For Some Uses, Paper Books are Better than E-books

Someone likes O'Reilly books

I’ve had a Kindle e-book reader since August 2010 and an iPad since October 2011. I’ve used both to read e-books of various kinds, and I’ve come to realize that paper books can sometimes be better.

If I want to look up something technical (e.g. a programming language feature, a scientific model, or an algorithm), I find a paper book to be faster and more natural. I’m surprised, because I thought built-in search would make e-books better for looking things up. I was wrong. With paper books, getting the book from the shelf and finding what I want is all done in one natural, human sequence of motions. With e-books, first I have to find the e-book (“Is it a PDF? Maybe it’s in my Kindle Library? Is it an EPUB? Maybe it’s in my Kobo Library?”), and then I have to find what I want in that e-book.

Generally, if I want to “read” a book random-access, I find that a paper version works better. If I want to read the book from beginning to end (as is the case with fiction or biography), then e-books work great.

Also, you can have multiple paper books open at the same time, side by side, which is definitely not the case with e-books (unless you open them on your computer and have a big screen).

Also, some paper books are works of art, and the if you convert them to e-books, you get something different. I was saddened to hear that Encyclopedia Britannica has stopped printing their paper books because those books are beautiful. I have a commemorative edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics (three volumes) and they’re wonderful to look at (and read!). Edward Tufte’s books are another example of books-as-art.

Lastly, you can sell or give away paper books that you no longer need or want. That’s not true with e-books.

In summary, I think paper books will continue to exist, more than I did a year ago. The ability to print paper books on demand, and the second-hand market for paper books, will help make them economical, so they can compete with e-books on price.

P.S. If you know of any software to help me manage and search all my e-books, please let me know! Delicious Library looked promising, but it can’t search inside my e-books.

Photo credits: The photo of some O’Reilly books is by zugaldia on Flickr and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.