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eBooks vs. Paper Books

18 Jun 2019

I’ve loved reading ever since I was a kid. But as I discovered computer programming in college and startups right after graduating, I started reading less and less. After selling my first startup and seemingly exhaling for the first time in years, the realization that I basically didn’t read any more hit me hard. So I resolved to start reading again, with the initial goal of one book per month.

In pursuit of this goal, I switched to eBooks in July 2013. I love paper books and independent bookstores, but the practical advantages offered by eBooks became too great to ignore. Being intentional about this decision and the role that my Kindle, iPad, iPhone, and even paper books play in my reading life has helped me to maximize the amount I read overall.

eBooks are portable.
I used to deliberate over lugging a single novel with me each time I headed out the door, but now I can just slip my Kindle in my jeans’ backpocket and bring my entire library with me. This means I always have something appealing to read: if I’m not in the mood for whatever I’m currently reading, I can easily switch to something else. And, because eBooks don’t take up physical space at home, purchasing a book is a lower stakes decision. eBooks enable me to own more books and to keep them with me at all times, both of which facilitate reading more.

Reading ergonomics are better than paper books.
Kindle provides better reading ergonomics than a paper book offers. This starts with the weight. A Kindle weighs the same amount no matter how long the book I’m reading is, so it’s overall more comfortable in my hands.

And because it’s rigid and always perfectly lit, it’s well-suited to more reading positions. I find that in long reading sessions I often want to change positions. I might simply want to shift my weight in the chair; I might want to lie down and hold the book over my head; I might want to pace around. All of this is easy to do with my Kindle, whereas paper books always burdened me with the minor but constant concern that my thumb would slip, the pages would fly by, and I’d lose my spot.

Being able to comfortably read in any scenario enables me to read more.

I can acquire eBooks instantaneously.
This often isn’t important to me, but it sure is nice in a pinch. Whether I’ve just finished the first book in a trilogy and am so sucked in I just want to stay up all night and immediately start the next book, or take off on vacation and only to discover that I hate the book I brought with me, I can easily acquire another book under any circumstances. This creates more reading opportunities, which again helps me read more.

Highlighting and note taking is better on an eReader.
I always felt guilty annotating a physical book because it felt like I was defacing it. But even if I overcame the feeling, there was always the downside that I might run out of room in the margins. My eBook notes are still inline, but they can be as long as I like. They’re also preserved forever. I have physical books that I rigorously annotated in high school and college, but no idea where they are. And for those that I haven’t lost, at some point the pages will rot and the ink will fade. Tapping notes on a Kindle can sometimes feel more painful than writing in the margins of a physical book, but I think posterity and the leverage of being able to search my notes and easily review my highlights outweighs this.

eBook software provides leverage.
I can search an eBook for any term I like; I can view a list of my notes and get linked right to the page I took them on; I never need to dog-ear a page or use a bookmark to keep my spot. I can also easily look up the definition of a word. I often glossed over words I didn’t know when reading paper books because there was no way I was going to lug a dictionary around with me in addition to the book I was already reading. Now I can just look up the word inline, get the formal definition, and move on. And, Kindle’s software remembers the words I’ve looked up so that I can easily review them for retention.

eBooks offer practical advantages.
Portability, accessibility, reading ergonomics, and the leverage of software sold me on eBooks. But given I was switching, which device was the best for reading them? Though I started out reading exclusively on a Kindle Paperwhite, I now think that my iPad and iPhone also have their merits. I read across all three, picking the right tool for the job.

Kindle
The biggest advantage to Kindle (I recommend the PaperWhite for the sweet spot of functionality and price, but the hardware is so mature at this point that there really isn’t a bad option) is that it’s the closest you can get to the experience of reading a physical book. An eInk display is unlike an LCD: it isn’t backlit and it has a physicality that makes the experience extremely close to that of looking at a piece of paper, especially under direct sunlight. This allows for a natural reading experience authentic to that of a physical book. It also means it’s easy on the eyes. Because the screen is front-lit, you don’t have to worry about blue light beaming into your eyes before bed.

Another advantage is that Kindle is a dedicated reading device. There are no other distractions at my fingertips. I won’t hit a difficult sentence in my book and recoil to the guilty comfort of Twitter. I won’t be interrupted by an inbound notification sliding down from the top of my screen and be oh so tempted to tap it, just for a second. The only activity available is reading.

The form factor is also optimal for reading: the screen is big enough that it can fit a full page of content, but the entire device is small, thin, and light enough that it’s comfortable to hold for extended periods.

Above all, I find that I can get in the zone the best on my Kindle – even better than a physical book, due to the aforementioned reading ergonomics.

Kindle’s eInk does come with some downsides though. It can only display black, white, and shades of grey, so it’s not great for visual books or textbooks with lots of diagrams. eInk also has a pretty slow refresh rate, so turning the page, highlighting text, and taking notes can be painfully slow. When reading fiction, I don’t perform these tasks as often and so I find the downsides to be tolerable and outweighed by the above benefits. But I do them all the time when reading nonfiction and technical reference material, and so for that I turn to my iPad.

iPad
My iPad Pro’s screen offers its own unique reading experience. The super retina display is fabulous and there is something luxuriously gratifying about rendering a book edge-to-edge on that magical piece of glass. Though I do feel less like I’m looking at a piece of paper and more like I’m looking at a screen, Apple’s True Tone technology (which adjusts the color temperature of the display to the ambient lighting conditions) ameliorates this quite a bit. And the screen can fit a lot of content, so I can enjoy a full page of text book all at once.

Most importantly, though, the screen is fast. Highlighting, page turning, taking notes, and looking up definitions of words is the instantaneous experience we’ve come to expect from our devices. I tend to perform these tasks a lot when reading nonfiction and textbooks (especially seeking back and forth, as I’ll often want to refer to something on an earlier page), and so my iPad is the weapon of choice for that kind of material.

Because the iPad Pro is larger, though, it can be tiresome to hold for longer reading periods. And, of course, it’s easy to get distracted from reading by all the other things iPad can do.

iPhone
Lastly, there’s the iPhone. The biggest advantage to reading on my iPhone is just that it’s always with me. Even if I only have a few minutes of downtime, I can use them to read a book instead of mindlessly triaging email. I also find it to be very comfortable. Since the entire device fits in the palm of my hand, it’s very easy to grip, and since the screen is small, I don’t have to move my eyeballs very much, especially if I turn on infinite scroll and just lightly scroll as I read.

The Right Tool for the Job
Leveraging all three of these devices provides the most versatility for different reading situations, which, again, increases the overall amount of time I can spend reading.

Physical Books
Whither physical books? There’s still a solid place for paper books in my life. Literally, my bookshelf. I think the biggest thing I gave up by switching to eBooks is having a warm, inviting collection of books at home. After the kitchen, the bookshelf is the heart of the house: when friends come over, it’s a conversation starter. If I want or need some inspiration, my bookshelf is the place I look. If I’m going to settle into some creative work, I want my bookshelf to be in sight. You know that feeling when you walk into a brightly lit, lovingly curated bookstore? That’s what I give up with my massive eBook library. But it occurred to me I don’t have to. For my favorite books, I can just buy a physical copy too! And since only my favorite books make the cut, I can indulge in always buying the nice, high quality print version. Less clutter and more enjoyment!

A Reading Recipe
Thinking intentionally about how I read has removed barriers to entry and reading friction. It’s hard enough deciding what to read; after deciding that I don’t want to stall out because I can’t decide how to read it. So, distilled, the recipe is this: