Feb 6, 2009

Lifestyle - Another way to distribute the printed word

Naomi Alderman
Paper books come at an environmental cost. Switching to electronic readers could be a much greener way to enjoy the printed word.

I never used to believe in ebooks. How could an electronic device hope to replace the beauty of the printed book form, the elegance of its design, the tactile sensation of turning the pages and the smell of good-quality paper? I love libraries. I love bookshops. I love the scent of the leather bindings and the musty pages. The mere presence of a large number of books induces a profound sense of wellbeing in me.
And this is all still true. But recently I’ve been intrigued by the idea that ebook readers could be a greener way to distribute the printed word.
And since I started using one my position has begun to evolve.
Printed books are not what they were; many are cheaply produced, smell peculiarly of chemicals, and bow or split before you’ve even finished reading them. Many of my parents’ books, paperbacks bought in the 1960s and 1970s, are now unreadable: the glue in the spines has turned to brittle flakes, the pages are yellowed and fall out as soon as you open them. I always thought I’d keep my books for ever but it begins to be clear that they, like so many other products, have a built-in obsolescence.
Meanwhile my iLiad ebook reader is sleek and beautiful. It’s a pleasant object to hold, and with its useful page-turning bar, one-handed reading is simple. The matt non-backlit screen is easy on the eye, the design is elegant and unfussy, and it is simple to make notes in the text using the stylus, or to make the font larger or smaller. Perhaps my attachment to the physical form of the book was a little childish. After all, the words are the same whatever format I read them in, and surely it’s the words that matter.
It’s been striking to me how many book-lovers can immediately see the use of an ebook reader. I’ve taken my iLiad to writers’ gatherings, book launches and meetings with editors. The very people I’d have expected to resist it — bookish people, who both read and write a lot — are the people who have looked at it, played with it, cooed over it and said decisively, “I need one of these.” If these people take to the ebook reader with ease, the future of books may indeed be electronic.
And will this be a good thing for the environment? It’s hard to judge. A report by the U.S. book industry study group last year found that producing the average book releases more than 4kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — that’s the equivalent of flying about 30 km. Then there’s the cost of warehousing and transport to consider and the waste and toxic chemicals produced by paper mils.
What about the electronic alternative? While the digital books themselves have a relatively low impact — recent figures suggest that transferring one produces around 0.1g of CO{-2} — there are other factors to take into account. Charging the reader and turning virtual pages all have an energy cost, as does turning on your computer and downloading a file.
Even so, the balance may still favour the hi-tech alternative. A 2003 study by the University of Michigan concluded that “electricity generation for an e-reader had less of an environmental impact than paper production for the conventional book system.”
The heaviest burden, though, will be in making the reader itself. If one were to buy an ebook reader, then keep it for 30 years, the impact would be small. But many electronic devices don’t last that long, and with the constant advances in processing power and functionality it’s unlikely that we would want to keep a single ebook reader as long as we might keep a book.
Disposal of electronic items is extremely problematic. More than 6m electronic items are thrown away in the UK alone every year, and the cadmium from one discarded mobile phone is enough to pollute 600,000 litres of water. Even recycling electronic equipment — or processing them into constituent parts — isn’t without environmental damage. A recent study by Hong Kong Baptist University examining the environment around a Chinese village intensely involved in e-waste recycling, showed that lead levels in the area — including schools — were raised to an extent that might be dangerous. Paper books are, at least, eventually biodegradable, while ebook readers might pose a lasting environmental problem.
Ebooks present another ethical problem — piracy. Music piracy has become ubiquitous since the advent of the iPod, and authors might fear ebooks for that reason. JK Rowling has refused to allow her books to be produced in digital form, and it’s little use buying an ebook reader if you can’t read your favourite authors on it. As an author I’m more cheerful about the possibilities the ebook reader opens up. I may be a foolish optimist, but I doubt the book world will be so rife with piracy, as long as publishers act now to allow people to buy ebooks cheaply online. The demographics of music fans and readers are different: seekers of new music tend to be much younger, time-rich and money-poor. Seekers of new literature tend to be older, with less time but more money to spend. The ebook also presents exciting creative possibilities for authors. Imagine being able to create a book that gives different content depending on where the reader is; or one which alters itself as it is read. The ebook could become a whole new art form.
Books have been an object of veneration in our culture for centuries. It is natural — and green — not to want to toss them out. It would be best for the environment if we carried those habits over into the ebook. Just as we strive to prolong the life of printed books, passing them on when we have read them, we need to avoid making the ebook reader another annually replaced gadget. If the ebook revolution is to be a green one, we will need not only robust designs but also a new trade: the ebook repairer

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