We live in a futuristic world of instant gratification, infinite choice and limitless potential. Ever since the Assyrians first put reed to clay approximately 5,000 years ago we have been writing in the best manner that suited our level of technology. We moved from clay to stone, stone to papyrus, papyrus to paper, and now paper to electronics. The nature of the words hasn’t changed, those same words are as valid today – if somewhat out of date – as they were when the clay was baked, Homer’s Odyssey is the same incredible epic whether it is written on a dusty scroll or a modern screen. No matter what you print them on, books are books.
So if the method in which we read books doesn’t affect the story within it why all the competition over which format is the most viable in today’s society? Because in a world where more than a million new titles were released in 2015 alone what we decide to read from has shaped the industry; including how authors get published, how the books are accessed, and who the money goes to.
Each format has pros and cons; the advent of eBook readers and tablet computers has changed the literate world for the better, but that doesn’t mean paper has lost any of its relevance. So what is the best format for a given situation? Does the method I use to read matter in the grand scheme of things?
Thin sheets of paper sandwiched between a thin sheet of card. Originally printed in the 1930s as a way to make books cheaper and more readily available. This format quickly because popular to both casual and serious readers.
Pros: Cheap to print, cheap to buy. Available in many retail outlets they fit in a pocket and are a great way to pass a long journey.
Cons: Not hard-wearing. Covers and pages easily scuff, bend and tear. Limited re-sale value.
What best to read this way: Golden-age Science Fiction and Fantasy, Pulp fiction.
Bound in thick cardboard covered in a multitude of materials such as cloth, plastic or leather these more solid tomes are generally considered the pride of the bibliophile. Dating back several hundreds of years this format has been the main method of storing biblical texts and genealogies due to their longevity and beautiful appearance.
Pros: Hardcover books last far longer than paperbacks in normal storage conditions, the materials and production methods trend towards the higher end, maintaining their content and monetary value. They look fantastic, feel great to the touch, and allow for far greater creative freedom with covers.
Cons: Heavy, costly to make, often far more expensive to buy. Needing a good set of shelves to store them. Do not travel well without getting scuffed. Difficult for less well-known authors and publishing houses to produce.
What best to read this way: A series by a favourite author. Treasured rare and collector editions. Art collections.
Electronically presented words displayed against a synthetic screen using electronic ink or pixels. Variable inbuilt storage that can contain multiple works. First introduced in the late 1990s, eBooks did not gain popularity until the last decade, when they became a standard in literature media and available to wider audiences.
Pros: A single eReader can contain several hundred, or thousand, titles on inbuilt storage. Light-weight. Cost effective. The easiest method for authors to self publish or for publishing houses to distribute their titles with the smallest overhead costs. No bookmarks required. Fantastic if you don’t have room for bookshelves.
Cons: Requires electricity to charge device to a functional level. Difficult to get titles without available internet connection. Technology susceptible to usual electronic difficulties. Devices can be expensive in the short-term. Stored titles have no re-sale value.
What best to read this way: Long novels and series. Independently published titles. Anything you don’t want other people knowing you’re reading.
Out of Date Media:
Five millennia old written storage based around imprinting upon clay tablets which are then baked to solidity.
Pros: Longevity of stored information; many recorded tablets remain legible in their native language several thousand years after creation.
Cons: Somewhat brittle. Production is complex and reproduction is an entirely manual task.
What best to read this way: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Assyrian tax documents.
Common across the Ancient Near East and Asia stone was a long-lasting media most often used for storing historical events and established laws. Varying in size from small tablet to grand obelisk these geologically stable records are a testament to an age where writing was sacrosanct.
Pros: Extremely durable. Vulnerable only to erosion by the elements these tablets last many thousands of years without losing legibility.
Cons: Extremely heavy. Manufacture is even more time consuming than that of Clay Tablets. Talented craftspeople required for the simplest works.
What best to read this way: The Code of Hammuabi, the Ram Khamhaeng Stele, the Merneptah Stele
Rolled sheets of interwoven fibers, bound with string, leather or fabric, were a precursor to the modern book. This primarily Mediterranean format was a functional way to store poetry, communications, and manuscripts.
Pros: Light-weight. Easy to transport. Quick to produce and copy.
Cons: Unable to store large amounts of information. Fragile. Difficult to store without the right sort of shelving.
What best to read this way: The Torah, the Joshua Roll