Can paper compete with eBooks?

“Back in my day sonny, people would read books that were made of trees!” I can picture it now. Sat in an armchair smelling like an old person and looking boring, I tell my disinterested, hyperactive cyborg grandchildren that they’ve never had it so good. “2011 was the year of the eBook,” I say in a mumbling, tired voice, before I drift off to sleep again and my family drive away in their flying car. Because technology moves fast, and it cuts a destructive path through things that get old, and, well, paper just got old.

Sure, eBook readers have been around since 1998, but all 1998 could offer us as heavy as a hardback that needed to be recharged with every page turn, which could only store about a dozen of our favourite Horrid Henry books. Importantly, all these things did was read books. No one bought the devices for a reason, and consequently, no one bought eBooks. However, today’s apps and devices that are on offer are revolutionising the way we read to such an extent that, since April of this year, people are now buying more eBooks than paper books. Does this mean reading will never be the same?

Paper as a medium for books has been a technology that hasn’t really seen much innovation over the centuries. Some might say this is, however, because it’s the perfect technology: its batteries never run out. To many, books become part of the reader’s identity, taking up a symbolic space on the bookshelf, whilst the scent of a new book will always beat the plastic stink of new electronics. Giving someone an eBook doesn’t have quite the same feel as wrapping up a beautifully bound book and handing it to them, ribbon ’n’ all. So why would we ever want to give this up for one more thing to go in our bags that has a screen, a battery and fiddly buttons?

A quick glance at Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader, for example, indeed shows just how far technology has come in offering features that see paper losing ground. First of all, there’s the screen. Utilising e-ink instead of the liquid crystal found in computer monitors, the Kindle doesn’t cause the eye-fatigue we’re all used to when staring at a computer screen waiting for an assignment to write itself. The low-power e-ink can be read like a normal book under direct sunlight without eyestrain, and it means that your Kindle need only be charged once a month. As comfortable as paper: check, as reliable as paper: not quite.

The game changer, however, is not only in its ability to hold 1,500 books, but also in its connectivity. The 3G model allows users to purchase books wherever they are in the world. Magazine and newspaper subscriptions are no longer delivered straight to your doorstep, but rather straight to wherever you and your Kindle are. In the same way, your pile of holiday reading now weighs only 249 g, which is even less than the average paperback. Forget your Kindle on the train journey? Whoops! Never mind – fire up the Kindle app on your Mac… or your iPhone… or your Android phone… or your iPad, and pick up from exactly where you left off. “Hey friends! This is my favourite page from Knitting Rules!” – that’s right, Facebook and Twitter integration means no one will be left in the dark about your reading habits.

This brings us on to another thing. All of these features are moot points when we consider the reality of those licence agreements we always agree to but never read when we turn on our new gadgets for the first time. No matter how many eBooks you buy or whether you hide your eBook reader in a safe, the company that made it can find out exactly what you’re reading at any given time, and will exercise complete control over what can go on it and what can stay on it. To illustrate this, in 2009, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was fittingly deleted from each and every Kindle due to Amazon unwittingly selling unlicensed copies of the book. My dog-eared copy of my favourite novel might not be as cutting-edge as its eBook equivalent, but I can be sure that if I bury it in a box in my garden, ten years later it’ll still be there, albeit a little muddy, regardless of whether Mr. Waterstone or Mr. Smith sold it to me properly.

As great as bookshops are, their books cost money. One might expect their products to require some kind of monetary exchange, but there’s a myriad of gems out there (i.e. any fiction published before 1900) that no longer have any copyright, which allows services like Project Gutenberg to offer the classics for free in eBook form, making culturally significant material accessible for all, even if the paper version only costs £1.

At the end of the day, trade-offs and compromises have to be made when it comes to technology. Increasingly, it comes down to selling your soul to a different corporate devil in the name of a few novel and interesting advantages. EBook stores might mean books will never need to go out of print, but they threaten the existence of bookshops and that sentimental mix of paper and ink we call books, which together unarguably deserve fierce protection from dying out.