Mike Twohy "Books on Paper" New Yorker cartoonI wrote yesterday about a thought-provoking question: are people ‘returning’ to paper books? Much as I hate turning the ‘print and paper’ debate into an either/or, a this vs. that thing, I do know at least a few people who tried out eBooks and it didn’t stick. It’s a legitimate question to ask if this is part of a bigger trend, even if the ‘either/or’ binary is a bit simplistic.

One of the comments on the story, from our longtime reader Marilynn, asks about the subject of availability, which is ‘never factored in.’ By availability, she referred to the subject of bookstores. But it struck me that there are actually a few issues of availability, and the issue of what gets ‘factored in’ or not is an interesting one. For example:

– Another commenter remarked that Kindle books can be borrowed from the library. Um, not in Canada, they can’t. We all need to be careful we don’t assume that just because we can access something, everyone else can access it too.

– On a similar note, what about availability of eBooks? Sure, the Kindle store is in many countries, but it’s not in all countries. And many books are still burdened with geographical restrictions. What can an English-speaking expat in, say, Africa, access online?

– And availability of language—what about that? How many Spanish eBooks are there? How many French ones? My public library has several hundred French eBooks, for instance, but the lion’s share of them are either public domain materials (Dumas, Victor Hugo and so on) or children’s series. What is an adult who has already read Dumas supposed to borrow?

– And, too, there is the availability of the internet itself. I read a heart-breaking series in the Star last year about the plight of children in First Nations schools. One of the things they specifically mentioned was that many of the great, free on-line stuff cannot be used to supplement a meagre and outdated textbook stash because the school’s internet connection is spotty at best. We need a greater variety of materials which can be downloaded and read off-line. We need people to compile these materials onto CD or memory sticks for schools in these communities. We cannot assume that everyone can just access and read.

The whole eBook ‘question’ truly cannot be reduced to ‘either this. or that’ with a clear winner. Many people continue to read both paper and electronic materials. There is no ‘winner’ or ‘loser,’ just different usage scenarios.


  1. People will argue nonetheless. Like cat people vs dog people, Apple vs Windows, Democrate vs Republican (in the USA), brown rice vs white rice, or whatever vs whatnot.

    There are people on both sides ebook vs print with powerful beliefs who have no intention of budging.

    I read about 75% ebooks, but most my sympathies probably belong to the print side. Or maybe I just don’t care much the things ebook people feel passionate about – DRM doesn’t bug me, indifference towards the public domain, no interest in self-published books, not troubled when an ebook costs more than {fill in $ amount}. I guess the main benefit is instant availability and storage.

    If one or the other were to actually “go away” leaving only its opponent, I probably would get over it.

  2. Before I got my first Kindle I used to go to the only major bookstore here in the UK, Waterstones. Borders had closed down years before and there aren’t many large bricks and mortar book stores here. It seemed like more times than not they wouldn’t have the book or books I was looking for and they would have to be ordered. I gave up and started using Amazon. Once the Kindle came out I got one and book choice wasn’t an issue any more.

    As I’m getting older and my sight is getting worse I like the fact that I can increase the font size on my kindle, can’t do that with a paper book.

    Yes I do read the odd paperback that I get for review purposes but 99% of my reading is done on a Kindle. Space is also an issue when it comes to actual paperbacks, small house equals less space for books. I find that e-books are actually cheaper than paper ones as well, here in the UK anyway. For travel purposes as well an e- reader is easier to carry than a huge book or bag of books depending on where I am going.

    This debate will continue for as long as both options are available to people. I think there is no right or wrong, as long as people read, no matter the format, that is the most important thing.

  3. Another factor to consider is that paper books, having had a few centuries to refine their form, are probably at the top of their game. Good as they may be, they aren’t going to get much better.
    Digital books, OTOH, are relative newborns. Years from now, we will probably look back at the eBooks of today and remark about their primitiveness.
    As you say, “this debate will continue for as long as both options are available to people” but that may not be all that long a time.
    The eBook medium is way ahead of authors and publishers right now. Let’s se what happens when they catch up a bit more.

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