I really, really love ebooks. There are so many advantages over physical books. Books are heavy, for one. I’m sure part of my back issue stems from the fact that I’ve spent many years porting a few books around “just in case” I might feel like reading one of them.

There’s also a time when one realizes how many books they own actually own them. I know tons of people who fear moving apartments because they dread having to move all their books.

This post isn’t going where you might expect though. Ebooks are also really, really painful. So painful in fact, that there are lots of cases where I reach for a physical book instead - and it’s not for the pretentious reasons of “oh, but I love the smell of a physical book” and “there’s just something about the tactile nature of the book in my hand…” My beef with digital books is a lot more practical. I’d like to take a moment to talk about a couple of my gripes in the hopes that some of them resonate with you.

Location in a book

The problem of location in ebooks is huge. In iBooks for instance it’s never totally clear where I am. Sure, it has page numbers but they’re not set in stone. Here’s what I mean. I might be on page 130 of a book and I want to direct a colleague to the same page. Sounds simple, but it’s not. I’m on page 30 but my colleague has enlarged the type on her page so they’re iBooks says that she’s on page 160. It’s nice to know that I’m 10 pages from the end of a chapter. It’s totally my lizard brain talking, and while I can think my way around this but it’s a response that clouds my judgement nonetheless. Also, iBooks is meant to look like a physical book, but no matter how much I read the visual leaves of pages never diminish in volume, which also provides a strange experience. One of the most satisfying pleasures of reading is looking at the book in your lap and seeing the huge chunk of pages you’ve read as evidenced by the stack of pages on the left side of your lap and the small stack on the right side.

The experience of a book over time

One of the limitations of the physical book, which I touched on earlier, is the fact that they don’t provide affordances for how I’ve experienced them over time.

I’m a book mutilator. After high school when I learned I could actually write in a book, it was like a religious experience. Ever since then I’ve been quick to underline and write every stray thought in the margins. Now when I happen to re-read a physical book of mine I’m always astounded at a particular thought I had in the past: “Whoa - I thought of that! I was so much smarter five years ago!”

This is one area where I really expected the digital book to knock things out of the park.

In a physical book I can see previous annotations that I’ve made, but it’s hard for me to make more as I have taken up the physical space for these things. Here again, iBooks offers a good example of how ebook manufactures have failed to take full advantage of innovative technologies.  Annotations that I’ve made in this electronic book are digital sothere’s no need for them to be tied to the object of the book. Despite this, my iBooks annotations are only available to me if I am looking at that particular ebook. There aren’t real affordances for me to see how I experienced a book before and how I’m experiencing it now.


If you give someone your hardback copy of “Lord of the Rings” you had in college, that’s a nice gift. Emailing someone your digital copy of the same book is, well, not such a nice gift.

Ebooks have no sense of sacrifice or transferability. They don’t enable you to signal that you wanted the other person to share your experience so much that you are willing to part with something in order for them to join your literary history.

This is, of course, a problem with anything digital: you share it, and it has the taint of piracy or copying. Maybe ebooks needs a way to do a certified transfer, a confirmation that you have truly gifted the book – maybe even with all your annotations and notes, so there is a true sense of loss in exchange for the thrill of giving.

Where do you see the book going?

I’m really eager to hear other people’s thoughts on this. Have a Kindle? An iPad with iBooks? What parts of digital reading do you love and which ones have you reaching for your trusty physical books?

– Rob

Team Scholastica