Books Versus E-Books: Which Are Better?

It depends on the book, and the reader, and what you mean by better.

Man reading book in park

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Treehugger writer Sami Grover and I were chatting recently. I had just finished reading his new book—"We are all Climate Hypocrites Now"—and asked him if he had read mine. I was surprised by the response where he said he hates reading PDFs, which is what our publisher had sent him, and he was waiting for the real paper book.

Many people hate e-books: Treehugger senior editor Katherine Martinko has written about the old-fashioned habits that she stubbornly clings to, including paper books. She wrote:

"I've never bought an e-reader and don't plan to. I just love paper books, the smell, the weight, the paper, the covers, the appendices, the publishing notes. People reading e-books don't notice these things as much, as I've discovered at my book club meetings; those of us who interact with a physical book have a different experience."

Another writer I admire, Ian Bogost, wrote in The Atlantic recently:

"Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful."

And I wondered, what's wrong with all these people? E-books are wonderful! I read them on my iPad, which Apple says has a lifecycle carbon footprint of 100 kilograms based on three years of life or about 33 kilograms per year. The most detailed study by Naicker and Cohen concluded the average paper book has a footprint of 7.5 kilograms. So that's 4.4 books a year for the iPad to beat the real book from a carbon point of view.

Pierre-Olivier Roy says it is not so simple:

"A cursory review of the literature reveals that, although the topic has been well researched, studies vary in quality and rely on different assumptions and data to make comparisons. Variables include different sample size, different types of paper quality, different printing processes, different disposal methods (recycled or sent to a landfill), and whether books are single-use or read several times. In light of such variables, contradictory conclusions arise."

But the iPad gets greener with each edition, and its numbers just keep getting better.

There are other reasons I love the e-book. I am older than all these other book-loving readers and love the ability to make the text larger as I wait for an eyeball repair in November. Most importantly, I love the ability to mark it up and find the notes easily with the Kindle software. I don't like buying Kindle books, having once owned a piece of a bookstore that was pretty much killed by Amazon, but Apple recently changed the way you do notes that make it almost impossible to use.

3 formats of Sami book
Ipad, PDF, hard copy of same book.

Lloyd Alter

In fact, Grover's new book was a real test case. New Society Publishers sent me a PDF which I could read and scale but it doesn't reformat and I couldn't mark up easily. Then they sent me a hard copy, but in the end, when I wanted to review it, I actually bought the Kindle version so I could do all the adjustments and the markups more easily.

Now don't get me wrong, I love books and have lots of them. Just the other day I was discussing Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the basis of the new TV show, and noted that I still owned my copies from my teenage years. The pages are as thin as the characters in the story, but I kept them anyway. But today I would not be able to read those paperbacks from the '60s; the print is too small.

Meanwhile, Bogost goes on about bookiness: “It’s the essence that makes someone feel like they’re using a book.” He notes certain kinds of books lend themselves to print, like those about architecture and design; I agree and still buy those. I have a lot of them.  

Arctic books
From the North Pole to the South.

Lloyd Alter

There is the bookiness of the architecture books my mom bought in the '60s that inspired me in my choice of career that I still treasure or the old books on Arctic and Antarctic exploration that I love. Much depends on the book.

pile of books

Lloyd Alter

And as someone who recently had my first book published, I love the bookiness of a pile of them with my name on it. In the end, Bogost says it doesn't matter. "If you like ebooks, great. Enjoy your dim, gray screen in peace. If you hate them, don’t worry about it. Who says everything must involve a computer?"

And if you are worried about the environmental impact, the greenest choice is in fact neither: It's the library.