UPDATED: APRIL 2020
Here’s a surprisingly touchy subject for a lot of avid readers: when it comes to books vs ebooks, which is better?
I feel pretty strongly about physical books offering an entirely different experience compared to ebooks…at least for me. I grew up being drawn to libraries and bookshops – with a neverending stack of reading -– in a time when literature was my only form of entertainment. The town I lived in until I was nine years old had maybe three other children my age, so books were my best friend.
But I think the real question when it comes to books vs ebooks is actually this: which one is better for you?
I originally wrote this post about five years ago. As I was packing up my gear for six months of travel starting in Greece, I was suddenly very aware of how much space my books occupied in my backpack. I had encountered the same issue on other trips (never mind the addition of journals and notebooks), but this was my first real extended trip. I’m a bibliophile through and through – the book/reading experience is just as important to me as its contents. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but you get it.)
Back then, as I disregarded extra pairs of underwear in favour of more literature, for the first time ever I found myself thinking, I wish I had an e-reader.
I brought up the topic on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve found people are extremely divided and passionate about their reading choices. As quick as I am to defend physical books, the pro e-book readers are equally quick to jump down my throat about it. On the other hand, some of us on the pro-book side are insufferable about defending the need for “real” books. The experience is just entirely different.
Bottom line: the contents are the same. As long as you’re reading, I don’t care what your method is. (Except speed reading bullshit. That’s no way to enjoy the written word.)
Anyway, it’s a fun topic to write about because people are so opinionated on the matter. I seriously love discussing it.
So if you’re tossing around the merits of books vs ebooks and are considering picking up an e-reader, here are some things to consider.
The pros for sticking to books
1. Our lives are already consumed with gadgets
Does anyone else feel completely tapped out when it comes to technology? I’m pretty sure I spend at least three hours a day on my phone. Ok, it’s more like six, but it’s embarrassing to admit that.
And then I’m forever working on my laptop. And then in the evenings, I veg with a good Netflix or Prime movie.
Do you really need another electronic in your hand when you’re trying to juggle an iPhone, laptop, or camera? I love reading early in the morning before my phone and inbox and social media start lighting up.
2. Reading a book is in itself an experience
My morning routine starts out with a cup of coffee and an hour of reading. As I said, my mornings are my favourite time to sit down with a good book; my mind is clutter-free, it’s quiet, and there are no anxieties niggling away at me. A book is a perfect complement to this peace. It’s part of the experience.
An ebook has none of that same experience. Where’s the new book smell? Or the musty old book smell? Or the pure joy of thumbing through pages and seeing how much you have left to read? There’s just something rewarding and tangible about closing a book when you’re done with it.
3. Supporting independent bookstores is one of the nicest ways to support local
Bibliophiles agree there’s something wonderful about wandering into a small independently owned bookshop filled with quirkiness and other book-loving people. My favourite bookstore when I lived in Montreal used to be littered with stacks of books and magazines, chipped coffee mugs, and professors and teenagers crowded around tables with pages spread out around them. It was totally pretentious. I miss it.
At my bookstore in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, I’d never ask the owner if they had my book available; I had too much fun just trying to find it myself, and then sinking into one of the big armchairs and reading the first chapter before buying it. I think I read my books even faster just so I had an excuse to get back to the bookstore.
The cons of books
There are none. Truly. But:
1. They’re not so practical for travel
Like I said, if you’re a serial reader, filling a suitcase with books just isn’t a viable option when you’re on the road. You could always just bring one book and leave it behind wherever you are, with the hopes of someone else picking it up and falling in love, but if you’re like me you’ll find it hard to part with something you’ve really connected with.
There are also some pretty obvious impacts on the environment when it comes to book production. It’s not easy to find recent studies on the issue, but the process from fiber supply to transport is a long one. On the other hand, the same could be said of our constant production and use of new devices — you won’t have your hands on a Kindle too long before there’s a newer and “better” version.
The pros of reading ebooks
Here’s where a lot of my opinions about ebooks have changed over the years.
1. You’ll save so much space in your luggage when you’re travelling
An e-reader gives you the option of carrying hundreds of ebooks with you while you’re on the road. Even the 800-page copy of A Little Life (which I’m currently reading) is reduced to a thin, lightweight e-reader. It takes up no space at all.
And if you like to travel carry-on, like me, this is a big deal.
2. You won’t end up reading shitty books on your travels (or in general)
This is probably my biggest plus for ebooks point. If you’re travelling and you run out of books, there’s a good chance your hostel will have a free bookshelf. Or there’s a free library somewhere. But have you ever seen what kind of books are on loan there? There must be billions of Dan Brown books floating around the world, and most of them are firmly anchored to a free library.
Ultimately, this is why I ended up buying an e-reader. I don’t want to read shit material just because I love my books.
While in Cambodia last year, I had a full day on Koh Rong without any reading material. I checked to see what sales were on, and found a deal for The Dutch Wife for $3. That’s pretty significant since it’s a fairly new release book, and a popular one. I downloaded it and read it all in one day — I haven’t done that in years.
(Dudes, I just checked. It’s still only $3 in the Kindle store!)
An ebook totally enhanced my reading experience in this case. Nothing beats hanging out in a hammock near the ocean devouring an excellent book all in one day. Not a care in the world.
3. You’ll save money
Like I mentioned above, ebooks are always cheaper than paperbacks or hardcovers! It’s worth checking out the price online before purchasing the physical version.
There’s also a whole section of “Kindle Books Free Today.” And, finally, classic books are usually significantly cheaper in ebook form — often even free. There’s no excuse for reading shitty books.
The cons of ebooks
1. You can’t see what others are reading
I love being that creepy asshole on the bus who asks an unsuspecting stranger how they’re enjoying A Moveable Feast. I did exactly that in an airport once. I did not get dude’s phone number.
Similarly, I love browsing people’s bookshelves and connecting over shared literary loves. If they’ve got any Twilight on their shelves our friendship is instantly over. (Just kidding. I know my friends are into Twilight. It’s a good thing I love them.)
In a similar theme, I LOVE swapping books with good friends. I love sharing my reads. (Only when my friend is reliable enough to return the book, of course.) You can’t really do that with ebooks.
2. You can’t build a cozy library
I mean. That’s all I actually want in life. Ceiling to floor bookshelves…which are not so impressive in my house with 6-foot ceilings, admittedly.
So should you get an e-reader?
I have completely changed my tune on e-readers since this was first published in 2014.
An e-reader is a perfect complement to your reading regime. So, yes, you should get an e-reader. You don’t have to be dependent on it — use it to make your life a little easier, whether that means travelling lighter, saving money, or reading what you actually want to read.
I’ll never stop visiting bookstores and supporting small independent publishers, and you shouldn’t either. And yes, I’m aware there are Amazon links in this post, but if I can make your reading life better and more enhanced…that’s equally as important to me.
What kind of e-reader should I get?
I’m all about my Kindle. Ages ago, I bought my first Kindle for less than $100. It was super simple with very little functionality other than reading books, and I loved that about it.
Kindles have changed a lot over the years, but a basic one works just fine. Even the most basic and affordable Kindle nowadays has a built-in light (mine doesn’t). But if you want something with all the bells and whistles, really, it’s not much more expensive. You’ll need to weigh the costs against how often you’ll actually use it, and whether it’s worth the money.
Your other option is to use a tablet…which, personally, I’m not a fan of doing. It’s too much like using a laptop or phone, and I want an experience that’s different from that. There’s not much evidence out there that suggests tablet eyestrain is any different from e-reader eyestrain, but I personally find e-readers easier on the eyes.
I don’t think I’ve picked up my Kindle in over a year, but I’m still so very happy I have it. I will always favour a print book over an e-book, and I still think they’re a superior option…but if I have to pick between a Harlequin at a free library or a free classic novel, there’s no contest who wins.