Paper Beats Electrons

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I've uncovered a potentially catastrophic rift in the space-time continuum. If our top scientists don't quickly start paying attention to the problem and find a solution, it may soon be too late for humanity. I'm surprised that no one else has noticed it yet, but think about it. Certain events remain a constant distance in the future no matter how far the clock on the wall advances. That shouldn't be possible in a universe governed by the laws of physics as we know them.

I'm not talking about the silly, inconsequential truisms you were fed as a child such as, "tomorrow never comes." No, I'm talking about important, measurable technological milestones that are always an invariable period in the future.

Fuel cell cars are a good example. For more than a decade, the leading experts in the field have been telling us that mass-produced fuel cell cars are 10 years away. They're still telling us that. They'll probably be saying the same thing a decade from now.

Another example is electronic books. For some time now, industry gurus have been telling us that the mass adoption of e-books is just around the corner. Yet, no matter how far we travel, that corner always seems to be the same distance ahead.

If we don't do something to rectify this situation, and do something rapidly, a day may come when time stops completely. Then where will we be? What will happen if that day arrives after you receive an exceptionally large bill from a particularly belligerent company, but before you pay it? Bill collectors will hound you for all eternity. It's true that you only have two legs for them to break but, still, we definitely need to solve this predicament quickly.

When it comes to e-books, I think I know why this is happening. Rather than being just around the corner, the mass adoption of e-books is some long and indeterminate length of time away for the plain and simple reason that printed books are far superior to e-books and will continue to be so for quite a while to come.

Here are just a few of the more obvious, substantial advantages of printed books over e-books:

  • You can take a voluminous, engaging printed novel to the beach and read it from cover to cover without stopping if you wish. That's not entirely true. You might feel more than a little discomfort unless you occasionally stop reading in order to find a toilet and, after sitting under the hot sun for a few hours, also stop to drink a lot of liquids to replenish your bodily fluids. I probably have the order of the peeing and drinking activities reversed, but you get my point. (Warning: Before trying this, remember to sit under a large, opaque umbrella or slap on a lot of number 45 sunblock. I refuse to accept any responsibility for melanomas caused by reckless beach reading.)

    This would be difficult with an e-book as the battery will almost certainly conk out before you finish the book. There is a way to overcome this problem, but hooking up a 10-mile-long extension cord would be a bit of a bother. In addition, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the e-book viewer's screen will likely add another grave cancer risk to the one created by the sun's ultraviolet rays.
  • If you get sand in your printed book you can shake it out.

    If you get sand in your e-book viewer, you'll probably have to stop reading, drive all the way back home, and spend hours hunting for the legalese-laden warranty card that came with the viewer. Then, assuming it's still within the warranty period, which normally expires exactly one day before the product breaks down, you'll likely spend several days arguing with the vendor's customer service department about why you think that reading at the beach and having sand kicked at you is a normal use of an e-book viewer.
  • If you read while soaking in the bath and you accidentally drop your printed book, you might be able to continue reading it while it's still soggy or you may have to wait until it dries out before you can resume your enjoyment of it. At worst, you'll have to buy a new copy.

    If you drop an e-book viewer in the bath your heart may stop after the device's electric current passes through you. That seems like a rather extreme punishment for clumsiness.
  • As long as our written language doesn't become extinct, printed books won't become obsolete.

    You know darn well that, as soon as the high-tech wizards come out with the next generation of viewers, you'll have to discard all of the e-books that you will have bought up to that point as they'll be totally incompatible with the new technology. You don't believe me? Try using your brand new laptop computer to access all of the data you have stored on floppy disks. Funny, but they don't seem to fit into the DVD/CD ROM drive--the only type of drive that they now put in laptops. Try listening to your eight-track tapes on your iPod. And try viewing your Betamax tapes on your VHS video player. Heck, try watching Betamax or VHS tapes on the DVD players that are now almost the only type of video machine you can buy and which will soon also be made obsolete by high-definition DVD players.

    If you're thinking that you'll just hold on to the original viewer so that you'll still be able to read all of your old e-books, forget it. All technology is cleverly designed to irreparably self-destruct within three months of a newer model coming onto the market. Of course, I have no objections to your buying new copies of all your e-books every time a new technology comes out and, thereby, putting more royalties into authors' pockets. Authors are worthy people. I'm just thinking of you.
  • You never have to reboot a printed book.

    In contrast, if e-book viewers work anything like PCs, they'll probably regularly display messages like this: "You've loaded a new chapter. You must restart your viewer for it to take effect. Would you like to restart your viewer now?" That's going become somewhat tiresome when reading a long book with short chapters.
  • You can't catch a virus from a printed book unless someone sneezes on it shortly before handing it to you.

    Within 15 minutes of the e-book devices becoming popular, evil-doers will undoubtedly create computer viruses, adware, and spyware that can be transmitted to e-book viewers. Thus, you can expect your viewer to crash, spew a steady stream of pop-up ads, and disgorge information about your reading habits on a regular basis. Oh, yes; and you'll still be able to catch the biological type of virus if someone sneezes on your e-book viewer.
  • You can scribble notes in the margins of a printed book.

    Any note that you write on an e-book viewer's screen will become utterly meaningless when you call up another page. Besides, you'll likely scratch the screen if you use a ballpoint pen.
  • You can build up an extensive library of printed books to impress the heck out of your friends when they come to visit. What's more, they need never know that you haven't even cracked the covers of 99% of the tomes lining your shelves.

    Electrons, on the other hand, do not make for a particularly impressive bibliophilic exhibition. And, with all of the electronic spying going on in the world today, it probably won't be long before anyone who wants to know will be able to find out whether or not you've actually read the e-books in your collection.
  • Leaving an open printed book or two lying around when a potential mate comes to visit your place for the first time can mark you as an intellectual and, therefore, a good catch for another intelligent person.

    Leaving an open e-book viewer or two lying around will expose its circuit board and semiconductor innards, thereby marking you as a geek, which is reputedly not a very good dating ploy.
  • If you don't enjoy a particular printed book, you can still use it as a paperweight.

    Electrons, even enough of them to transmit an entire book, are much too light to be used as a paperweight.
  • If you don't enjoy a particular printed book but already have more paperweights than paper, you can still get considerable satisfaction out of slam-dunking the book into the garbage as hard as you can.

    Slam-dunking electrons is not the least bit satisfying.
  • There are, unfortunately, still far too many fascists in the world for the printed book market to ever die. Printed books burn well in a bonfire.

    Electrons hardly burn at all. And the viewers will probably just melt, smolder, and emit toxic fumes as they're consumed by the flames. (I don't have any objections to emitting toxic fumes in fascists' presence, but there might be other people passing by.)

    No, unless we can finally find a way to rid the world of fascists, they'll continue to provide a large market for printed books. I hate to suggest that publishers might have to depend on that group for their survival, but at least some good, other than making the trains run on time, may come from them.
  • Printed books make wonderful presents. You can wrap a book in exquisite paper, tie it with a beautiful ribbon, attach a card containing cavity-inducing, greeting-card drivel and give it to someone you care about, someone who makes you feel guilty about the fact that you don't care one whit about him or her, someone who you want to suck up to, or some twerp who gave you a present last year, leaving you feeling obligated to return the favor. The best thing about giving a book as a gift is that it is one of the very few presents for which it literally is the thought that counts--the author's thought, if not your own. When you give books, you're giving gifts of facts, wisdom, emotion, intrigue, romance, creativity, art, and/or, best of all, humor.

    Downloadable e-books aren't slackers when it comes to allowing you to give the gift of knowledge and entertainment, but the wrapping part is rather difficult. I've consulted a number of highly regarded experts and not one of them could offer any suggestions on how to gift-wrap an electron. Besides, the paper and ribbon would have to be so small as to be inconsequential. How are you going to make people think that you've splurged on wrapping materials that are so small as to be invisible? After all, isn't tricking people into thinking that you've spent a lot of money on them what gift-giving is really all about? Furthermore, how are you going to tape a card to such a small surface? It can't be done. No, all things considered, an e-book really doesn't make much of a gift.

Just as an aside, did I mention that MC Press is publishing a printed book, BYTE-ing Satire, containing a collection of the first year's worth of my tirades? Of course, I'd never, never in a million years, allow that to bias my writing of this week's column. Never, ever. Honest. Would I lie to you? Oh and by the way, did I mention that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are all real beings who are under my employ? Honest. Would I lie to you?

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His book is expected to weigh in at approximately 200 pages. That's certainly not inconsequential, but it's much smaller than, say, War and Peace. Hence, if you are thinking of using it as a paperweight, you should buy at least two copies to be absolutely certain that, when stacked, they'll have enough mass to hold down your papers. If you're thinking of burning it to protest against its irreverence and irrelevance, you should buy at least 300 copies to make a really good bonfire.