Physical versus Digital: The Curious Tale of Two Mediums

Max Szyc

  Photo by Amanda Prusila

Photo by Amanda Prusila

If you ask enough people, you’re likely to find that almost everyone remembers the first book they ever read. Okay, maybe not the first book ever; after all, how can anyone remember board books they were shown as babies? I mean the first book they read growing up that really spoke to them, and possibly sparked an interest in a specific genre.

Despite any impracticalities, there are a lot of cool things you can do with physical books: gift them to a significant other, share them among your friends, write notes on the inside cover warning others from reading the reportedly terrible book you just picked up at a used shop—the list goes on.

If you continue talking to people about these books, you’ll probably get extra tidbits: how they got the book, whether it was gifted to them or not, the condition of the book, the specific cover, and so on. In short, people can develop sentimental attachments to their favourite book.

Now imagine the same thing today, except instead of a book, you get… a digital file on a Kindle reader. Do you think you’d develop the same type of attachment? Maybe so, or maybe not, but it’s a question worth examining in today’s digital-centric age: what are the differences between digital and physical books, and is there a superior medium?

The answer comes down to a matter of taste.

When it comes to sheer convenience, a physical book doesn’t have much on an e-reader: small, durable, and loaded with gigabytes for days, e-readers have carved out a place in today’s screen-obsessed society. Plus, they’re often designed to feature interfaces that less resemble a screen and more closely resemble an actual printed product. Coupled with the fact that readers can carry hundreds of novels at once, they seem like the ideal way to consume literature.

Yet despite the convenience, sales for digital e-books are dropping. According to Forbes, traditional publishers sold 10% fewer e-books in 2017 compared to the previous year, meaning sales dropped from 180 million to 162 million. This follows a similar sales drop between 2017 and 2016. This doesn’t offer explicit evidence of a public waning in e-books, but it does make one consider if people are returning to the world of physical books.

Despite any impracticalities, there are a lot of cool things you can do with physical books: gift them to a significant other, share them among your friends, write notes on the inside cover warning others from reading the reportedly terrible book you just picked up at a used shop--the list goes on. Plus, who doesn’t like scanning the bus they’re on to see what books others are reading? There’s a sense of community derived from physical books that you just can’t get in digital books.

what are the differences between digital and physical books, and is there a superior medium?

But not everyone wants that. Some people don’t like the hassle of having to go out and get physical books, and not everyone might have easy access to book stores. Furthermore, what if you’re on the bus and reading something you think others would find embarrassing? You’ll never raise eyebrows reading a smutty e-book, but you’ll definitely attract attention if you wrap the cover in foil (or maybe not, there are a lot of peculiar people on the bus).

So at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal taste: easy convenience, or sentimentality? Regardless of which one you pick, just remember that the act of reading itself is the most important thing of all.