When I was growing up, our living room had a library of books that filled two walls, floor to ceiling. The books belonged to my father, who lovingly collected them from each new town or city he visited--an old bookstore was the first thing he would scout out when we arrived, and he could stay there, quite happily, for hours, browsing through the stacks, reading a passage here, a page there, until he came away with his selections of three or four new (actually, old) books to take home with him. His vast collection contained books on art, nature, poetry, countries of the world, and languages (he studied seven), but most of all, he collected classic novels, and the older the publication date, the better. (Those are some of his books, pictured above and below. Beautiful, no?)
If my father were alive today, I wonder what he would think of the curious evolution of books, from the printed page to the electronic one. I'm sure he wouldn't have given up his habit of collecting old books (nor should he have), but as a nature-lover, wouldn't he appreciate that books have evolved to a point where we no longer have to cut down trees to make them? Saving Trees = Green, right? To that point, I just read an article noting how 80,000 copies of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom had to be pulped due to typographical errors. (Yikes, that makes me cringe just writing it.) With an e-book, the publisher can simply correct any errors electronically.
You would think that e-readers are the greener option just on the tree issue alone. But there's more to consider when weighing the environmental impact of one versus the other. In an article from the Sierra Club entitled "E-Readers vs. Old-Fashioned Books: Which is Eco-Friendler?", the author writes:
"The key to the answer is that basic tenet of sustainability, life cycle analysis. We must consider not only the trees needed to make paper versus the manufacturing of electronics products, but the shipping costs, fuel, and ultimately, the energy needed to recycle these materials at the end of their days. Not to mention, what ultimately happens to e-waste? Where do the non-recyclable remains end up?"
An article from The New York Times' green blog notes that it all depends on how much you read. If you're a big reader, the electronic version of books will quickly offset the environmental impact of buying all of those same books in paper. According to Casey Harrell of Greenpeace, quoted in the same NYT article, borrowing from your public library is one of your greenest choices. I'd venture that buying from a second-hand book shop is another wise environmental option--if you're not going out of your way (i.e., using extra gas) to get there. (By the way, there are two second-hand book shops that are my all-time favorites: Strand Bookstore in New York City ("18 miles of books!"), and The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, the latter of which has dozing dogs and cats nestled in among the stacks, along with "browsing gardens." Heaven!)
There are some important ancillary issues for the debate of which format is better. For example, are e-readers beneficial or harmful to authors? I found an interesting essay on that topic at Popcorn Reads, entitled "The Effect of E-Books and E-Readers on Authors", with the writer noting that piracy is much more of an issue with electronic media. (Side-note to all e-pirates out there: You've seen my digital copyright notices on this blog, right?) The writer also notes that for e-readers, authors are paid a lower price per book. However, they also can sell more copies. My friend, author Shawn F. Peters (The Catonsville Nine, Oxford University Press, 2012) concurs: "The cost of an e-book is lower, so I get less per sale. I don't mind that, though, because I think I'm selling more books overall."
Are e-books causing the demise of traditional books? Now that Borders has gone out of business while sales of e-readers has continued to climb, I wondered if traditional books were on the same trajectory as typewriters and film cameras. Other than rare, old books, which seem to have taken on a strange, new life as "home decor" (the September 2012 issue of Architectural Digest had a series of arguments in the "Letters" column for and against whether people should use books simply for beautiful props in their homes), do people even want traditional books anymore? So I took an informal poll of my friends on Facebook: "Which do you prefer: books or e-readers?" Books actually finished slightly ahead of e-readers, but quite a few respondents said they use both, with an e-reader for travel and traditional books for home. Several friends noted that it's just not feasible to travel with large books. I'd extend that argument to textbooks for students--my son (age 8) can barely make it up the steps of the bus in the morning with his over-crammed backpack of textbooks. I long for the day when he'll just be able to get the necessary texts electronically. And yet...not so fast. There's also the point to consider about information retention. This article on Time.com makes the case that it's harder to remember what you just read if you read it on an e-reader.
My friend, Steve, made a remark that I could relate to: "I love my Kindle as well as books. Leaning toward my Kindle more and more, though, as the books I store there don't take up any precious shelf space at home!" Amen to that! We are a family that is very big on reading, but our son is such a voracious reader now that he tears through thick books in a couple of days. After he raced through the Harry Potter series (those seven hardcover books alone take up over one cubic foot of space on a shelf!), we quickly realized that our bookshelves just couldn't accommodate his reading habits anymore. I'm horrible at math, but even I could tell that we would soon run out of living space if we were buying every book that my son wanted to read. Now, we get most of his books from the library. We will, however, choose one or two classic books for him for the holidays. His class recently enjoyed reading the amusing poems of Shel Silverstein, so A Light In the Attic is on our gift list. We've found that poetry collections stand the test of time and are well worth the shelf space. I'd add children's picture books as well, if the illustrations are particularly lovely and detailed--they're just not the same on a little screen.
But back to the library for a moment: I've found that it's the perfect way to "test-drive" books. If I really, really, REALLY love the book, then I'll buy it. (This happened recently with New York Times contributor Tim Kreider's thoroughly hilarious book, We Learn Nothing. I was constantly quoting passages from it to friends and family, and soon realized that I just needed to own the book myself so I could lend it out. Note: It's not about environmental things [although there's an interesting chapter on peak oil]--it's a mix of liberal politics and achingly funny personal essays.)
Having collected arguments for both sides, it seems to all boil down to how much you read, how frequently you will read or pass on the book, convenience of time and place--and, oh yes--the all-important coziness factor. Several of my Facebook survey respondents mentioned the experience of cozying up to a good book at home. Rachel Safier, author of the book There Goes the Bride (Jossey-Bass, 2003) noted: "I'm a staunch holdout on e-readers, even as my friends moon over them--and even as I'm packing 500-page books in a carry-on bag. There are very few pleasures that compare to cozying up to a book." I heartily agree with her. Sorry, but electronic devices are just not cozy.
And finally, there's the nostalgia factor. There's a certain dreamy pleasure I get from reading my favorite books from my childhood (and I mean the very same books that I owned, with their yellowed pages and my occasional naughty scribbles). As I read them to my own young children, I savor the bittersweet deja vu of storytime with my parents--many, many years ago. You just can't experience that feeling--or pass it on to your children--with an e-reader.
Food for thought: Where do you stand on the issue of e-books vs. traditional books? Does your decision take into consideration the environmental factors on both sides?
© 2012 by Joy Sussman/JoyfullyGreen.com. All rights reserved. Photos and text digitally fingerprinted. Site licensed by Creative Commons.