Are E-Books Good For Us?

Every April I read The Great Gatsby. The tradition started the April of my junior year at Wheaton College, when I took my copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece (the most perfect American novel, IMHO) to Adams Park, laid down on the newly warm grass and read through the whole book in one sunny afternoon. It was bliss.

This year, as an experiment, I decided to buy Gatsby on Kindle and read it on my iPad. I've hitherto been loathe to enter the world of e-books, but I figured I better not knock it until I've tried it. A few weeks ago at Biola's Imagination Summit, a discussion on "the future of books" with Moe Girkins (former CEO of Zondervan) and Jason Illian (CEO of e-book upstart ReThink Books) got me thinking about the topic. E-books certainly seem to be the future. Physical books, Borders, libraries... all of that will likely become outmoded. But is that a good thing?

The way I see it, there are both pros and cons with the e-book experience.


  • All-in-one storage. Kindles, iPads, devices of similar ilk become portable libraries of vast numbers of books. Imagine having your entire library with you wherever you are. Instead of feeling frustrated that the book you want to quote in your research paper is on your shelf back home or in some library in another state... it's all at your fingertips. Want to study abroad but don't want to bring suitcases full of physical books? Just bring an iPad full of the dozens of books you'll need.
  • Better preserved. Electronic books, stored on a device or in a cloud somewhere, are free from the mold, acid, water damage, etc. that plagues physical books.
  • Convenience. Have a few extra minutes waiting for someone at a coffeeshop? A half hour on the subway? Instead of having to remember a physical book, just pull out that iPhone and pick up where you left off.
  • Social reading. As new platforms and apps develop that combine e-readers with social networking (ReThink Books is one), the potential social and pedagogical benefits of collective reading (tracking friends' comments, sharing notes, keeping tabs on students' reading progress, etc) are apparent.


  • Hinders our focus. When you're reading a book on the same device that you could use to check email, update Facebook, watch a video, play Angry Birds, listen to music, chat with friends, and do about a million other things, it becomes harder to focus on reading for a long stretch of time. These devices are made for multi-tasking, after all... short bursts of activity for short attention spans. How could I ever focus on reading a book on my iPad for an hour when my instincts tell me to press a button and check my inbox or Twitter feed every 10 minutes?
  • Turns reading into a "downtime" activity. Before, we took books with us to the park for 4 hours. We packed a book for a day of reading at the beach. We planned rainy days around reading books. It was an event. But now, our devices go with us everywhere, so reading a book becomes an anywhere/anytime activity, which by default usually becomes a "when I have time" or "I'm on the bus so I might as well do something on my iPhone" activity.
  • Takes away the billboard effect. Previously, having a physical book in our hands served as an advertisement of sorts: Letting others see what you were reading. It starts conversations ("Oh, I loved that book!" or "What's that you're reading?"). Now, when people see us looking at a screen in our lap, there is no visual indication that we are reading a book, let alone what we might be reading. Where's the fun in that? Similarly, the loss of personal libraries in our homes--bookshelves with books that serve as identity markers and clues to our personalities (let alone conversation starters)--seems to take away a valuable function of books as social and household artifacts.
  • Hurts the eyes. I'm sorry, but yes. Reading long PDFs on my laptop screen hurts my eyes, and this is no different. Kindles, iPads, laptop screens... It's nothing like reading a book. It's exactly like reading an electronic screen. Eyesore.
  • More expensive! This may not always be true, but it was for me and The Great Gatsby. $10.99 on Kindle. $7.99 for the physical book. How does that make sense?

Anyway, that's my two cents. I'm open to e-books, but I'm certainly not convinced of their value.

What do you think? Have you had a positive experience with e-books? Negative? Indifferent? Are physical books going to exist in the future?