E-Readers vs. Book Books: A Book Lover Weighs the Pros and Cons

updated May 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

I love books. From a very young age I’ve been surrounded by them, and the feel and even the smell of books is something I find incredibly comforting. I love them so much that I wrote a manifesto about how, even if the printed word becomes technically obsolete, I’m never letting go of my books. And then, about a year ago, on the eve of a six-week trip to Europe, I made an uncharacteristic decision: I decided to get an e-reader.

I got it for probably the same reasons pretty much everybody else does: having an e-reader makes buying books super, super easy, and you can’t beat the portability. I had mixed feelings about the decision, though. What if getting an e-reader turned me from my beloved books and I had to eat crow? Would reading become an irresistibly convenient but somehow less joyful experience?

One year in, I’ve reached a verdict in the case of e-books vs. book books. Before I share it, though, let’s take a look at the arguments for each side from my (admittedly biased) perspective.

Also: I should point out that I got the cheapest Kindle I could possibly find, so it probably does not do all the awesome things that your Nook 4 Million can. It pretty much just displays text. That’s it.

First, the Pros of the E-Reader:

• Portability. My Kindle weighs 6 ounces. I can jam as many books as I please on that puppy, take it on an airplane, and still weighs… 6 ounces. Which sure beats carrying three or four books on a long trip, especially when you’re making a mad dash through the airport because you’re about to miss your flight (which I always am).

• Convenience. If you decide, completely randomly, that you’d really like to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, you don’t need to go to a bookstore, or even wait for your two-day Amazon Prime shipping. As long as you have a wi-fi connection, you can read whatever book you want to, right then and there. (Which actually could be a bad thing, if you have a short attention span.)

• New releases tend to be cheaper on an e-reader than in traditional book form, owing to the whole thing about e-books not having, you know, a physical essence.

• Lots of classic novels, which have entered the public domain, are free on the Kindle. Lots of other not-classic books are also free on the Kindle, although maybe they are terrible.

• Confession time: I have a terrible habit of reading ahead in books. Especially if a book is really hard to put down, I will plunge ahead like, maybe twenty pages away from where I stop reading, just to give myself an idea of what will happen next. As I move through the book I’ll wind up reading farther and farther ahead, until I’m in the middle of the book and I already know how it ends. Which can really kill your motivation to finish a book. It’s a terrible habit, and one that I haven’t figured out how to replicate on the Kindle. Which is good.

• This probably isn’t a big deal to those who don’t often take public transportation, but a Kindle is way easier to read while standing up on the subway, because you can hold the ‘book’ and turn the pages with the same hand, while the other one firmly grips the pole. With a traditional book, there’s always that terrifying moment where you let go of the pole to turn the page, and fear that the train will take a sudden turn as you do, knocking you into an ungraceful heap on the floor.

• If you read all classic novels, you probably won’t care about this, but if you’re like me and your taste occasionally runs towards the incredibly low-brow, it’s nice that having an e-reader keeps everyone on the train from knowing that you are reading a tell-all penned by a reality television star.

• It’s easier to read from an e-reader and eat at the same time because you don’t have to figure out how to hold the book open on the table.

And the Cons of the E-Reader (aka the arguments in favor of good old fashioned books):

• There is no such thing as a ‘used’ e-book, so if you’re an avid second-hand shopper you may wind up paying a lot more for certain titles.

• Lending books to people is a lot harder. I’ve heard that you can somehow do this on the Kindle, but I’ve never been able to figure it out. I’m a luddite.

• You know how it’s really, really hard to read ahead on an e-reader? Well, it’s also really hard to start skimming if the book you’re reading gets unexpectedly terrible but you still want to know how it ends. When, halfway through, Outlander took a turn from delightful Scottish adventure to campy Scottish romance, I discovered that skimming on my Kindle was a distinctly awkward experience. I’m sure I missed some of the finer points of the sexual escapades, er, plot.

• Reading in the bathtub with an e-reader is a bit hazardous. I do it anyway, but I may regret it someday.

• This fifth point is a bit hard to point into words, but it’s probably the most important one for me. Reading a ‘real’ book is just… nicer. There’s something about turning the pages, holding the book in my hand, that feels lovely and right. A book book is much nicer to take to bed with you than an e-reader. And, if you love a book enough to keep it, it stays on your shelf, like an old friend that you can stop by and visit whenever you like. Of course your Kindle books are always in your library too, but they will never catch your eye on a rainy day. You’ll never bond over them with a friend at a dinner party. They’re just a list.

So by now you have probably seen where this is going. For me, the overwhelming verdict is: books. My Kindle isn’t completely neglected: I still use it when I can save a lot of money, or for books where I would be a little embarrassed to be seen holding a copy of said book. Or where the book is just really huge and I can’t be bothered to lug it on the subway. In these cases, convenience trumps sentiment. But for the most part, I’ve gone back to my old-fashioned books. It’s a preference that is, I suspect, deeply personal.

What about you — where do you fall?