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Digital Book Readers Turn a New Leaf

The market for e-readers is flourishing and relegating paperbacks to the clearance rack, begging the question: Which are greener?

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."  — Groucho Marx

Groucho was right about a book being man's best friend—but then again, he never got to experience an e-book reader.

No doubt technology is changing things at breakneck speeds, and one sector where this is eminently true is conventional publishing. News delivery and magazine fare have shifted from arriving at your doorstep every morning to updating perpetually in your Web browser. And now, the traditional book is ceding ground to ever-cheapening gadgets.

No, for bookworms especially, it's no time to be a Luddite.

E-book readers found widespread acceptance for the first time upon release of Amazon's Kindle. Since its debut in November 2007, it's enjoyed the exponential benefits of advancing tech, meaning plummeting price points coinciding with increased capacity and screen quality. Today, the unit retails for $139 and holds 3,500 books—all while weighing less than a single paperback.

Readers can download titles at about half the price as those on the store shelves, and wirelessly at that (in range of Wi-Fi; a 3G cellular version is $50 more).

The marketplace has eaten it up. Kindle sales, while not publicly revealed, are booming. According to one data leak, 2.4 million were sold in 2009, and another 8 million in 2010.

Then there's the iPad. Fifteen million units were sold in 2010, its inaugural year. Another 40 million are projected for 2011.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble sells its own variety, the Nook. Borders too, despite bankruptcy proceedings, is pushing their own called Kobo.

The numbers speak for themselves. But does any of this have to do with the environment?

Like any other mega-sized industry—and this one tips the scales at $25 billion annually in the U.S.—the answer is a resounding yes. Doubly so for one undergoing such a disruptive transformation.

The debate has intensified as of late about the greenness of traditional books as compared to their newfangled digital counterparts. Statistics are bandied about freely, but a consensus is emerging: For dedicated readers, e-book devices are the ecological way to go.

One study reveals that the production of the Kindle produces 168 kg of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, while the average printed book produces about 8. This means one must read 22 books on their Kindle to offset the environmental costs of its manufacture.

As many point out, however, bound books require fossil fuels to be transported, occupy energy-intensive retail stores and warehouses, and sap the carbon dioxide-sequestering capabilities of the tree forest from which they spring.

In turn, old-schoolers will note that e-book readers get their ongoing power from dirty fuels themselves. While that's true, it's encouraging to know how power-thrifty the Kindle is: It lasts two weeks on a single charge.

Like the technology itself, the debate will continue to evolve. But I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge an environmentally friendly alternative to buying books—borrowing them at your local library. And here in Cinnaminson, we have one that's more than serviceable.

Among the vast societal benefits of a library, its highest selling point might be its price tag—free. Sure, there's tax dollars and late fees, but the feeling of taking a book home without taking out your wallet? Nothing short of priceless.

agent itchy March 15, 2011 at 02:09 PM
Definitely spend the money on a good leather cover and keep any features (clock, calendar) kept to a minimum. That way you’ll retain a truer book experience. We love the small Kindle.
Douglas Sell, Jr. March 15, 2011 at 02:23 PM
I downloaded the Google Books app to my Android smartphone. Wasn't sure how I'd like the reading experience. I have to say, it's pretty good and uber convenient!
Christina Paciolla (Editor) March 15, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Sorry, but I won't be making the transition to an e-reader any time soon! I appreciate my books too much. I don't buy new ones either. They are all used. And, even though I haven't gone recently, the library is the way to go. There's just something about a big oak book shelf full of novels...I've already digitized my career, I can't digitize everything else!
John Shields March 15, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Christina - I mostly agree. An ereader will never replace the experience of a book. There's are tons of 'pros' for digital reading, but that's a major 'con' that needs to be overcome. I didn't touch on it in the article, but in a few years, when school textbooks and assigned literature are primarily distributed on Kindle-like devices, those kids will be the first generation to really lose touch with books. That'll be the tipping point (for better or worse...). Doug - I've tried 'ereading' on my iphone, through the Kindle app or the iBooks app. I can do it for maybe twenty minutes until my eyes refuse to play along!
Catherine Hannan March 15, 2011 at 03:12 PM
Received a "Pandigital Novel" for Christmas. It is great! I download from books from Barnes and Noble. For some reason I find I pick it up more often than books. It's only the middle of March and I have read 7 books since Christmas! Already passed my total for last year!
Christina Paciolla (Editor) March 15, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Yeah, I've heard a lot of people say it makes them read more often. For me, the medium is the message. I grew up with that passage and hold it close to my heart today. I don't want my iPhone to be where I read text messages, e-mail, play games AND read books! Must. Have. Different. Media!

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