Since I spent last week describing my deep and abiding love of audiobooks, I thought I should follow up with a brief take on ebooks. (Will this actually be brief? We shall see.)
I remember a few years back when ebooks became a thing everyone predicted it would be the end of paper books.
Obviously, this didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, in fact. Physical book sales remain strong, and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t: Millennials read more than any previous generation, and while they may be more likely to read ebooks, they still overwhelmingly prefer print.
My own purchasing and reading habits are entirely in-line with these trends, all the way down to preferring to buy from independent bookstores rather than Amazon. What can I say: books are my favorite impulse purchase.
I could go on about my love of print, but that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I mean to share a few thoughts on ebooks, and why I don’t think they’ll ever replace print. To me, the answer comes down entirely to user experience.
Now, I have read quite a bit by ebook in the past, and it has some advantages. Number one: portability and convenience. Over the years I’ve lived and traveled abroad, transporting books across the Atlantic has been one of the more challenging problems. I like to travel light, but books are my Achilles’ heal. Choosing what books to bring is tough, and it’s just as challenging to avoid buying more books that I’ll then have to bring back home. And since I tend to buy books by the stack, it’s easy for this habit to get out of hand.
When I lived in Russia, because I wanted to save as much room as possible for Russian-language books on my return trip, I decided to bring a Kindle Fire instead, and focus my reading on ebooks. Because of public domain laws, I was able to instantly download almost any classic book in the English-language cannon right to my tablet and read away. I also had access to my public library’s ebook collection, which expanded my reading options during that time. It was awesome.
Probably my favorite thing to do was to invert the colors on my e-reader so that the background was black and the text white, then turn the brightness down to its lowest setting, and then turn all the lights off and read till I naturally fell asleep. This was an incredibly soothing way to read, and it’s also what my mom does when she wakes up in the middle of the night and wants to read without disturbing my dad with her bedside lamp.
Anecdotally, I’ve also heard that people like e-readers for books that they don’t actually want other people to know they’re reading. I heard the Fifty Shades series benefited from this, which… yeah, that makes total sense.
Ebooks have some clear advantages. By contrast, many of the disadvantages are subtle enough to seem negligible. And yet, for me, these small disadvantages add up to an overall negative experience.
Let’s start with vanity: I like showing off my reading habits. Print books are my decorating medium of choice, and not just for the pretty Instagram images. Even when I’m out in public, I like carrying a physical book as both a conversation starter and an endorsement. I can pass books to people to look over or point out paragraphs to read in a way that is awkward on a phone or tablet. And I can lend people books more readily, too, which is a thing that’s discouraged on ebook devices.
Then there are some of the subconscious cues. For instance, I like being attuned to the length of a book, and my progress as I read through it. It’s simply not satisfying to see a progress bar that indicates percentage, because that’s proportional to the length of a book. How many pages do I need to read to gain a percentage point? It changes every time. Even showing me my page number doesn’t help. Nothing replaces the feeling of pages melting away under my fingers as I devour a good book.
Then there’s navigation. Finding something in an ebook is slow business, and even more frustrating when you can’t just mark a spot with your finger. I don’t think I ever realized how quickly I can flip through book pages trying to find something referenced on an earlier page until I tried doing it in an ebook. It just doesn’t work very well, and that’s incredibly frustrating.
You’d think bookmarks and note-taking would help, but alas: I am no power user on this front. Even in audiobooks, where I have gotten a little better at leaving bookmarks, it’s not a function I’m used to using enough. I forget that it’s available until its too late. And when I do use it, the process of leaving bookmarks, highlighting paragraphs, and taking notes is more time-consuming than jotting down a simple hand-written note.
But most of all, I feel that something is off with my reading experience when I try to read an ebook. When I’m reading a print book, I can often find an earlier section by remembering where on the page that section was when I first read it. It’s a small cue, but I think it actually has a greater impact on my memory and retention of material than even audiobook content.
Remember how in my post last week I said I could remember audiobooks fairly well, compared to print? Well, I cannot give ebooks the same endorsement. I remember the gist of things, but the details blur much faster. It seems to me that those subtle, contextual cues about word placement on a page are more important than you might think. I never remember to take notes in an ebook because I usually don’t need to take them when I read print—I remember enough without them. But I clearly don’t remember ebooks well enough, and then don’t notice the lack of retention until too late. And while audiobooks (more than) compensate for that sensory feedback with excellent narrators who add accents and intonation and expression to the story, ebooks subtract sensory feedback and offer nothing in its place. They are a void.
Obviously, none of this is to imply that no one should read ebooks. That’s silly. There are times when they are incredibly convenient, and their accessibility and convenience alone make them a great boon to most people who use them. At the end of the day, making it easier for more people to read is a net positive.
But if we’re talking about personal preference, nothing beats a beautiful print book.
Unless it’s a shelf full of them.