Kindle, iBooks, or books with a spine?

So here is a question I have been thinking about and testing out this summer: Are ebooks better or worse than those things that actually fill bookshelves? Like most researchers, I read a lot, and now that digital publishing has expanded to include close to half of the books I seem to want to read, I have been exploring whether to go with this new format. There is a lot of marketing out there right now promoting ebooks as the ‘future of reading’, but I needed to look past the hype and see what actually works. As you will see, my overall response so far is generally positive with a few major reservations.

First, a little about how I read. For me, reading does not take place without a pencil. I mark up books, and later take my notes and key passages and type them into a bibliographic database jabref (I will do another post on jabref sometime). I always expect that I may go back to what I read, either for my own research or to use for a class. So I need to access my notes and highlights. With that in mind, here are a couple of options that just plain old didn’t work for me. iBooks allows highlighting and notes, but you can only export notes. The booklist is also narrow and pricey. For Kindle and kobo devices, highlighting is a pain so they are out. The kobo and stanza apps for Apple iOS devices have no way to export highlights. That leaves the Kindle app for iOS. I is easy to make notes and highlights, and you can access those notes on a web site (with some limitations – more below). So, the best choice for me with ebooks has been using kindle on iPad, so that is what I will use to compare to real, ‘hey I exist in the physical world’ books. I have broken down my thoughts into a few categories below.

Kindle on an iPad versus a real book

Highlighting and Note taking: I think it takes longer to highlight an ebook than to underline a paper book. Especially the way Kindle works now, you need to press and hold and then drag little balloons around to highlight what you want. I would say note taking is about even, and there is a much better chance I can read my notes when they are typed! Even though it takes more time when reading, time is saved later. I used to copy out all of my highlights into my database. This meant that I read through the book twice, and it works amazingly well for my recall of the book. However, I don’t care to read everything quite so closely and I don’t always have the time to go through a book again. Well, here is where Kindle is helpful. I can just log into my Kindle page on the computer, and all my notes and highlights are there (well, most of the time). I can then copy them into my database. There are two problems, though: 1) the highlighted amount is usually capped to 10%, which is fine, but in some books it is limited to less (as little as 40 highlights). This information is not available in advance, and I have already run up against this. 2) There is a lot of extra baggage around these highlights. Here’s an example I pulled from a book I highlighted:

I argued in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory that his conception of artistic truth has much to offer aesthetics today, but it employs an autonomist theory of art that is both flawed and outdated.Read more at location 90

   • Delete this highlight

Add a note


I found Habermas’s social philosophy insufficiently attuned to the concerns of contemporary artists.Read more at location 92

   • Delete this highlight

Add a note

So while it works, it is still not ideal. By the way, there is one app that has got everything right on, but only for pdf files. That app is Goodreader. Highlighting is done by selecting the highlight tool and running your finger across the text you want to highlight – much easier than Kindle or iBooks. I wish I could have everything as a pdf, as then some of the problems below would be avoided. Goodreader also has a very easy and clean way to export annotations.

Access: I have three places for my books: at the office, in my home office, and in my upstairs bookshelves. I always struggle with which books to keep where, as it always seems that I need the book that is a half hour drive away. With ebooks, as long as I have a computer or device I can access the book. My comparison here is with iPad, but I also have an iPod (i am not a cell phone person) and that is also fine to read on for time when I would not have carried a book with me anyways. Internet connections are not required to read, and all devices sync where have read to.

Ownership: This is a big negative for the ebooks. If I buy a bound book, I can have it as long as the physical thing lasts. I don’t sell books, and I fully expect that what I read today will be important for my work in the future. I’m sure there are some books I will be going back to reference more than 30 years from now. If I buy an ebook, I purchase access to the book. That access is totally and continually reliant on Amazon giving me that access. If a law changes, or Amazon goes under, or Apple changes its mind about a Kindle app, or either decides that I need to purchase new hardware, I might lose access and essentially lose the book. Ebooks (in this sense and others) seem to cater to the throwaway paperback buying crowd, the sort of people who read a book and then get rid of it by passing it to a friend or taking to to a used bookstore. I’m going into this ebook experiment knowing I might have to rebuy some of these books in hard copy in the future.

Searching: Sometimes it takes me forever to find a quote I am looking for in a book. Ebooks are easy to search, and also easy to find topic areas in a book not listed in the index. In a recent 900ish page book I was reading as an ebook, I easily found a section that discussed music, even though it wasn’t easy to find in the TOC or index. But I would miss flipping through a book, as often I discover something I might miss if searching an ebook.

Space: It doesn’t take up any more shelf space. I’ve already more than filled all of my shelves at home and at the office, so this would save having to buy or build new shelves. But books can easily be out of sight and mind in electronic format. Sometimes it is nice to have a visual reminder to finish a book.

Price: Prices are often cheaper for ebooks, but often not significantly less. In the end it might cost more if I have to rebuy.

Recall: When I remember a something I have read, I usually remember where on the page it is. This is a powerful way to take in ideas, and something that is lost in ebooks, where the location changes all the time.

Reading ease: I can see how the “e-ink” makes reading easier than on an ipad, except in the dark when a backlit screen is handy. (And I really think that despite their usefulness, any name starting with ‘e’ or ‘i’ is just plain dumb) However, the drawbacks of the kindle (primarily that it has no touchscreen so takes a long time to highlight a passage) make it useless to me. Yes, paper and ink is the easiest on the eye altogether, and if all other things were equal would be my first choice. But here is the catch: reading for me includes a pencil, which means that all of my hands are tied up holding a book and pencil. On an ipad you can read with one hand if you want, leaving a hand open to eat or hold a kid.

In summary, despite the drawbacks, I will add ebooks into my reading. But they won’t replace paper books yet. Maybe I’ll return to this list and update as I read more. If you have any suggestions, let me know!


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