Are ebooks better or worse than paper books? Do (not!) ask the experts!


Last month Corriere della Sera, one of the major Italian newspapers, asked several novelists and other writers if and how the age of ebooks is changing fiction and the general approach to creation of literature. It was an interesting read, because it contained both pearls of wisdom and things that are either irrelevant or simply wrong, but all said by the same “gurus”.

Italian writer Alberto Bevilacqua never imagined any of his books in electronic format, also because he can’t fathom “how its cover could be, or where I could write a dedication”. I’ve written much less than him, but I can already give one answer to such a question:

Are ebooks better or worse than paper books? Do (not!) ask the experts! /img/opengov_book.jpg

the O’Reilly Open Government book (2010), for which I wrote one chapter, is a big, nice heavy paper brick that is also available in digital format. When a reader, during a conference, asked me a dedication, we managed to add it to the electronic edition without problem:

Are ebooks better or worse than paper books? Do (not!) ask the experts! /img/firma_digitale_ebook.jpg

Sure, it isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s a dedication anyway. Still speaking of paper, Beppe Severgnini went right against WWF, or at least that part of it that had the dumb idea of the “green” .WWF file format: “Before releasing the ebook version, I’ve read the drafts of the last book I’ve written tenths of times on good old paper right out of my printer”. Drafts and dedications aside, what else did those experts say?

Something wrong…

  • Umberto Eco: “a book is like spoons, hammers, wheels and scissors. Once you’ve invented them, there’s nothing left to improve them”
  • Beppe Severgnini: “the ebook is recyclable, like a jar: you can take out of it all the jam you don’t like and fill it with something that matches your taste”
  • Dacia Maraini: “technology changes all the time, and so will electronic tablets. The book it’s always been the same since when it was born. And that is its great strength”

All these statements contain the same, serious error already made in other occasion by Umberto Eco and Franco Debenedetti: they confuse the content (that is the text of a book, which is the only thing that really matters) with the physical media, that is the container in which we store and read that content. An ebook is just a file. Therefore, if it is done right, it can last forever even if its containers change every few years, be they paper sheets or ebook readers, that are a completely separated thing. That’s why Severgnini correctly calls the ebook readers “jars”: because you can put inside them, or more exactly you should be able to put inside them, whatever type of jam you like, just as you could use one bookshelf to store books of every author or publisher. Unfortunately, when it comes to ebooks this convenience isn’t always granted. But this only happens because the people who build those ebook jars or containers are still allowed to bewitch them.

…and something right

Luckily, the same people also said something serious about what ebooks really are, or should be, and about how we should approach them:

  • Beppe Severgnini: “What matters is the jam, not the jar that contains it”
  • When she’s writing, Dacia Maraini only thinks to what she’s writing, “not to how, where, when it will be published and read: ebook, hardcover, paperback, with or without her photograph… “No, there’s no place for any of this in my head, in my thought”
  • Emanuele Trevi: “Once you get used to them, digital books are identical to paper books. You read them, you browse them, very seldom you find one that changes your life, you realize that most titles weren’t worth the effort to be written or read. Nothing substantial changed from the papyrus age to the ebook age”

The point here is that ebooks are (or should be, or should return to be) just normal books, after all. If and when books must be digital, that’s all right as long as the content always comes before the container, that is if we only use ebooks and ebook readers that are interchangeable, without demonizing nor deifying them. If, as Severgnini also says in that article, ebooks turned out to be the only way to make younger people read, thanks heaven they’ve arrived!

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