Can eReaders replace books?

Several years ago (possibly even before the turn of the millennium), my brother told me that books would soon be a thing of the past and that everyone would be reading eBooks. Is it possible? Could eReaders and eBooks replace paperbacks and hardcovers the way cars replaced the horse and buggy, the way portable audio players (iPods, for those of you who don’t know alternatives to Apple exist) have replaced CDs and tapes, and the way email has replaced letters?

I use the word replace rather loosely, of course. In some rural areas, horses and buggies are still around. CDs are still available for purchase in stores, and some used music stores have old tapes, which people will still purchase occasionally. And the post office still delivers letters, mostly from businesses to other businesses. Nevertheless, the primary way for even the most affluent of people to read books is still to read paperback or hardcover books. I know no one who owns a Kindle. The first Kindle I ever saw I saw only once from far away on a bus. I haven’t seen horse-buggy combos outside of Pennsylvania, most people I know use portable audio players, and almost all communication I get from family and friends is electronic.

Will we give up our books for eBooks? I may end up regretting these words in ten years, but I don’t think I ever will. Yes, I’ve heard the Kindle can store hundreds of books. Yes, I’ve heard it doesn’t have a backlight, so it won’t be a strain on your eyes. Still, I don’t believe I’ll ever use an eBook Reader in place of reading real books. Of course, back in the mid-1990s I didn’t think I would ever email instead of writing letters to friends.

I wasn’t around when cars started replacing other modes of transportation, but I do very much remember switching from records to tapes to CDs and, eventually, to MP3s. I do have a bit of nostalgia for exchanging mix tapes with my friends, and I love the sound of a crisp record being gentle stroked by a turntable’s needle. All the letters people wrote me back in high school I have kept and will probably at some point, unlike the emails they’ve sent me over the years, re-read them. Why won’t I give up books for eBooks?

A few reasons:

  • Even though I like having hundreds of songs at my fingertips in a small device (because I can actually listen to many of them, if not all, in a week), rarely do I read more than two books at a time—usually only one.
  • When I have an electronic device, I have to make sure it’s charged, make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I have to take care of it. Now—I don’t throw any of my books against the wall, spill pizza sauce on them, or rip the pages out, but I like that I can just throw them in a bag, read them in the bath, and even leave them around (without worry they’ll be stolen).
  • The idea that Amazon can remotely erase an eBook I bought is ridiculous (as came out in the whole 1984 scandal recently). No book store is ever going to break into my apartment and take a book back that I bought just because they realized they didn’t have the rights to sell that book to me in the first place.

Go ahead, Amazon (or Sony), try to make me eat my words! I think the only way I’d switch to eReaders is if everyone else does and the only bookstores still left around are used book stores…


  1. i think there is use case for a no-DRM and untethered electronic book reader. but i don’t see it ever replacing books in the same way the mp3 is replacing the cd.

    i can see myself keeping digital copies of unweildy reference books, or for taking several books on a long trip. i’d also like to see a future in which ebooks are distributed along with the physical item as an extra.

    but i can’t see myself replacing my physical library unless somebody invents devices with unlimited power sources and that don’t ever break.

  2. I think that in a real way, if you’re reading articles on the web using your netbook, you’re already there.

    But I, too, don’t plan on giving up on reading “vintage book technologies”… :^)

  3. This is interesting. I’ve wondered myself if I would buy an eReader. I have to say that, at this moment in time, I would not. The electronic readers are waay too expensive right now, though I dare say the price will come down if they take off. That may be a while yet though. The Kindle, for example, isn’t even available in UK as yet.

    I read *a lot* and I get loads of books from the library. I have this vision where, in the future, perhaps you will browse your library’s web site and download a book from there straight onto your book reader, and maybe it expires automatically in 30 days. This saves you a trip to the actual library and you never need to worry about a book being unavailable. Does this seem outlandish? I don’t think books are going away anytime soon though. I imagine eReader sales will take a slow, gradual increase.

    One point you made, which I agree 100% with, is that eReaders are completely unsuitable for reading in the bath – a favourite pastime of mine :)

  4. I have tried reading an ebook of 300 pages on my desktop PC and I have to tell you it is hard work. Months into it and I am half way through. I would prefer to read in bed or on the couch and the desktop is not the right platform. I have to sit at my desk and read if I want to get though the book.

    There are lots of good free ebooks out there on websites like “Project Gutenberg” plus many free ebooks that people have written and privately posted. The problem is the lack of a good reader. It has to be inexpensive and robust. The Kindle is a perfect example of how not to design an ebook reader – very expensive and very fragile and actively not backed by the manufacturer whenever something goes wrong with it. When you can buy a netbook computer for less money you know they have it priced all wrong!

    There are ebook reader applications, like Stanza, that enable you to read ebooks on your iPhone & iPod Touch, but I really don’t think that is going to catch on as these devices have screens that are just too small to be useful in this application.

    I believe that there is a good case for an ebook reader, at least as a supplement to paper books for now, but the hardware is going to have to be a lot more robust and much cheaper before it gains any serious acceptance.

  5. I doubt that ebooks will ever replace regular books. Humans have been using paper for thousands of years. The need for it is branded into our soul. They used to talk about a paperless office when computers came into businesses but the use of paper sky rocketed.

  6. It could happen. Print news is dying fast. Blogs are a way of getting printed ideas across while bypassing normal distribution concerns.

    The problem is that screens and user interfaces are much worse. That said, for reference its reached a point where I’d rather try and subscribe to multiple books rather than purchase them.

  7. It’s slowly happening for me already. I have replaced newspaper reading with reading news online… and instead of carrying a printed Bible I now rely on the one on my phone. As soon as some of the developing technologies reach maturity like foldable screens and batteries with days-long life, I could see the next generation that is raised on digital stuff, using some sort of e-reader as their default reading method rather than books. I bet the current kids raised on checking news feeds every morning will rarely buy newspapers when they are older.

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