In summer, I see a lot of Internet memes extolling the benefits of reading printed books rather than e-books. I want to offer another perspective, one many of my friends have received in short form. My friends have been gracious and appreciative whenever I rain on their traditional book parades, so I’m not trying to pick on them. Rather, I’m writing this so whenever I see certain memes again, I can simply post a link to this article as a comment.
I’ll start with the typical content of these memes. If I were an artist, I’d present this information in a graphic like the memes do, but I’m not. So I’ll summarize the memes. They say when we read a printed book:
We get to enjoy book smell.
We don’t have to worry about glare.
We don’t have to worry about batteries running out.
We remember more of what we read.
We can support local booksellers, used bookstores and libraries.
Despite these statements, I read e-books almost exclusively. I read them on e-readers, not tablets or smartphones. Tablets and smartphones have LCD screens that are hard to read in sunlight and can drain battery life quickly, especially when you have to set them to full brightness to see them in the sun. Tablets are also much heavier than e-readers, so they may be uncomfortable to hold up if you want to read and don’t have a wheelchair tray or other place to lay your tablet. My hands and arms ache when I try to hold up a tablet.
But paperbacks are light, right?
Compared to tablets, yes. But my e-readers feel lighter than most paperbacks. Plus, they are much easier to hold than paperbacks because they are more compact. They don’t have physical pages. If I’m sitting in my wheelchair rather than some other seat, I can hold up my e-reader for hours without getting sore.
Even when I have a surface to set a printed book on, I have to have someone break the binding of the book so the book will stay open for me. I don’t seem to be able to flatten a book enough to be able to read the inner edges of pages easily. Hardbacks may lay flat more easily, but they’re too heavy for me to hold up, and they have jackets I have to wrestle with.
When I have time to read, I’m often outside. Wind blows printed pages, making me lose my place, even when the printed book is laying flat. Whenever I have to read a printed book, I spend too much of my free time trying to get back to where I was reading, even when I know what page I was on.
My e-readers do not have glare problems. Just like the advertisements say, reading e-ink is just like reading a printed page. At least that’s my experience. E-reader batteries last about a week for me. That’s with me using them hours more than the 30 minutes that go into calculating battery life in certain advertisements. I also keep their backlights pretty bright. If I wanted their batteries to last longer, I could turn down their backlights, and turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 4G. Suppose I forget to charge my e-reader and get to the beach or the pool to find the battery in the low double digits. The battery will still last an unbelievably long time. I don’t know how long because I’ve never had one drain completely when I’m out and about.
Many e-reader models are now waterproof. I’ve never dunked one of my e-readers to test how well the waterproofing works, but I did get one of them caught in a coastal rainstorm that came up suddenly. While I don’t recommend subjecting your device to such elements on purpose, mine worked fine afterwards. And that was before the waterproof models came out. A printed book can be dried out, but it doesn’t maintain its original condition once it gets wet.
I’ve dropped an e-reader onto hard flooring such as tile on numerous occasions. This can happen to anyone, but I’m especially prone to dropping things or knocking them on the floor because of my cerebral palsy. I’ve never broken one of my e-readers, despite the rough lives they experience with me. I’ve gotten new e-readers only when I wanted to take advantage of new features or because I lost the previous one. Admittedly, a reader doesn’t have to worry about damaging a printed book when dropping it either.
I also want to point out the other accessibility features e-readers offer:
The ability to highlight and take notes with your finger. Many readers love to highlight quotes they want to remember or take notes about aspects of the book they’d like to discuss with their fellow book lovers. If you have difficulty with hand and finger control, taking notes with an actual highlighter and a pen can be messy and uncomfortable.
The ability to adjust font size, margins and line spacing, including the option to choose Open Dyslexic font.
The ability to have the device read to you. Most e-readers have the first two features. The third one is available only in certain brands and models, and some devices that read out loud require Bluetooth headphones because they don’t have a headphone jack. However, the absence of a headphone jack makes them lighter.
Now on to the last two statements made by proponents of reading printed books.
There have been studies showing we remember more of what we read on a printed page than on a screen. But if we don’t read as much as we’d like to because of a disability or illness, we aren’t getting the recall benefits of the printed book anyway. I say it’s better to read on an e-reader or another device than never to read books at all.
The last statement is the most difficult one for me to respond to. I love to support libraries, but Amazon’s Kindle e-readers are not compatible with all the services that provide libraries with e-books, and some libraries can’t afford the service that does offer e-books compatible with Kindle e-readers. On the other hand, on a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader, I can read books from more libraries, but in order to do so, somebody has to plug my Nook into a computer. Then I can copy the files onto my Nook. The necessity of connecting my Nook to a computer to get library books is an accessibility problem. (Note that if I purchase books from Barnes & Noble, either on a computer or on the device, I don’t have to connect the Nook to a computer.)
I have a Kindle and a Nook. I want to have the widest access possible to books. These devices cost money, but the costs are worth it for the access.
I’d love to support brick-and-mortar booksellers, especially local ones, but I can’t get books off shelves by myself, to say nothing of the accessibility challenges that come with reading printed books. Sure, I could ask someone to help me get the book I want to look at, but when I have a choice between getting something done by myself and getting something done with someone’s help, I choose the first option, not just because it isn’t available, but because I struggle with anxiety.
Factors I have to consider when it comes to the possibility of visiting local bookstores (though not so much the nearly vanished national chain stores) are:
How accessible is the entrance? Some entrances to small bookstores have a step or two in front of them. Even if the entrance doesn’t have steps, older buildings often have narrow entrances.
How wide are the aisles? Is there enough space between shelves for a wheelchair to get through? Are there stacks of books in the middle of the aisles that would block a wheelchair’s path?
Is there a restroom large enough for a wheelchair user and an assistant to get into? This is an issue only if you’d like me to attend an event at your bookstore. Small bookstores host many events, and rightly so, because it’s a way to get people into their businesses.
Which brings us to business concerns. I’m a writer. I want writers to be able to receive pay for their work, and I want those who help in the publication process to be able to make money too. And booksellers have a right to make money for the products they provide me. At the same time, I’d like as many people to have access to as many books as possible. Reading helps brain function, increases knowledge and encourages us to have empathy for people whose experiences are different than ours. It can also help us find people whose experiences are like ours when we feel alone.
Everyone deserves access to the benefits of reading. Some may get them most easily from e-books, and some may get them from printed ones. So to me, an ideal reading world is one in which all books, regardless of their age, can be read either in electronic form on all e-readers and in print. But it isn’t because of book smell that I want printed books to stick around. There have been books whose smells I’ve found pleasant, but I don’t miss these smells. They are nothing compared to the independence and comfort offered by e-readers.