Will the Next Philosophy Book You Acquire Be an E-Book? (with poll)


In a recent article at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost (author, game designer, and professor of computer science & engineering at Washington University in St. Louis) explains why he doesn’t like electronic books, or e-books (or ebooks).

They don’t fit with his idea of “bookiness,” which is technologist Glenn Fleishman’s term for the “the essence that makes someone feel like they’re using a book.”

Bogost admits that people disagree over what that bookiness, that “essence”, is. “A particular reader’s receptivity to ebooks… depends on the degree to which these objects conform to, or at least fail to flout, one’s idea of bookiness,” he says.

Bogost’s own sense of bookiness is informed by the physicality of the books and their particular physical features, some of which he believes have significance as representations of technological and cultural progress throughout history, and some of which just make books distinctive from other printed documents (for example: “Books have spreads, made of a left (verso) and right (recto) side. You can look at both at once, and an open book has the topology of a valley, creating a space that you can go inside and be surrounded by, literally and figuratively.”)

He thinks that an idea of bookiness more compatible with ebooks is one “that values holding and carrying a potentially large number of books at once; that prefers direct flow from start to finish over random access; that reads for the meaning and force of the words as text first, if not primarily; and that isn’t concerned with the use of books as stores of reader-added information or as memory palaces.”

I imagine that other ideas of bookiness may be compatible with ebooks, too. For example, one may see books, at least in certain contexts, as stores of information and ideas, and see the ability to easily transport and access a vast amount of information and ideas that ebooks gives us as fitting with one’s sense of bookiness. And one’s sense of how ebooks fit with one’s sense of bookiness may depend on the technology being used to access them. For example, I don’t personally associate electronic books with preferring “direct flow from start to finish” but rather with searchability. Or perhaps “bookiness” is not relevant, or explanatory.

In the context of philosophical reading and research, what book format do you prefer? Let us know by answering the poll, below, and as usual, you’re welcome to share your thoughts in the comments.

Will the next philosophy book you acquire be an e-book or a physical book?

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Steve Hardwick
Steve Hardwick
1 month ago

My preference fully depends on what I’m using the text for. I recent purchased a 2020 translation of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” specifically so I could sit on my couch and read it in silence. When it’s a book I suspect I will be referring back to often, I will purchase the ebook format – much easier to markup and refer back to specific passages or sections.Report

Patrick Lin
1 month ago

For me, the only benefit of an e-book is the ability to search (ctrl-f) for specific passages or keywords. If I need to do that, I’ll just look for it online.

For instance, Plato’s Republic can be found in at least a couple places: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm and http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.htmlReport

Greg Guy
Greg Guy
Reply to  Patrick Lin
24 days ago

Well, it also often allows you to navigate more easily from/to annotations, indices, chapters, etc. And the ability to add multiple bookmarks and notes I find pretty indispensable.

However, that’s just the advantages of an ebook. Let’s consider the ereader you need to store and read them. My one allows me to store hundreds of ebooks clearing up a lot of storage space and making travel easier. It has a backlight allowing me to read in low light conditions while traveling. I can resize, and even replace the font to make it easier on my eyes. Change the spacing and margins even. It comes with several dictionaries and a thesaurus so I can look up words, even ones in different languages, allowing me to translate foreign phrases easily. With a wifi connection, I can even follow a hyperlink with the in-built browser. Finally, text-to-speech allows me to turn any book into an audiobook. All in a light and easy to carry form factor that is so much more pleasant to use than a mammoth and heavy text.Report

milton
1 month ago

In answer to the question in your title: Nope. But it might be an audiobook!Report

SCM
SCM
1 month ago

I much prefer to first read a physical book to find out what it says. It’s more comfortable for me, and I’m less distracted by other things than I am with an electronic device. But once I’ve read the book, I much prefer using an e-book or pdf version to work with (especially for searches, as Patrick says).

Ideally, I want a QR code in every physical (academic) book I buy that will let me download an identical pdf version that I can store on Dropbox.

I’m incapable of following philosophical arguments in audio books. People who can do that, milton, probably also commune with the Devil every full moon, in the woods outside Salem.Report

milton
Reply to  SCM
1 month ago

Ha! Not too far from the truth. If I’m listening to an audiobook while going for a run outside, my mind will associate parts of the text with physical features of my environment, and that will help me recall (and hopefully reconstruct) them later. (My memory tends to be highly embodied. That’s part of the reason why I favor physical books.) By contrast, if I listen to an audiobook while driving or doing chores or something else less attentive to my physical environment, I won’t remember them nearly as well. All that to say, I don’t commune with Satan in the woods–but I do commune with books there! (That’s such a corny thing to say. Please forgive me!)Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  milton
1 month ago

I might try them when running outside then. I’ve only tried listening while driving long distances and that never works.Report

Nate Sheff
1 month ago

Does the poll only apply to purchases?Report

Wendy Lochner
Wendy Lochner
1 month ago

The poll link didn’t work but I had read the article, which is rather retro. He does list all the reasons why people like ebooks—portability, ability to adjust font size in particular—but doesn’t mention another very important consideration—often a significantly lower price. Perhaps money is not a concern for him, if it certainly is for many people who buy and read lots of books!

Wendy Lochner Publisher, Philosophy Columbia University PressReport

Matt L
Reply to  Wendy Lochner
1 month ago

Are many “academic” e books “significantly lower in price”? Just as an example, I went to the Columbia University Press web page, looked at the first 5 or 6 books that had both physical and e book versions, and the e books were either the same price or, at most, $1 cheaper. (Note that, depending on how the rights work, that might well be getting a lot less for a trivial savings!) It’s true that you can get lots of e books for nothing or almost nothing, if they are in the public domain or otherwise produced just for ebooks, but it doesn’t seem to be the case for lots of the books that would be relevant for this poll.Report

Cora Diamond
Cora Diamond
Reply to  Wendy Lochner
1 month ago

Most of the books I buy are secondhand. The secondhand market makes it possible to buy books in decent shape (usually) at good prices. One can enjoy the physical books without going broke. But when I have taught in Europe, the possibility of carrying lots of books with no weight has been a great boon.Report

Patrick Lin
29 days ago

Another consideration:

Do you remember rummaging through the books on your parents’ shelves or storage boxes? Anyone else here inspired or entertained by those books as you grew up?

Your kids won’t have that experience of discovery, if you mostly get e-books. Besides the ability of the platform (e.g., Kindle) to delete your e-book at will, the odds that you’re going to pass down a Kindle full of e-books to your kids are about nil.

Same generational loss for music, if you only get digital songs. Even if you pass down your iPod or Kindle, and assuming that tech will still work in the future, it’s not the same experience as flipping through physical books or albums, just like Amazon is a poor substitute for discovering things at a bookstore…Report

Last edited 29 days ago by Patrick Lin
giulia
Reply to  Patrick Lin
27 days ago

I think this is spot on.
Other enjoyable, even meaningful experiences that come to mind associated with physical books are lending, borrowing, exchanging, donating books, be it to/from/with friends or strangers. I suppose one can still do some of these things with e-books but not – in my view, at least – with the same joy.Report

Paul Wilson
29 days ago

Physical books have certain affordances over digital books, not often mentioned by professional philosophers, but almost universally experienced by non-virgin undergraduate philosophy majors who read iimpressive titles in public: horizontality.Report

Last edited 29 days ago by paulscrawl
Trystan Goetze
29 days ago

I have shifted to keeping the majority of my philosophical library in electronic form because of the job market. It is inconvenient and expensive to pack up several crates of books every couple of years when you bounce to the next short-term appointment. Keeping everything on my hard drive and backed up in the cloud means any book or article I might need comes with me for free.Report

Daniel Weltman
29 days ago

With respect to the particular book picked for the picture in the article (Reasons and Persons) I think when I next buy that, I would like to buy an eBook copy. My hard copy was a real piece of crap – pages started falling out of it. And some online reviews suggest the same thing has happened to other people. Every other OUP book I’ve ever owned has been perfectly copacetic and I’ve always wondered why R&P specifically gets such shoddy treatment.Report

Cynthia Freeland
28 days ago

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the biggest problem with physical books: their heft and weight and the space they require. As I get older, after coping with the disassembly of my actually rather frugal and careful parents’ house and possessions, and having multiple friends deal with this as well, I am increasingly mindful of the issues of consumption and “Swedish death cleaning.” I don’t have kids, and I’ve already given many books away to friends and students, but I still feel overwhelmed by my shelves and shelves and boxes and boxes of books, not to mention old issues of journals. It’s now become too much labor for me to cart boxes around and so in order to downsize what’s in my too-big house I’m going to have to pay people to do it for me. I’m attached to some of the physical books I own but in all honesty I’m not sure I’ll ever read them again. My interests are more focused now and I just don’t foresee working on some of those authors or issues any longer. For new books in the fields I choose to continue to work on, e-versions are just fine for me. The only exception is ones with color plates (since I work on topics in aesthetics).Report

No books
27 days ago

E-books all the way (at least in Philosophy); for research purposes, best to have them stored in the cloud and linked up with Zotero through ‘zotfile’. But heavens sake, all this talk of ‘reading books’ must surely be misleading. I haven’t read a book all the way through in 15 years and regularly publish in good journals. Reading a book all the way through would be awfully luxurious. A shrewder move is to simply read (very carefully) the relevant bits of a chapter that are relevant to what you are writing; and of course, online is best because you can copy and paste any passages you want to quote directly in your paper.

The days of sitting around with a physical book in a coffee shop and reading it through aren’t really compatible with succeeding in a job market where you have to regularly publish in top journals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s not possible to do that (perhaps if you are Williamson or have a photographic memory); but it’s no longer really a strategic way to go about research.Report