It’s not like holding a real book

One of the common things that non eBook readers say is that they like the feel of a real book and nothing would quite match it. Having had my eReader for more than a month I would wholeheartedly agree: reading an eBook (at least on my device) isn’t like holding a ‘real’ book.

It is much, much better.

Some of the attributes that my eReader offers over a traditional paper book are

  • I can read single-handedly any time I want to even if the book is 600+ pages long (no more wrist ache from giant books or having to jam one of those cheap mass market paperbacks flat with both hands so you can see the words near the inside margins) (and as Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader points out the ability to read single-handedly on public transport might be the difference between life and death)
  • I always have access to note-taking and highlighting without having to carry a separate pen or post-it pad with me (which I invariably forget)
  • There is a built-in dictionary (multi-lingual too) available at a second’s notice
  • I can change the font size to suit the tiredness of my eyes or the lighting conditions in which I am reading
  • In a presentation/meeting it is much easier to hide the fact I’m reading a book and not paying attention to the boring drone at the front of the room/head of the table

I am not surprised that I find some features of an eReader to be preferable to a physical book but what has astonished me is that I cannot think of a single instance in which the attributes of a physical book are better than those of an eBook. Certainly on some points the two are equal but, right now anyway, there isn’t a single feature for which the physical book would be my preferred option (aside from the fact that not everything I want to read is available in eBook format) (yet). I suppose battery life of the device must come into play at some point but mine seems to be very robust and only needs a charge very 3-4 weeks which is not an onerous task for me.

A few years ago I had cause to read a book called The Myth of the Paperless Office (Abigail J Sellen and Richard Harper, MIT Press, 2001) which, as the title might suggest, ponders the question of why the much sought after paperless office nirvana had, at that time (early 2000’s), failed to materialise. The book’s central thesis was that computers are good at some things (storing, organising and searching huge quantities of data for example) but that paper as a medium also has its own particular attributes (the book called them affordances) that make it superior for other activities like carrying, folding, and writing on. An almost anthropological approach was taken to studying how people interact with both electronic and paper media and specifically tackled the curly question of why people continue using paper even when it is patently inefficient for a given job. At the time I thought the authors of the book were probably right, i.e. that paper and computers would continue to co-exist and be used for their individual strengths, but if I met one or other of them now I think I’d have a debate (assuming they hadn’t changed their own minds in the intervening years as I have done).

I now suspect that eventually, possibly even in my life time, paper will prove to have less and less attributes that make it more attractive than its alternatives, to the point that it fades from common usage.  The thing we need now is to stop trying to recreate the form factor offered by traditional books and use the real strengths of computers. So far us old folk have built our bad habits and comfortable features into our new devices, often without even being conscious of it. This theory is expanded far more intelligently at 4oh4 Words Not Found where I was introduced to a new (to me) word which explains this hangover effect: skeuomorpth. But we are starting to see changes that deliberately ignore familiar features that aren’t needed in an eBook world. Kindles, for example, have done away with page numbers yet the devices have sold in their gazillions. If page numbers are not an essential part of the reading experience what else might we be able to do away with?

What about you? Do you prefer one format over another? Do you think we’ll see the end of physical books? If so, when would you predict it?

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26 Responses to It’s not like holding a real book

  1. Jose Ignacio says:

    Il take due note of your point: ‘In a presentation/meeting it is much easier to hide the fact I’m reading a book and not paying attention to the boring drone at the front of the room/head of the table’
    Now I’m convinced.


  2. Em says:

    This is the third post I see this morning on paper vs digital. One of them was a heading from the NYT Books saying that students still seem to prefer notebooks in our digital age.
    I’m sure I will one day own an e-reader of some sort and I can see it has it’s advantages. But I like the physicality of books, they comfort me. I’ve always been a collector since I was a kid and the match boxes, stamps, etc. have now been replaced by books, dvds and cds (which are kept in boxes and shelved, rather than in a wallet).
    The other pont I saw someone raising today is the pleasure to go in a bookshop and browse, and, for me, this is always a treat I look forward to.


  3. Em says:

    one more! (and sorry for typos in previous comment)
    I love when going to a different place to bring back a book as a souvenir and I write in it when and where it was bought; I wouldn’t be able to do that with an e-reader!


  4. Interesting points Em, but what I wonder is if a child born today, or in ten or twenty years from now, will ever experience those things. Kids today don’t bother buying CDs, many don’t even buy music downloads they just listen to live streaming services on the ‘net and never ‘own’ a song – I wonder if something similar will occur with respect to books.


  5. Dorte H says:

    Like Jose Ignacio, I really liked your last point.
    – and one could read a book when one´s students worked in groups ;D

    As a book lover like you has been won over so soon, I am not going to be stubborn and say I could *never* love reading an e-book as much as a real book as long as I have not tested it properly. Still, to me a computer is just a computer, no matter how good it is, while I love just touching the cover of my books and having them to look at on the shelves.


  6. Actually Dorte I’m not sure that I am now or have ever bean a book lover. I am a reading lover and a written story lover but I’m not a book collector or someone who particularly thinks a book has intrinsic value just because of its existence (ignoring its content for a minute). Perhaps because I moved around and travelled so much from the time I was about 17 I had neither the money nor the place to keep books so I never really did collect them in the way that other readers do (and before that virtually all my reading was library books so I didn’t start my adult life with a collection of books). It is only within the last few years that I have bought more books and that is because I (a) bought a house to stay in for a while and (b) have a job that allows me a bit of discretionary money to spend on buying the books (or stories) that I want to read rather than what’s available at the library. Apart from a collection of 20 of my grandmother’s books (classic titles, leather bound that I value because she did) and a few titles I have acquired of sentimental value I could be quite happy to have no actual books to my name 🙂


  7. Bernadette – I am so happy that you’re enjoying your E-reader as much as you are. You’ve certainly outlined some important advantages of it – especially the last one ;-). You ask a very interesting question, too, about the future of reading. I think we will see the time when there are fewer paper books and much more E-reading. I don’t think we will see the end of paper books. But I do think that more and more people will find that E-reading offers a lot of advantages. I think publishers, agents and authors are becoming aware of this, too, and they’re integrating the interest in E-reading into their marketing and writing.

    As for me, I don’t have an E-reader. I shall probably get one at some point, but I haven’t gotten one yet.


  8. Erin says:

    I don’t yet have an eReader, but I’ve finally started considering one. The one benefit paper books have for me is that they physically exist. I can put them on my shelf, easily leaf through them, lend them to friends for weeks at a time. I like knowing that I have gotten someTHING for the money I paid. I’m not a huge mp3 fan for the same reason.

    But. I can see the reasons for eReaders as well. One of the biggest draws for me is the ease of handling. I could eat breakfast while reading without trying to prop the book open so I don’t lose my spot! I could read outside without the wind blowing my book shut! Very cool.


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  10. Maxine says:

    I too really like that part about reading it during a presentation. The number of meetings I sit through with rude people spending their time in it checking their blackberries addictively, or their tablets, now I can join them and be rude too 😉

    I agree with the advantages of the e-reader you list, Bernadette, and I am quite surprised as to how quickly I have taken to mine as I am not a gadget fan. I used to like keeping books a lot more than I do now, I have to admit. I have never been a “collector” as such (some people collect first/signed editions, etc) but I used to think “I loved this book, I’ll keep it in case I have children and lovingly pass it on”. Well, I have done this a few times and been greeted with derision for yellowing copies of Jane Austen pbs with tiny print and pages breaking out of the spine, etc. Also derision that anyone would want to read something that some old person once read. So much for that idea.

    My main concern over the e-reader actually is eyesight. Our eyes are adapted to reading print on paper but even though the e-reader screen seems pretty good to me superficially, is there in fact flicker or other aspects that would assist the already degenerating vision?

    Also, I worry a little bit (not a lot!) about things like compatibilities, formats getting redundant before having time to read, etc (bit like VHS/DVD etc, I have thrown away many a cassette tape or video before I have been able to listen/watch because the machine concerned has broken and been a defunct technology, etc).

    But, on balance, I am finding an e-reader to be a civilised addition to life (I’ve noted this in a post that’s on timer and will be out later, though the post is primarily about the books I’ve read rather than my views on the format.)

    Great blog post – I do like your list of advantages. Very individual.


  11. Maxine says:

    PS my daughter (s?) think(s) that objects like e-readers and iPads are for oldies, and small things like iPhones are cool and for young people….whatever that means. They both still read print on paper books though have both read Sherlock Holmes short stories from their iPhone apps that come free…..weird.


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  13. Rob says:

    I’m still a book person for now. If you drop an e-reader in the bath (1) will it survive? (2) will you survive? I take it they don’t have enough power to zap. If I accidently drop it, will it survive? I saw one the other day that had a nice shattered screen, where it had been dropped. Expensive mistake. Book cheap, platform expensive. I also worry about platform/format changes.


  14. This is a really interesting post! I just wrote about the same topic recently on my blog (

    I kind of prefer a mixture of real and e-books. At home I still like to read paper books because I like to feel them, to actually turn the pages and in the end, to put them in my shelf. I love being surrounded by books and my dream is to have my own little library at home. This is not possible with ebooks and thus, I hope that there will still be real books in the future. Another thing I love about real books is going into a bookstore and buy them. For me it is much nicer than buying them online. It is the whole experience that you get with real books which would be lost if there are only ebooks available.

    When I am traveling or going to work on the other hand, I definitely prefer an ebook for the obvious reasons of weight and being able to carry around several books at the same time.

    Therefore, I would like to have both. For me, ebooks are not a substitute for real books but an additional possibility practical in many situations.


  15. JoV says:

    All your points made are so valid, especially so when I live quite a nomadic existence. I’m waiting for the price to drop a little before I run out and buy one. I’m sure I’ll take on e-book like fish to water, fingers crossed! 😉


  16. Marg says:

    As much as I am quickly becoming converted to ereading, I do think that there will still be a time and a place for actual books, but they will become different kind of commodity if you like. One of the disadvantages I did mention was what about book signings! Makes it more difficult for an author to sign your book on an ereader!

    For now my ereader goes everywhere with me, and I am sure that it will get used more and more as the library I have joined to borrow ebooks gets a bigger collection and I get used to buying ebooks instead of paper books. There will still be some that I want in paper, but my groaning bookshelves are thanking me already for having started to make the switch!

    I did wonder how long until someone mentioned reading in the bath. That’s something that I never do anyway because it was incredibly inconvenient to have to dry out your books when they got wet!


  17. BooksPlease says:

    I like your points in praise of e-books.

    I’m slowly coming round to the idea of not being surrounded by books and after moving house and packing and unpacking hundreds of books I’ve realised that it’s not the physical book I’m addicted to but the contents.


  18. @Maxine I am sorry to hear your children are so dismissive of your lovingly saved books, though I am not entirely surprised. My mum has collected Royal Doulton china for many years and I have long been dreading the collection becoming mine. I might keep a piece for sentimental reasons but we both know that I won’t be keeping it all. Sadly we can’t make our children love the same things we do.

    @Rob as for baths yes I would survive a dropped eReader in the bath, there is no current to speak of. Alas the device itself wouldn’t survive but I suspect it won’t be long before there is another huge jump in technology and e-ink (or something else) is so cheap as to be disposable so it won’t matter. I don’t take many baths though so it’s not an issue for me.

    As for formats I agree that is more troubling but only if you plan on collecting the eBooks and keeping them forever and I don’t. I rarely re-read books and if I did want to re-read an eBook I could always buy it again (I have paid on average $12 for my eBooks) or borrow it from a library.

    @Marg I have never been a collector of author signatures so that particular weakness of eReading isn’t a problem for me. Again though I don’t imagine it will be long before all eBooks come with some sort of facility for that to be done.

    @BooksPlease I’m the same, it’s the contents that are my drug of choice not the format. I didn’t really understand that until I got my eReader.


  19. I don’t think that paper books will ever be totally eclipsed but I do think that ebook will slowly take a bigger role in the general life of people, especially once they become a lot more affordable (which I think will take a very long time).

    It was really nice to see someone who was so keen about ebooks. I am not myself I have to admit. I like being able to read books on my iphone when i am stuck somewhere without one. I read books on my phone while I am waiting in court for my matter to be mentioned (im a solicitor) so that really occupies my time.

    I can’t read a big long book on my phone but I can definitely see that an ereader would be a million times better than carting a big book around. Recently I tried to read A Suitable Boy (the longest novel ever written in English) and it was so hard to read and so heavy to carry around.

    Having said that, they are not for me as a general rule. Maybe im just too resistant to change


  20. kathy durkin says:

    Again, I repeat that “Luddite” is my middle name. I do love books, having them around my apartment mixed in with pottery and small sculptures, on wooden shelves; it feels lived-in and cozy and inviting. And I like holding books, piling them up, picking them up and putting them down when I’m finished for the night, seeing them near me. Sitting in the living room at my computer, I see treasured books of mine and my family’s, and works that belonged to some wonderful friends. I see beautiful art books. history books, some books of maps, my “women’s books’ shelf, and more.
    And I, too, love going into bookstores and seeing new books and examining them. It seems to me like going into a bakery when freshly baked goods are displayed. And, it’s enjoying this and talking to other people who are also enjoying themselves.
    And, I like going to the library and visiting local branches when I go to different parts of the city.
    So, yes, I’m hooked on books.


  21. Stephen King said the about the only thing you can’t do with an ereader is drop it in the toilet and have it still work (with a paperback you can dry out the pages). If that every becomes a problem they will probably bring out a waterproof model 🙂


  22. Em says:

    I know that times are changing, but I believe that kids will still grow up with books, at least in their young age. Kids need books, they need to turn the pages, to see the colours, the words. I know a few kids and for each birthday I get them a book, would I actually get them a story to upload on their e-reader? I doubt it. So, I believe, kids will keep having a relationship with books and later on, it will become a question of preference as it is now, but I don’t see book lovers as an extinct race.


  23. eydie says:

    is this an age thing? i’m 54 and i will never own an e reader. one simple reason. i live in a place where the library system is excellent. i get the latest books from the library for free. i don’t read books more than once and i only read mysteries. with an e reader, i couldn’t read the latest murder mysteries for free and i am not interested in the old books that can be had for free on e readers. unless the library agrees to download the latest sue grafton for free on my e reader the way i read novels for free now, no thank you.


    • I am a member of a library that loans ebooks, no travel, no late fees, no disapproving glare from the librarian 😉

      I am also a member of three books and mortar libraries and a casual teacher librarian.

      I note that they have about 40 Sue Grafton’s for loan both ebook and audio book.



  24. Anonymous says:

    i am about to lose my job because of the growing number of people preferring to read an e book i pack books for a living and each month our orders are less and less. i will soon be unemployed because so many people have decided they want the newest technology, What people fail to realize that for everytime they download an e reader they are putting another hard working American out of a job and into to unemployment line. Pass it on


    • Well I’m in Australia so I don’t imagine anything I do has an impact on the American economy. Here independent bookshops are doing very well, partly because many of them are getting involved in the eBook world – offering in-store kiosks and so on.

      I’m sorry to hear that you are losing your job and I do wish you good luck in finding another one but I’m afraid technology improvements will always happen – I’m sure there were many blacksmiths making horseshoes who were put out of business by the adoption of the motor car and every technological advancement since then has had a similar impact.


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