The advantages of paper books that I have in mind here have already been discussed in some earlier posts and comments, namely notation and random access.  I think these issues are worth further examining for two reasons: (1) these features must be carried over from one generation of reading device to the next; (2) the first company who gets them right will command the coveted academic and business markets (at least until someone comes up with The Great Universal eReader).

The quagmire of production and delivery aside, books are in fact very functional pieces of technology in their present form.  They are durable, easy to use, and accommodating to different purposes. If we’re only reading for pleasure, then we can simply sit back and read at our own pace.  If we’re reading for a seminar or a meeting, then we can ramp up our involvement and make notes in our reading material in any old idiosyncratic way we like, circles and arrows, exclamation points, question marks, underlining, highlighting, book marking to hell and gone.  This is one way in which many readers (this reader included) make books their own while also making them more useful.

The challenge isn’t enabling any one particular note-taking tactic, but creating an interface that is as open as a page of paper (without the absurd price-tag of the iRex1000S), and though no ereader seems to have leapt this hurdle successfully so far, theoretically, ereaders should someday offer greater note-taking convenience than books.  Someday we should be able to switch our marginalia on and off like switching layers on and off in PhotoShop; we should be able to search out notes and post-its just like searching the body of the primary text; in short, our notations should gain all the advantages of digital storage and presentation right along with our books.

Random access may not have the same rosy efuture.  It’s far from effective on any ereader I’ve seen or read about, and I don’t know how many manufacturers are taking its development seriously.  By random access I simply mean the ability to open a book to an unspecified page, to flip or skim.  This may not sound important but it enables us to read in different ways.  It allows us to control our access to the material rather than having our access prescribed for us.  Admittedly, we do most of our reading in a strictly prescribed, linear fashion, (left to right and down), but we aren’t always reading to get from A to B, especially when we’re asked to make something out of what we read, to write a paper or give a presentation.

We need to be able to search for specific entries or passages, and digital technology will only improve on the index.  We also need to be able to skim and flip pages freely in the event that we don’t know exactly what it is we might be looking for.  Random access allows us to wander through our books as freely as any hunch might wander through our minds.  We compare random examples of narrative voice against a hypothesis, or dig through a report to see where a certain word or phrase has been omitted.  Most of these hunches inevitably lead to dead ends, but when they don’t they lead to the ideas which are most worth writing about, ideas that become articles, other books, or business ventures.

If digital technology can’t improve on random access capabilities, I do have hope that someday it can emulate them.  Until it does, paper books will have a decided advantage over ebooks in their flexibility to different kinds of interactions.  And that’s really the key word: interaction.  We don’t always read carefully, but people never pick up a book to ignore it the way we sometimes turn on the radio or the TV just to provide a backing track for daily tasks.  Reading takes work, and we need to be able to work with what we read.