There is a third, more sustainable option: the library.
One of the old-fashioned habits that TreeHugger's Katherine Martinko stubbornly clings to is reading paper books.
Readers disagreed, noting "Hmmmm...this is Treehugger, no? Paper books? Paper newspapers? Paper cookbooks? Fossil fuels to deliver them. Water and resources to produce them." And "You are killing trees needlessly with your physical newspaper. You can't save the environment without giving up some things you like. This is Tree Hugger not Tree Killer."
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.
I personally do not like reading paper books nearly as much as reading Apple or Kindle books on my iPad; almost all my reading is for work, and it is so easy to mark where you are, to hyperlink to sources and footnotes, not to use a million disposable plastic or paper tabs like I do when I read a paper book.
I was going to get into the math and do a post comparing the energy required to make a Kindle or Kobo reader vs printing a book (the consensus is you have to read about 25 books to break even), but then I remembered that it is not binary, not an either-or. So I asked Katherine over our virtual water cooler:
This is key, what I have called the fallacy of false choices. It's like my answer to the bottles vs cans debate; there is a third option, reuse and refill. There is almost always a third option; with books, the answer is the library. Books from the library are not disposable; they are used many times, they are shared.
There are some who don't like libraries. Donald Trump tried to cut funding for them. A few years ago, author Edward McClelland wrote a satirical piece about the City of Chicago funding libraries, titled Libraries = Socialism:
I can’t think of a more egregious example of government-sponsored socialism than the public library. Unproductive citizens without two nickels to rub together are given access to millions of books they could never afford to buy on their own -- all paid for with the tax dollars of productive citizens. Does the government pay for people to rent tuxedos for free, sail boats for free, or play golf for free? No, it does not. So why should it pay for people to read books and surf the Internet for free?
But in fact, this is no longer satire. Monica Potts wrote in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about a fight over a library in her home town in Arkansas, titled In the Land of Self-Defeat:
I didn’t realize it at first, but the fight over the library was rolled up into a bigger one about the library building, and an even bigger fight than that, about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all. The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here.
The answer was, for the most part, not very much.
I personally do not use the library very often, but my wife is its biggest customer, often having dozens of books out at a time. (She has 32 out now.) To keep her borrowing privileges she teaches kids how to read every Thursday afternoon. The Toronto Public Library is pretty sophisticated and she can order them online; even though Katherine lives in a small town, she can do the same and get the books shipped in.
I sometimes find paper books a bit depressing, actually; they get sent to me by publishers and weigh on me, all these books that I promised to read and review and have barely begun. I ask for digital versions, but they pile up unread in the iPad.
When I buy a book from Apple or Kindle, I can't share it with my students or friends. (Kindle lets you share, but it's hard and it is limited.) There is some question about whether I even own it, or am just licensing it.
A library presents none of these problems. You take the book back, read or unread, and it is out of sight, out of mind. A library is also the very best definition of the sharing economy, people helping and teaching others. And they are under threat, almost everywhere.
So if you care about the environmental impact of your reading medium, remember that it is not a binary question of book vs e-book. The greenest book is the one you get from the Public Library.