rainbow books

When is a book not a book?

Some may argue when it is an electronic book. E-books are so common place today that we have a whole generation growing up and reading from them, both at home and in schools, at a rate some may say threaten to one day supersede physical editions.

An e-book is a book publication made available in digital form, consisting of text and sometimes images, readable on the flat-panel display of computers or other electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Although sometimes defined as an electronic version of a printed book, some e-books exist without a printed equivalent.

Why do we buy e-books?

  • Often lower prices than their physical equivalents (although don't discount charity shop bargains).
  • Increased comfort – purchase from home or on the go. 
  • Portability.
  • A larger selection of titles.
  • Greater access – students can login from school/university and at home.
  • Improved accessibility.
  • Saves on shelf space – hundreds of books in your hands.
  • Keywords can be electronically searched – great for research. 

Old books in the background with a digital reader and novel in the foreground. Very shallow focus on front edge of book.
Ancient library interior design with massive wooden grey book shelves, full of colorful literature, tomes, publications, and wooden floor. Getty. Library. Books.
Old art books

From page to pixel

With an increasingly common shift in medium over the last decade we have seen a migration from pages to screens and this can raise mixed opinions. What is your reaction to the new media approach to the book? 

Are you thrilled by the convenience of having hundreds of books to hand, anywhere you go? Or, do you feel something magical is lost when letters are produced by pixels rather than ink? 

The way we feel may depend on what generation we are, as well as our reading habits and desire to physically hold an object. 

It's probably quite likely many of us can contemplate both the advantages and disadvantages the rise of digital publications has brought us. For the younger generations e-books may open up many new worlds to them previously deemed impenetrable by the weight – in both senses of the word – of a physical book. Equally for those of us with sight issues, or have a reading disorder such as dyslexia, e-books with their ability to increase font size makes reading as a past time so much more accessible and therefore enjoyable. 

E-books also open up more opportunities for everyone to read because of their portability – from commutes to work and school by train and bus there becomes more accessible moments to read throughout the day.

Does the e-book change how we read?

“The physical grappling with the book's heft while cognitively attending to the text at hand seems to unite the body and the mind in ways that arguably occur to a lesser degree when facing a screen.”

– Book Presence in a Digital Age

Although on a tablet the act of reading – holding it in our hands, turning pages with our fingers – is similar to an actual book, how much, if at all, does it take away from us not having to physically grabble with a book as an object, as we simultaneously connect the words being read with our own personal interpretations?

With the addition of a screen, touchpad and/or keyboard on e-readers, it could be argued the distance between the reader and the text in one sense has increased and lightened the load of a reading experience.

Once we have read a digital page, we swipe a finger and it's gone. There is only a single plane; the current page being read. Although we're always told how far we have read and how many pages we have to go, the digital reading experience removes from us a sense of density. 

We lack the experience of watching the bookmark slowly move its way through the pages from beginning to end, which for some might be a more satisfying means to track progress. 

The bookmark is a waypoint and our guide – perhaps though only because this has been the normal for so long. For some this may be a real positive with e-books removing the possible daunting prospect of traversing through x number of pages and allowing the reader to just enjoy reading in the moment.

An adult man staying at home and reading on a tablet during lockdown.
Group of children sitting on library floor and searching a books.
Girl reading on a digital tablet in the bed.

Quickness over quality?

We can all self-publish today easily on electronic formats. And with this freedom there is naturally a greater surge of texts and a possible argument from some quarters that suggests a decline in the quality of writing by publishing in this manner. 

When someone has a book officially published so much effort has been made by multiple parties to ensure that the language and layout are exactly how they should be. 

A book is a statement, so confident that it's printed in ink.

A story created and shared across screens can be more easily cut up and moved around, attached and downloaded, or simply deleted. 

This should definitely not distract however from the fact that it has never been so accessible for anybody to write and share stories and that surely is a huge point of celebration.

Physical book as vessel

“When I read a book, I'm handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take a book off the shelf it still says the same things – that's assuring.”

– Jonathan Franzen, American author

A book can be seen as a measure of not just a certain quality, but also a historic record of a certain time and place. A book is an exchange of flesh, from mind to hand. The act of writing, of course, once consisting of the touch of human skin onto animal skin.

For some, the book is a vessel for something greater. It is a tomb, an almost religious relic. It has a soul.

Even though every book we read today is a copy of the original, this can feel more apparent to some with a digital book because this version is even more far removed from the original source – depending on individual circumstances this may or may not affect the enjoyment of reading this way.

A black modern tablet is next to a stack of different books.
University of Plymouth Charles Seale Hayne Library bookshelves
Digital tablet in a library or book.

The allure of the stacked shelf

(Pandemic and social distancing measures aside) Will a thumbnail of a book's cover ever have the same allure of walking into a bookshop and being wooed across the way by a striking cover or a stack of books immaculately presented on a promo table?

Do some of us share a certain type of guilt when we enjoy reading on a tablet? Especially in these years of the pandemic where so many local bookshops have had to close during lockdowns and are struggling for business. And don't forget, this was the case even before COVID-19, with global e-commerce giants edging closer to a monopoly on book orders. 

If we imagine some dystopian world where no more independent book shops existed, how many of us would miss walking into one – or a library – and asking for a book recommendation? 

Or does browsing online stores best sellers or a high street book chain curated list suffice these days?

'To browse or scroll', that is the question

A book shop or library could be seen as a less scroll-intensive version of Twitter or Instagram – social media platforms where recommendations and suggestions can come and go by the second. 

If you happen to hit upon the latest zeitgeist or buzzword on your own timeline then it may lead to some success – the book or author may even trend – but as we know, often it is those that shout loudest that get seen, meaning there are possibilities of many great books being lost in the noise and read by a lesser audience. 

Whereas in a book shop or library, people can browse and soak up the atmosphere. It is a different – some would argue better – environment to take your time.

With print books, readers are increasingly browsing through tiny images of covers on publisher or bookstore websites and selecting and ordering titles online. Do many of us think about the books standing there, waiting for us, on shelves to be bought and read? Saying, 'remember us, we exist'. 

When we read the latest bestseller on a tablet, it is powered by layers of software and is tucked away not on shelves but somewhere high up in the cloud. Turn it off and everything goes dark. The book now absent. 

Reading by its nature is ephemeral, but to some it might still feel like a more genuine experience when reading from a physical book.

Student reading electronic book from portable digital tablet at the table.
A group of modern fiction books is on display in a book store window.
Closed sign on the front door of a book shop.

Does print still matter?

Despite concerns within the industry that with the rise of digital media the printed book would not be able to survive, it seems quite the opposite – with this exposing threat put upon it, the demand for printed books is still as strong as ever. 

It seems however much our lives are dominated by electronic devices and resources with their greater accessibility and portability, the demand for print is still high. 

Despite the inconveniences that a bound edition can bring, it still holds a certain magic that cannot be denied.

Rather than point towards the death of the book and look upon new media as a threat, a better way to view it is as the next step in a long line of transformations. 

Another step in the process which has seen the written word move from wooden tablets to papyrus rolls, from parchment to paper codices, from woodblock and moveable-type printing to offset lithography.

A place on the shelf for both?

Ultimately, there is a place for both printed and digital books in our lives. There are advantages and disadvantages of both mediums and we can be thankful we can make our own choices depending on our current personal circumstances. Reading, in any shape or format, is something magical and a pleasure everyone should be able to experience. A good story is a good story no matter how it is read, told, or listened to – the rise in popularity of audiobooks continue to open up the world of reading even more so.

Digital books have removed so many stories from previous boundaries. Obstacles have been removed. Space is cleared. So much is now available with the swipe of a finger and that should be celebrated as much as the print of every great new book.

At the same time, we are increasingly seeing a number of physical books that have been inspired by the digital world – not just by becoming more 'book-ish' and collectable, but also by being a comment on the digital experience.

“I think the physical object is very appealing. Publishers are producing incredibly gorgeous books, so the cover designs are often gorgeous, they’re beautiful objects. The book lover loves to have a record of what they’ve read, and it’s about signalling to the rest of the world. It’s about decorating your home, it’s about collecting.”

– Meryl Halls, managing director Booksellers’ Association UK

Some novels have even attempted to recreate the experience of jumping through digital space, from webpage to webpage, via pages working as hypertexts which are still grounded to the written word. 

This can be seen in the shifting micro-narratives within The Nocilla Trilogy by Agustín Fernández Mallo, Matthew McIntosh's shapeshifting epic, TheMystery.doc, or S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, which chronicles two readers finding each other in the margins of a library book. 

Whereas The Familiar series by Mark Z. Danielewski takes tropes from TV and film to create a network of stories that may or may not exist with a virtual world of computer code.

“People always need knowledge and people always need stories, so from that point of view, the very core of the book industry I am sure is very strong.

“I’ll be really interested to see what the classroom of the future is because I think that will dictate a huge amount as to how future generations will engage with the written word … Or will it be the spoken word, but it will still be stories and it will still be knowledge, those aspects of books will still need to be curated.

“So, I think that the book, in whatever format, has a strong future,”

– Jacks Thomas, director of The London Book Fair

At the simplest level the book is the story, not the delivery system – no matter if it is a physical book, a graphic novel, an ebook or an audio book. And it is through stories that we can entertain and educate ourselves and each other, so the more access and ability we have to share our stories is surely a very positive thing.


'Book Presence in a Digital Age', Editor(s): Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, Kári Driscoll, Jessica Pressman, 2018.

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