Books: Electronic, Print, and Both

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Over breakfast the other morning, NPR's Morning Edition told me that there's a new children's version of Homer's The Odyssey on the market by author Gillian Cross and illustrator Neil Packer.

In an interview, Cross and Packer said that the richness of Packer's illustrations required a print version for true appreciation because today's e-readers aren't sophisticated enough with graphics to do them justice. They pointed out that illustrated children's books in general are still best experienced in print—and it's hard to disagree with that statement.

I'm a real-book reader. I see the value of e-readers—portability being the primary argument for me—but I dislike reading anything of substance on electronics and even the e-readers with "ink" screens feel lacking. I miss the sensation of holding an actual book, touching the pages, turning them in my hands, and gauging how far into the text I am by how thick the stack is in my left hand as opposed to my right. I miss being able to highlight and underline and take notes in margins.

Yet even with this bias, something the author said toward the end of the segment triggered a pondering.

Cross stated that she thought certain books should only ever exist in print. Not that they should always have a print version in addition to an electronic version—but that there shouldn’t be an electronic version of some books at all.


As much as I love printed books, I agree with e-book proponents that we should have electronic versions. Over time, most people will use e-readers almost exclusively. I hope we never lose printed books entirely—they provide an experience impossible to match with electronics, no matter how advanced gadgets become—yet over time they will become niche objects. If a book is only in printed form, aren't we dooming it at some level?

Yet are we endangering particular books as well by only producing them in electronic versions? What happens if formats change—as they do often do—of either the e-texts or the computers on which they're housed? Who will take control of reformatting them? How do all the proprietary turf battles—making one e-reader's book incompatible with a competing device—affect what's read and what's readable?