The Death Of The Textbook

It’s Monday morning and I am no longer met by the sea of Metros on TFL. In their stead carriages seem overrun with ebook readers. Whatever the vehicle of choice, the iPad, Kindle or Android tablet etc, the general trend seems highly centred on this culture of convenience, that all our digital desires, be it music, movies, games are but a click away.

Are books destined to this same consumeristic fate? Textbooks in particular seem the ideal target, just pan your eyes across the library and everyone is within distance of an electronic screen of some sort. While perusing the shelves you might have noticed that publishers themselves are torn by the increasingly familiar pixel vs page dilemma, offering students the best of both worlds by providing a digital copy accessible via their own internet portals. With behemoths Amazon, Google, Apple and Elsevier having vested themselves heavily into the ever growing ebook market, the discerning medical student now has a choice.

Upon first glance digital textbooks are the more expedient choice. Money and physical space are doubtlessly a premium in our student lives. ebooks are cheaper than their printed counterparts and are conveniently stored. No longer will you have to reserve space in your luggage for the usual comfort-blanket selection of books, the type that remain unopened for those carefully planned weeks of revision. Availability ceases to become an issue, the book you desperately need can not go out of stock and is ready to read on your computer, your tablet and your phone. While this level of functionality is highly appealing and fits comfortably with the modern aesthetic, many would argue the undeniable tactility of the textbook. Printed text and pictures are just more inviting. Reading Gray’s Anatomy, a highly image-centric title off a screen is just a comparatively less visceral experience.  Naturally pages are kinder on the eyes, however, even for the most devoted of bookworms, this attitude has softened. Whisper the words library project or dissertation into any fellow medic’s ear and witness the sigh that follows the thought of background research. It is a largely computer based activity, which everyone has attuned to, unless you happen to have deep pockets for print-credit. The fashion is tipped very much towards the online databases and understandably so, flitting from one publication to another is easy in the virtual world. Whether textbooks will follow suit is the curious thing. The benefit of the digital platform is how swiftly content can be updated, revisited and distributed. In fact there are already examples, the ‘Medicine’ review journal is an up-to-the-minute publication but written in a comprehensive textbook style for core medical trainees. The approach is systematic with topics revised regularly. It does cast a slightly stale shadow on the tardy reincarnations of say Kumar & Clark. Perhaps it’s a taste of the future.

Digital textbooks do sometimes provide ancillary material. This does to some extent fulfill their potential to be more interactive. The ebook store ‘Inkling’ claim to have ‘redefined the textbook for the iPad’ by immersing the reader in the content. The text is searchable, integrated with 3D images, embedded audio and video as well as mini-tests at the end of chapters. Elsevier’s Student Consult platform boasts MCQ assessment and the ability to download a book’s figures via their Image Library. Innovative as they are ebooks are still trying to emulate the real textbook experience of note taking. Being at liberty to deface the pages with highlighting and scribbles however you wish, is to some, the selling point of a textbook, the opportunity to make it your own. And of course there is the added charm of watching your new purchase transform its clean, fresh page into a dog-eared, jaundiced scrap. I describe the unglamorous but accurate reality of book work, it can be mundane. Unfortunately, no amount of glossy 3D imagery or video hyperlinks will change that, not even if packaged in Apple’s latest and thinnest. Not to mention the multitude of distractions: internet, email and music, all vying for your attention.


Ultimately it is a matter of taste and how best you learn. Printed textbooks are simple, they are a single, standard format and ready to use. There is a wealth of choices with ebooks, which store to buy it from, will it play nicely and render the same on all your devices, does it have web access too? Still, to many lack of any standardization and being permanently welded to a power point are fair prices to pay for convenience. To others there is an element of nostalgia attached to textbooks unmatched by their digital twins. Will the rise of the ebook eclipse the established textbook? I think it too soon to tell…..clutching my Cheese & Onion.

James Wong

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.