Books versus the machine

Reading in the age of the e-reader

June 12, 2012

Paper and ink books have been around since the days of Gutenberg. But today, printed books of all kinds, as well as bookstores and publishers, are facing both a socio-cultural and financial revolution. Simply put, the future of the physical book, if not reading itself, is in transition and doubt.

The immediate course of this consternation in the book industry is, of course, e-books and the growing variety of e-book readers. Putting aside the financial questions of whether bookstores of any shape or size will survive, as a reader, the essential question for me is: “real books” or e-books?

If you are a purist, e-books and e-readers are just one more step towards the complete takeover by machines in our lives. Computers fly our planes, do our banking and have transformed written communication. But before I leave on vacation, I can download 40 books to take with me, instead of carefully choosing, by author and weight, the books I can carry along. E-books offer the voracious reader the luxury of a library in their briefcase or purse. They offer flexibility.

Audio books are another digital option. I don’t know about you, but I find it boring to listen to the radio while driving. Except for public radio and a few music channels, everything else is pretty much political talk radio, sports and bad music. But if you drive 45 minutes each way to work every day, you can get through a 380-page novel in about 32 round trips. For me, audio books are a guilty pleasure; I get to listen to the kinds of novels (mysteries and detective procedurals) that I otherwise wouldn’t have time for.

And what of the book itself? I, for one, like the feel of books. I enjoy the ease of writing notes on the page, underlining and bending back the page to keep my place. I like to hold books; somehow it makes me feel more engaged in the act of reading. I like the look of books: Their colorful jackets, their size and shape fascinate me. Most of all, I love my library, because it’s a room full of books that are old friends. And, I simply can’t imagine feeling as comfortable in a room full of CD jewel cases and my iPad. I agree with Cicero, who once said, “A room without books is a body without a soul.”

Putting aside my personal preference, the real issue here is reading – not the platform used to read. Books are an intergalactic traveling device. They have been our “windows to the world” long before radio, TV or computers infiltrated our lives. So take your pick of devices. Just make sure you keep reading.

Al Gini is a professor of business ethics and chair of the department of management at Loyola University Chicago. He is also the co-founder and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, and the author of several books, including My Job, My Self and Seeking the Truth of Things: Confessions of a (catholic) Philosopher.