Westminster Seminary California
E-books or Books?

If you haven’t already noticed there is something of a publishing revolution going on around us with the advent of digital publishing. About five years ago e-books were not very common, though present. I can remember looking at a first generation e-reader and thinking that it seemed like a nice idea but that the technology had not yet reached my reading needs. Well, things are changing—quickly. This brings the question, What is better, e-books or books?

There are certainly many benefits to e-books. As little as ten years ago (or less), you couldn’t find very much for good theological reading. Now, with Google Books, there are a host of old out-of-print theological books that you can download for free. If you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for, say, the works of John Owen, you can download them for free and read them on your computer or e-reading device. The same can be said for journal research. It used to be that you had to photocopy or order journal articles and then store and house them. I have several filing crates full of articles that I’ve used over the years. Now, these articles can be obtained digitally—download a pdf from a journal service, or scan a journal article, or receive an article through inter-library loan. On this note, I was speaking with a historical theologian the other day who told me he had 12,000 books and essays stored on his laptop. In a word, buy an external hard drive and start downloading! Chances are when Google Books figures out what is valuable among the sea of scanned books, they will start charging to download books. Remember the old adage, “There’s no free lunch.”

On the other hand, there are also drawbacks to e-books. E-books require technology, equipment, software, and an internet connection. These things all cost money. Personally, I use a laptop with a relatively small hard drive (120 GB SSD) and an external for bulk storage if I need it. I also use an iPad (1st generation) with iAnnotate PDF. You can upload files via Dropbox. However, as helpful as all of these things are, and they work quite well (at times) the drawbacks can be significant. I can pick up a book, flip through it, mark it, read it, and peruse it. In the words of Winston Churchill, “If you cannot read all your books . . . fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” Sometimes my laptop is out of battery power and I’m nowhere near a power outlet or internet connection. I’m too cheap to pay to tether my computer to my iPhone.

But the biggest drawbacks I know of are the dreaded computer crash, computer theft, or software updates / changes. I’m sure I’m not alone in this but I’ve had a computer crash and lost files, which is a lot more likely than, say, a flood or fire sweeping away my library. I have also bought Bible software (essentially a digital library of original language resources) twice. Not all software works on the same computing platforms. So for all of the bulk, size, and inconvenience of books, there are some great advantages to them—they never require power, never fail due to software updates, and if they crash, you pick them up off of the floor and place them back on the shelf.

So, then, what to do? In my judgment, e-books are useful for the books you can’t afford and storing research, as well as disposable reading. How often do you throw out that old stack of magazines? On the other hand, especially as it pertains to the classics and theological reading, invest in hardcopies of your books. Invest in purchasing a real library, one that has key theological works. As arduous as it can be hauling around books, they are an invaluable resource and used regularly. So in a word, use both e-books and books, but use wisdom in deciding when to go digital and when to go with dead-wood!