It's a valid question, for-- in spite of the vain prophecies that the end of the printed book is near-- physical, bound-paper books are very much a part of our culture. No less so for the pastor, as I have already attested. And anyone who has ever helped a pastor (or seminarian) move has felt the weight of this truth.
So how about electronic books-- are they good, bad, or somewhere in-between? First, let's consider the merits of electronic books:
- They are portable. No doubt about it, it is certainly easier on the back to move one CD-Rom containing the Unabridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Gerhard Kittel than it is to box and lug all 10 volumes of the hardbound paper version (over nine thousand pages!). In general, electronic books save space on the shelf and wear on your back.
- They are searchable. Sure, Kittel's 10 volumes comes with an index. No index is exhaustive, however, and no index will actually highlight where each occurrence of a word appears on the page. Electronic books all offer some search functionality, which makes research more efficient (and, as my contextualizing wife pointed out, new technology like Apple's “Spotlight” in the new Tiger operating system only makes this easier).
- They are (often) integrated. Computer-using Bible students usually find the Bible study software that best suits them and stick with it. Thus, they will buy electronic volumes that are compatible with their software, giving them an entire reference library in one single application. The degree of integration depends on the software, but there is at least some in all of the programs out there.
- They (can) make writing easier. Anyone out there still married to their IBM Selectric II? Since most of us do our writing-- be it sermons, magazine articles, theological papers, or the next great commentary series-- on our computers, using electronic books can mean “cut-and-paste easy” rather than “stare-and-retype tedious.”
- Portability is relative. Sure, it's easier to carry large reference sets on my laptop than in my bookbag. On the other hand, I can only read them if I have my laptop... and that can be a hassle, at best, if I read intermittently rather than all in one sitting. I usually don't take Kittel to bed for nighttime reading or when I know I'll be waiting in a doctor's office waiting room-- but it's nice to know I can if I want to.
- They are expensive. That CD-Rom I mentioned will cost you $300 or more if you want Kittel's excellent work in digital format. Compare that to the fact that you can find those 10 volumes on the used market for as little as $10 each. Seminarians and pastors should exercise stewardship with their book budget along with everything else, and I have to wonder if electronic books are always a good move for this reason. [Note: you can get great deals on electronic materials too, but these are not nearly as common as finding good books for sale used.]
- They can limit your future decisions. I recently switched back to the Macintosh platform; as a result, I left behind hundreds of dollars of software and electronic books that I can no longer use (or at least not easily). One friend confessed that a major reason he won't switch is because of the thousands invested in electronic books. This will likely be increasingly less of a problem-- Logos, for example, promises that users of their forthcoming Mac version won't have to buy their books all over again. But it is still a limiting factor.
- Integration is (sometimes) a myth. Before I switched to Macs, I used up to four different Bible or reference library programs at once. Why? Because one application had the features I wanted in a Bible study program; another had certain reference works I liked; a third had a comprehensive collection of commentaries, etc. The bottom line is, no electronic library has it all (though some are impressively close), and even those that offer extensive libraries may not be right for all functions.
- They're not really books. Regardless of the similarity of content, a book is by definition a paper-printed, bound volume. As a bibliophile (a lover of books), I prefer to hold a book in my hands, turning pages with my fingers rather than by the click of a mouse. One friend loves to smell his books. No one will argue with the fact that the physical, tactile quality of real books contributes to the reading experience in a way no digital or electronic version can. And personally I don't like reading lengthy materials-- entire chapters of books, for example-- on a computer screen.
One final word: I think Bible study software for regular and/or extensive work with exegetical Greek and Hebrew is a completely different story. As I assert in a previous post, these can save time and, honestly, agony over the difficulty that this work can present, and I think all pastors (and seminarians) ought to seriously consider using these tools in their study of the Bible.