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The Great Debate: e-book versus paperback

In praise of the e-book

by Jen Webb, Professor of Creative Practice

Jen WebbAn inordinate amount of my life has been spent in handling books: packing up my library to relocate it as I move from city to city, and country to country; finding a new house large enough to accommodate it; unpacking and re-shelving the thousands of increasingly foxed and dusty volumes. I have spent hundreds of hours hunting for books I mis-shelved and now need, but cannot find; or leafing through the pages of a book, hunting for that perfect quote I remember reading there, somewhere, some time. So much investment of time, money and environmental resources[1] in what is, for the most part, really just a series of containers for ideas or story. And then came the e-book, and with it the heavenly library:[2] one whose books I need never stack and shelve and pack and ship; whose books are available to me anywhere, any time; are never mis-shelved, never eaten by silverfish; caused no trees to be harmed in their production, no oil to be spent on their transport; one whose books are swiftly and easily searched, who give up their content without complaint. And e-books offer more than just words on a page; they allow the possibility of transformative ways of making or of consuming a literary work, incorporating images, moving text, audio text, literary experiment and all.[3] Yes, e-books have their limitations; but taken all in all, I'll take the heavenly library.

In praise of the paperback

by Paul Magee, Associate Professor of Poetry

Paul MageeBooks rot, their pages yellow, they crumple and tear, put one in a bucket of water overnight and you'll have mulch. But computer files are even more precarious. News Flash September 3 2012. Bruce Willis is considering a lawsuit against Apple to ensure he can pass on his digital music library to his daughters after he dies (you don't own the data in those files, they are just licensed to you, and the license is not transferable). His wife tweets in to say it's not true.[4] But your legal status[5] in relation to file ownership is not the only concern. Computer formats change rapidly, hardware too, partially because built-in obsolescence is a way to make money. The disaster of efforts like the 1986 BBC Doomsday Project — it involved a million participants and the technology was already obsolescent, the data inaccessible, by 2002 — underline that your electronic possessions will rot too, or rather suddenly vanish.[6] But why shouldn’t I read about all this in electronic versions?[7] Your e-copy of the books I have referenced here will not make a good door-stop. Its device goes flat. You cannot read it during take-off.[8] It will not stare at you from a bookcase in ten years time demanding your attention. Make a commitment. Get a book.[9] Books offer the pleasure, joy and responsibility of engaging page by page with something as honest as the creases and marks of time.


[1] See, for example, Djelloul Marbrook (2007 ‘Must we kill trees?’ Op-Ed contribution, Realtime News, http://newsblaze.com/story/20071123065920tsop.nb/topstory.html) for alternative ways to connect with book content

[2] Young, Sherman 2007 The book is dead (long live the book), Sydney: UNSW Press

[3] Perloff, Marjorie 2006 ‘Screening the page, paging the screen’, in A Morris and T Swiss (eds) New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, Cambridge and London: MIT Press: 143-64.

[4] Hemming-Willis, Emma (EmmaHemming). “it’s not a true story.” 3 September 2012 7.32 am. Tweet.

[5] Carroll, Evan and Romano, John. Your Digital Afterlife. New York: New Riders, 2010. Print.

[6] Gladney, Herny. Preserving Digital Information. Heidelberg: Springer 2007. Print.

[7] Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future. New York: Public Affairs, 2010. Print.

[8] Bevan, Kate. “Why do I have to Switch off my Kindle for Take-off and Landing”. The Guardian 27 September 2012. Print.

[9] E.g. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. The Sorrows of Young Werther. London: Penguin, 1989. Print.