Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Paper versus Electronic Books

I've been reading -- really scanning -- articles about how paper books are better than the Kindle. One researcher did add reading on an iPhone but I got the sense that it was a trick to throw off the track.

What it comes down to is new technology versus old technology.

Books have been around in paper form for a few centuries. Before that books were printed on vellum/parchment which consists of the cleaned and scraped and tanned skin of lambs. Each book was hand printed and the designs painted directly on the skin and were the property of the church, especially in the Middle Ages, and of only the wealthy. Publishing has gone through many different phases since the lambskin days and the advent of printing the Bible on cheap paper so that the average man and woman could read, which was the initial reason behind the Latin Vulgate Bible (vulgate from the Latin word meaning vulgar or common).

Books before the 20th century were printed on cotton, rags to be precise, and rag pickers delivered much of the rags used to make books. Books printed on cotton paper have lasted for centuries, but not so books printed on pulp paper (hence the whole pulp fiction genre) which contains a high level of acid and crumble within a few years -- usually about 5 years of continuous use, and often less time. Pulp paper is cheaper to make and also cheaper to throw away as evidenced by the millions of tons of paper books that are thrown into landfills. That is pure waste. Those books are published by traditional publishers by the millions and most end up as the base for new land, new home developments, and reclamation projects that are built on the billions of tons of trash generated every day. Even in the dawn of the 20th century, publishers that actually printed high quality, rag content books were being bludgeoned into submission and out of business by the pulp paper publishers. After all, who really wants to pay a high price for a book printed on rag paper when they can get cheap books printed on paper pulp that must be purchased again when the old ones wear out?

Now comes the advent of electronic books, e-books, and the need for precious resources like cotton and rags and pulp paper declines -- and so does the need for big publishing houses churning out billions of paper books. Why buy a book that will be destroyed or succumb to the ravages of time and need to be replaced when electronic books are available that use so few resources and are cheap? And if those e-books are put out by a specific retailer that has managed to make a fortune manufacturing better and cheaper tools to read those ebooks what does that leave for the traditional publishers to do but give in to the retailer and cut their profit margin?

What we have here is a battle between pulp paper book publishers and Amazon and all the stops are being pulled out to destroy Amazon, or at least reduce it to a point where the publishers can retain their royalties and their market share. Ebooks will end their reign of prosperity and watch dog status over who does and who does not get published.

Some of the studies I've read have no double-blind or control group phases and seem to be based on pseudoscience rather than hard science that relies on facts and figures and repeatable experiments with hard data. Most people don't realize that publishers also own newspapers and media outlets as well as publish books and they control the flow of information demonizing their opponents in order to achieve their objectives -- more profits and control of the flow of information -- and books.

I will not fisk every single one of the articles I read, but I will say this: reading an ebook on a computer or tablet or cellular phone is not the same as reading on a Kindle. Those other devices have access to the Internet and usually notify the user that email or RSS feeds are available, pulling the reader away from the book currently on the screen. Such devices do not help the reader maintain their focus or their attention; there is too much else going on at the same time. A paper book has no bells or whistles and only the print on the page. When one sits down to read from a book one is going to be stuck there -- as long as the TV is not on and the myriad cable channels just a wrist flick away on the remote. No one mentions those facts.

I did see one article mention that the resources used in creating the Kindle are toxic and cannot be recycled so plowing them into the landfill might cause serious consequences down the line, but so do cars and geo-engineering and contrails filling our atmosphere with heavy metals in order to control the climate, but no one mentions those either.

The solution to toxic materials is to make Kindles and other e-book readers out of sustainable materials that can be recycled or trashed in a landfill. I have not yet seen any claims by publishers that dumping millions of tons of paper books every single year into landfills has been stopped or the renewable resources that went into creation of those books being recycled or renewably sustained in another form -- outside of folding the pages and turning the unwanted, unread books into doorstops after they are suitable painted. Publishers also have offered no move back to rag paper or paper from hemp, both of which have a much longer shelf life and are less acidic than pulp paper books. What they haven't said is as loud as a scream of horror during a moment of silence -- and just as memorable.

If there is less attention to reading and more of a Mayfly attitude while reading an e-book on a device, blame the Internet and the millions of other things vying for the reader's attention and not the device, especially when the paper white technology pioneered by Amazon.com has been proven to be as easy on the eyes as a book on paper. The other features of the e-book are easily learned and e-books are a fairly recent technological breakthrough and need time for people to fully adapt.

If Norwegian high schoolers have trouble remember what comes next and cannot adequately discuss the plot points and characters of the novel or essay they are being given to read, I'd consider conducting the same experiment over a larger age range of the population with the same material and with different reading devices before claiming categorically that e-books provide no information and e-readers get less from the device than from the paper book without also examining the mind set, the behavior, and the tools used for the study. In short, a really scientific approach with double-blind and control group studies should be used and the bias left outside the testing facility.

There is room for both paper and electronic books and benefits can be had equally from both. 

That is all. Disperse.

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