There is no “versus”: What book/ebook debates get wrong.

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh

EBook between paper books

A few weeks ago, I read an article on the ebooks vs. paper books debate that really frustrated me. I wasn’t upset because the article came down on the side of paper books. After all, I was slow to embrace my Kindle and continue to think that there’s something magical about flipping actual pages; furthermore, the results of the studies referenced in the article don’t surprise me. I’d have to read them before fully endorsing them, but I don’t see any reason why paper books shouldn’t outperform ebooks in some respects.

No, my problem is with the article’s conclusion that “science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of actual books.” This kind of writing has two main problems with it:

First, it treats “technology” as a vast, indivisible monolith. Paper is good, anything with a screen is bad. In fact, the article lumps together Kindle reading and web browser reading, which may both be different than reading from a paper book but are dramatically different from each other. Furthermore, I put the word technology in quotes for a reason. This kind of writing forgets that paper books are also a technology, which The Economist recently described in an amazing essay (seriously, go read it now) as “one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought… a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.” It also forgets that there was plenty of pushback against books–from such esteemed thinkers as Socrates, to boot–when it was the newest-fangled thing.

Second, it treats the evaluation of technologies as some kind of deathmatch. Two techs enter, one comes out. Despite our repeated insistence otherwise, no technology is inherently good or bad; instead, they have affordances (features that help) and constraints (features that hinder) for a wide variety of different actions. A few years ago, a friend told me that he could never imagine owning an ereader, since it “just wouldn’t be the same.” At the time, I was reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on my Kindle, and I responded that lugging 1200 pages of paper book to and from campus every day so that I could read between classes “just wouldn’t be the same” either. This example may be overly simple (and, admittedly, overly snarky), but I think it makes its point. Whether we choose to read a paper book or an ebook doesn’t depend on which has been crowned empress of the written world–instead, it depends on our particular context and our particular goals. Paper books are better at some things, ereaders are better at others, and hypertext in a Web browser has its own affordances and constraints: Pick the one that works best for the task at hand.

In the just-over-a-year that I’ve been an ed tech graduate student, I’ve learned just how often our discussions of technology make these kinds of mistakes. That is, this isn’t an issue limited to ereaders: We often talk about computers, phones, tablets, and games in these same ways, sacrificing nuance and precision for confidence and passion. Technology is (and always will be) a big part of our lives–it’s important to debate what part it should play, but it’s just as important to get that debate right.


Three sources actually worked together to inspire this post. The and Economist articles have already been mentioned, but I also tip my hat to a question that my friend and colleague Rohit Mehta asked on Twitter (as well as a subsequent conversation on that same topic). You’ll notice that my colleagues carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of publishing journal articles in an ebook format (rather than the traditional print-friendly PDF format) rather than accepting or rejecting the idea out of hand.

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.