I read books a lot, both physical and digital books, and I often question myself about the difference in experience in reading these two. There are some obvious differences like format, shape or weight, and obvious similarities like reading pages or bookmarking. I would like, however, to focus on one particular quality of a book that is the most important difference between any physical and digital good — meaning.
With each new book I read, I change. Some books make me laugh, some make me feel depressed and some can achieve both. Design books that I read every single day make me feel more confident and more excited about my job. In this sense, there’s no difference between a book and an ebook.
But when I buy a physical book, it starts to live a life of its own. After reading it for days or weeks, the book changes. It’s not brand new anymore. It loses the smell of a new book (luckily, most of that wonderful smell is being inhaled by me). Edges of papers lose their sharpness. Cover becomes slightly bent and you can tell it was read just by looking at it. When I put a book on a shelf it becomes a part of the space I live in and it continues to change over time. It becomes a reminder that all the things with ephemeral beauty represent the life itself. This transience and decay of things around me remind me that I should use every moment of my life since I will go through the same lifecycle as that book.
Bookshelf is one of the most important parts of our home and it takes a central place in the living room. The wooden shelf also changes over time and has its own aging marks. That part of my home is my tranquility. From time to time, my wife and I love to rearrange the books and by doing that we enliven our living space and get in touch with things that have changed meanwhile. The oldest book that we have was printed in 1914!
With an ebook, as with any other digital good, there’s no such relationship. Ebooks will always look and feel the same, stored in some folder, away from my eyes and hands. Ebook is not part of my life in the same way a book is. I can have this relationship with the device I use to read an ebook, but not with the ebook itself. All digital goods, be it ebooks, software, documents or images give me a sense of permanency and immutability. They are sterile. And that sterility prevents me from getting in touch with transience and gives me a sense of timelessness. Which is just an illusion.
It is not the question of is one better than the other. I will continue to read both physical and digital books as I was doing so far. It is just that I still can’t find the right place for digital goods in my life.
Originally published on my blog on December 18, 2013.