Energy Consumption & Books

What follows is an article completely free of scientific information and may well prove to be completely inaccurate. That said, I think it raises some issues that need to be considered.

Which is more environmentally friendly: reading on paper or digital?

A paper book means that trees have been cut down to produce it, and they are generally heavier than eBook readers so require more energy to transport. But once it’s in your hands, the energy consumption stops.

The same isn’t true of digital reading devices. I will concede that the cost of producing the book (but not the reader) is probably lower than a paper book and that getting it to you likely takes less energy. But with eBooks, that isn’t the end of the story.

If I buy a paper book then I can read it again and again without any additional energy requirement. With an eBook, even if I keep it on my device and don’t have to download it again, I still need to provide energy to the eBook reader whenever I want to read it.

Maybe over the course of a week, month, year, the eBook would still come out on top, but over a decade? Over a lifetime? Longer? I can lend my paper book to any number of people without any additional energy requirement, that’s not possible with an eBook. Even if you could lend the title, the other person would need to have a reading device.

And a low power reader is probably the best case scenario for energy usage. What happens when you factor in the people who are reading books on tablets and phones and laptops?

The cost of manufacturing these devices needs to be accounted for as well. Creating a paper book requires cutting down some trees (which can be replanted) but creating a digital device of any kind requires the use of raw materials that can’t be replaced so easily and assembly in factories that may have unethical working conditions.

EBooks are undeniably convenient and as we move towards renewable sources of electricity and more ethical factory conditions, they may become a better way to read. Hell, like I said at the start, they might already be. What I’m trying to get at is that the conversation needs to take these things into account. A paper book uses a finite amount of energy in its creation and distribution, a digital book has an ongoing energy requirement. That’s what needs to be considered.

Limits as a feature

I have been an Audible subscriber, on and off, since 2014. Because I now spend two hours a day commuting, I have a lot of time to listen to books. Last year I started looking around for alternatives.

The main reason for looking elsewhere was because I didn’t want to keep giving money to Amazon. I had already switched to Kobo for Ebooks. When I looked into it there were two main alternatives: Kobo and Scribd.

The first one I tried was Kobo but I had a lot of trouble with the sync, which, considering I was only listening on my phone, so it only had to remember the last position on that device, was a deal breaker.

Scribd didn’t have those problems. In addition it had a different business model, allowing me to listen to an unlimited number of books in a month at no extra charge, compared to one a piece for both Audible and Kobo.

I only listen to audio books on my phone and I try to use that as little as possible. So, while I was quite happy with the content available on Scribd, I also had access to Ebooks, magazines and documents. Which was far from idea.

My self-control isn’t great and having access to so much content meant I found myself scrolling through magazines and adding books to my lists. In the end I was spending more time doing that than listening to audiobooks, which is primarily what I wanted it for.

Audible, by contrast, only has audiobooks. I can search for books to add to my list, but I can’t buy them, so the feature has limited appeal. It does have some “shows” that I can download and listen to from within the app, but because of the playback (stopping after every 20ish minute episode and needing me to access the app to start the next one) I haven’t got much interest in these.

So yesterday I cancelled my subscription to Scribd and went back to Audible. I expect to continue using the service for some time. I now see the limits of the app as a feature because they mean I no longer have to stress my limited self-control. When I removed the Scribd app from my phone I felt a great deal of relief.

It has started me thinking that limits are an often overlooked feature of analogue tools. When I am using a notebook and pen I don’t have to make any conscious effort not to ALT-TAB over to a website. When I am listening to a CD I don’t have to avoid the temptation of searching for another album or scrolling through other songs.

Perhaps these limits may make some things more difficult: finding a new book to listen, finding new music. But the one thing they make easier, focus, is worth the sacrifice of a few extra steps elsewhere.

Compromises

We don’t live in an ideal world.

In an ideal world I would only read beautifully bound hardback books. I would sit in a comfortable chair with a foot stool and a reading lamp. During the day I would drink fresh coffee and in the evening a glass of whiskey. I would listen to music on vinyl and do all my writing with a fountain pen at a large wooden desk.

In reality I read in whatever format I can, be that audio books, ebooks or paperbacks. I grab a few minutes whenever I can.

Until yesterday I was reading three fiction books; one audio book, one ebook and one paperback. I didn’t have any issue keeping the stories straight, but it was frustrating for other reasons. Leaving the audio aside, which was working well as I have a long commute so can count on a couple of hours each day listening to that book. The problem was that I didn’t get much time to read and I was splitting my time between two books because I felt like I needed to have a paperback on the go.

Ideally I would have kept the paperback and given up reading ebooks, but like I’ve already said, this isn’t an ideal world. I have many more opportunities to read an ebook because I can have it on my Kobo reader, on my phone and even on my computer. I can read in bed without needing a light on and disturbing Tamzin. In reality, it was the only option that made sense.

So I have re-bought the paperback I was reading as an ebook and I’ve already had more opportunities to read it. I have to admit that this is the best option, even if it isn’t the ideal one. And it makes me wonder if there are other places in my life where I am stubbornly holding on to (already compromised) versions of the ideal. Music, for example. I like CDs (already compromised from my ideal of vinyl) but it’s more convenient to subscribe to Apple Music. I think this is something that I’m going to explore more over the coming weeks.