Why Papers Books Beat iBooks

Dieter Bohn, over at The Verge, has a masterful analysis of paper-based books versus Apple iBooks (and eBooks in general). A few choice quotations are below, but you should really just take a few minutes of your day and go read the whole article.

 The list of “specs” for your standard paper book gets surprisingly long when you expand your definition of technology to include elements that don’t require a computer chip.

  • Readable with any form of light
  • Very high contrast display
  • Requires no battery power
  • Depending on model, lasts anywhere from five to five thousand years or more
  • Immersive and non-distracting user interface
  • Offers a spatial layout for immediate access to random information
  • Conforms to the standardized “page number” spec for easy reference
  • Supports direct interaction via pen or highlighter
  • DRM-free for easy lending and resale
  • Standards-based system not controlled by any single corporation or entity
  • Crash-proof and immune to viruses (though vulnerable to some worms)
  • Easy to learn user-interface consistent across most manufacturers
  • Supports very large number of colors and also black and white images
  • Compatible with a wide variety of note taking systems

I understand that free and open access to paper books isn’t available everywhere, that various hegemonies have stifled and do stifle dissent. Books can be burned, banned, and censored. But if we are going to be putting our collective knowledge into digital formats with DRM, we are adding another layer of possible censorship on top of the layers of control we already contend with. This isn’t (entirely) paranoia that Apple or Amazon will control access to human knowledge, it’s also a practical concern founded in the experience of being blocked by poorly designed DRM.


The thousand year view is simple: if you’re going to commit knowledge to writing in some form, you need to ensure that it will exist and be readable in a thousand years. I can tell you that I’ve personally gained insight and understanding about our world by reading a lightly-distributed instruction manual for rural, parish priests in England — written in the fourteenth century. Will an independently-created iBook 2 textbook be around in the thirty first century?


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