The good, the bad, and the e-book

Will this be a substitute for good old ink and paper?

I am one of those people who is hesitant to use e-books. Apart from a few exceptions, such obscure and archaic texts from Project Gutenberg, I generally prefer to do my reading with hard copies. However recently I’ve been contemplating a change in format, mainly because of the inconvenience associated with lugging around medical school textbooks on a 1.5 hour daily commute. More than once I’ve heard the suggestion of purchasing an e-book reader, or simply downloading textbooks into my computer. After all, why not make use of such convenient and more readily available technology?

The benefits of e-books and the technology associated with them are undeniable. E-books are perfect travel companions, especially on long stretches such as airplane rides. They can be carried en masse, with less strain on one’s back and shoulders than what would be expected from carrying around lots of paper. They are easily disseminated, and have a certain posh feel to them. A single e-book reader is easier to rescue from an impending disaster such as a flood than a whole shelf. In an age where information has to be compressed into the smallest possible forms, e-books seem to be a natural step in the world of publication.

Yet of course, all this e-book technology has a financial cost to it, something which is definitely prohibitive for many people. E-books require a computer, or a gadget such as an iPad or Kindle.  The suggestion of a certain government official to use e-books in the public education system would definitely put a serious financial burden on the agencies who would implement the project. Even if in the long-run using e-books can be more cost-effective, the initial expense of acquiring the technology is already difficult to manage. If in the future, books are released solely in electronic format, reading may become a prohibitive activity for the lower socioeconomic classes.

Despite all the attempts to make e-books more “user-friendly”, the concept somehow doesn’t work as well for a number of people.  I’ve  encountered different people with a wide variety of approaches to reading. There are some people who love to highlight and underline relevant passages, and find that using e-books does not help very much in trying to recall facts or “that quote so and so said.” Some people get eyestrain easily with computer monitors, and would prefer to read off a paper instead. Then there are people who consider reading to be a special sensory experience on its own and who prefer the feeling of having a book in hand and turning the pages instead of scrolling down through text on a screen. Sometimes, even with all benefits considered, the choice to shun e-books boils down to one of taste.

Where am I now in this personal debate on e-books? I happen to be one of those people who reads anytime, anywhere, even while commuting. I sometimes curl up on a bus with a can of coffee and a book, anticipating a 30 minute bus ride to drag out to an hour. In such situations, I prefer to be free of the fear of being robbed thanks to having an expensive gadget such as an e-book reader on my person; having a cell phone and a wallet is already for me enough of a liability. I flip back and forth between sections of my textbooks, just to see how one concept relates to another. I remember things more easily on hard copy instead of when they’re on a computer screen; perhaps the motor movement with turning pages of a book plays some small part in the process of recall. Maybe the last part is simply a case of old habits dying hard.

That doesn’t stop me from trying to adapt. I’ve downloaded at least one vital reference into my computer, for availability’s sake. Certainly I will get around to reading it before my first biochemistry exam. Yet I know that at the end of the day, I will still find myself back in the bookstores, not just for my textbooks but more importantly for the reading I actually do to feed my soul. There is a certain connection with holding a book in hand, and a satisfaction in pulling a tome out of a shelf instead of on a screen. So far, I have yet to find the technology that can convince me to break that.

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