physical interaction with one another. Obviously we haven’t discarded this yet, but even in the ’email years’ I remember hearing stories of corporations who had to remind their workers that they could walk and talk to one another or at least pick up the phone rather than do everything through email. This is still a necessity, whether the issue is twitter, facebook, google, or anything else.

But to bring it around to books: eBooks have a sinister disadvantage I don’t hear so often talked of, and that is the lack of ability to share the medium with anyone else. (The same is of course true with music and movies downloaded from online stores.) The usage of a personal account so often seems harmless at first, but you realise that you cannot share an iota of your material with a friend in the way that you could with a book.

Books help us retain community. I love lending books to friends (it is an occasional venture mind you, only lending to those I most trust to return them!). It’s a tremendously economical way of enjoying books together, and moreover, involves face to face interaction in which you can discuss the books.

In summary, all of this was a rather long way of saying: I prefer paper books because you can share them and through them enjoy community, even at the most basic level.

Oh and I do love the sight of a couple of bookcases rammed with ruffled volumes! There’s beauty right there.

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5 responses to “eBooks or Paperbacks – an anthropological answer*”

  1. Jeni says :

    I came out in favour of e-books, but you’re right — not being able to share them (at least not easily) is a definite downside.

  2. Ivynettle says :

    Exactly. I consider my book collection a lending library for friends and family, and if I know someone would enjoy a book I own, I can pull it off a shelf and give it to them, to borrow or even to keep, not just recommend that they buy it themselves.
    And there are a lot of books I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t been able to borrow them from others. I enjoy looking at other people’s bookcases, flipping through the books they’ve left out on the couch, but I wouldn’t touch anyone else’s e-reader, any more than I would touch their phone.

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