Book or E-Book: Which Is Better? Perhaps Neither.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

TreeHugger has been covering the growth of the e-book for years, intrigued by the dematerialization of the book from paper to bits, discussing the carbon footprint of each medium. Last year Jaymi wrote about a study that showed that one could read faster with paper books than e-books, but this week I had the opportunity to test this myself.

I wanted to read David Weinberger's new book, Too Big To Know, and ordered it from the still wonderful Toronto Public Library, which had it in both media. Since the paper versions often take much longer to get, I ordered both, and surprisingly got them both on the same day. I thought that I would do a side by side comparison, alternating chapters.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It really wasn't a fair comparison. First of all, for some reason the e-book is formatted with a half inch margin on each side; this leaves a column of type that is only 2-1/2 inches wide. If I set the type at approximately the same size, I get less than half the number of words on a line, and your eyes are doing a lot more work going back and forth.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

What's worse, both the paper book and the e-book are right justified, what designer Eric Gill called the "tyrannical insistence upon equal lengths of lines" that fills out lines with spaces between words; it is bad enough in the paper book (which also hyphenates about every second line in the example paragraph) but makes the e-book almost impossible to read, look at that last line.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In fact, in the end I failed in my experiment; not only is there no comparison in layout and typography (and the paper version is no monument to the craft) but the contrast and colour in the e-ink display are just not as good as in the paper version, it is just harder to read. after about three chapters I just stuck with the paper version for the rest of the book.

But there is a much bigger fundamental problem with the e-book, that you would only think about if you read David Weinberger's wonderful book in whatever medium. Weinberger's book is about information and the internet, and is subtitled " Rethinking Knowledge Now That Facts Aren't Fact, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room." In his chapter discussing books, he notes that the form of the book determines the way the writer presents information, the technology determines the way we use it.

Books do not express the nature of knowledge. They express the nature of knowledge committed to paper cut into pages without regard to the edges of ideas, bound together, printed in mass quantities and distributed, all within boundaries set by an economic system.

To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground.

The e-book is a simulacrum of a paper book, with few of its pleasures and all of its limitations as a way of conveying information. Where the book was a result of the technology of the press and the bindery and even the bookshelf, the e-book copies them slavishly. But most importantly, it has none of the benefits of the internet, what Weinberger calls transparency. Compare footnotes to hyperlinks:

Paper based citations are like nails; if you wonder why the author made a particular claim, you can see that it's nailed down by a footnote. Paper based citations attempt to keep the reader within the article, while providing the address of where the source material resides for the highly motivated researcher. On the Net, hyperlinks are less nails than invitations. Indeed, many of the links are not to source material but to elaborations, contradictions, and opinions that the author may not fully endorse. They beckon the reader out from the article.

(Which, as an aside, is why I hate infographics so much.

The e-book, at least in the Kobo or Kindle version, doesn't do hyperlinks; they are print books, with all their limitations, converted into electronic form. While there are experiments going on with different forms of writing, like the Kindle Single essays, the whole idea that information should be packaged in book length and book form, fixed and static, and then put on an electronic device with no real connectivity makes no sense at all.

Much of this has to do with the particular technology I am using; I suspect that a properly done ebook on a new hi-res iPad 3 will be a very different experience. But in a side by side comparison, it is clear that the e-book just doesn't do the job.

But more importantly, after reading David Weinberger, I am convinced that it is a conceptual dead end, like the idea of the traditional book that it is modeled on.

Tags: Books | Electronics

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