A girl can only drop an 800+ page book on her face or her foot so many times before she starts to wonder: “eBooks vs printed books – which is better?”. I’ve always been a die-hard advocate for paper and ink, but reading Under The Dome really got me thinking about whether there might be a better way. I realise I’m probably poking another hornet’s nest here, but I figure it’s finally time to weigh in on another great debate of the reading world. I ask again: eBooks vs printed books – which is better?
History of eBooks
You might think that eBooks are a bit of a Johnny-come-lately on the scene, but actually they were first conceived back in the 1930s, after writer Bob Brown underwent the transformative cinematic experience of his first “talkie” movie (y’know, one of the ones when they finally figured out how to make sound match up with the picture). His theory was that book-reading had not kept pace with movie-watching, and he envisaged a machine that could be plugged in to any electrical socket and would allow him to read faster without any risk of nasty paper cuts (yes, those were his concerns, in that order).
It took about forty years for Bob Brown’s idea to come to fruition, but we got there. Of course, there are quibbles as to who did what first, but general consensus would suggest that eBooks kicked off in earnest when Michael S. Hart started Project Gutenberg in 1971. He typed up a plain-text copy of the United States Declaration Of Independence, and thought to himself: “hey, plain text copies of old documents would make them easier to access on this newfandangled Internet!” (I’m paraphrasing, but I’m sure it was something along those lines.)
Project Gutenberg now has over 60,000 digitised titles available (for free!) to anyone with an internet connection, using any device, but – of course – that’s not the only platform or format for eBooks anymore. With the ascendancy of Amazon and other mass-delivery infrastructure (which, sadly, wiped out early competitors, like Sony’s Data Discman – RIP), rapid improvements in technology (like the development of the PDF), infrastructural changes (ISBNs issued to books only available in eBook format), and the proliferation of devices and contraptions capable of reading eBooks (called, creatively, eReaders), eBooks have now saturated the book selling market and the public consciousness.
But the question still remains, eBooks vs printed books: is the shiny (relatively) new version really better than the OG?
Benefits of Reading eBooks
Ask any eBook convert, and they’ll rattle off a list of benefits of reading eBooks as long as your arm. Here’s just a few:
- Variety: There are literally millions (maybe billions, by now!) of eBooks available at the tap of a button, and they’re accessible immediately.
- Portability: An eBook library of 1,000+ books fits in your pocket. Can’t get that with paperbacks! This is especially great for travellers, and others who need to read on the go.
- Affordability: The price point for eBooks averages out around $3-4 a pop, far less than you’d pay for any print book. There’s also huge swathes of them available for free, and most public libraries now offer eBook lending services, too.
- Functionality: Come across a word you’ve never heard before? Tap it and the definition pops right up. Want to highlight a passage? No worries about the sacrilege of defacing print books, go right ahead and do it digitally! Want to pick up right where you left off with the audiobook version? Easy-peasy with an eBook.
- Accessibility: The flexibility of the format makes it easier for people to adapt it to their needs. Want to read with one hand while you’re breastfeeding? Much easier to do that with an eReader than a print book! Want to make the font larger, or even change it entirely? You can do that, too.
Sounds like it’s all beer and skittles, right?
Benefits of Reading Printed Books
Not quite. There are some things printed books give us that you just can’t get with eBooks and eReaders.
- Physicality: The smell of printed books, the feel of the paper, even those annoying paper cuts – all of that can make a big difference to how we enjoy the act of reading. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest that physically turning pages and the visual cues of printed books improves our recall of what we read. **Bonus benefit: their physical presence in our homes, their collectibility, is also a huge draw!
- Shareability: There have been all kinds of legal dramas – and resulting limitations – on sharing eBooks with friends. If you’re the kind of reader that loves pressing a book you’ve just finished into the hands of another, that’s something you’re only going to be able to do with the print version (legally, anyway).
- Durability: The thing about a printed book is, no matter how old it is or how long you’re using it, it will never “go flat” right before the shock twist or the happily-ever-after!
- Readability: For those of us looking to avoid screens and blue-light in the evenings, printed books are the only way to go. Many newer eReaders are marketed as being no- or low-blue-light, but the jury’s still out on how they affect our circadian rhythms. Plus, however you slice it, printed books are easier to read in direct sunlight or other glare-y conditions.
- Affordability: I know, I know, I just said that affordability was one of the main benefits of eBooks, but that doesn’t count the initial outlay of purchasing an eReader to begin with (if you’re not using your regular phone or tablet). The good ones can be pretty exxy, far more than you’d pay for even a new-release hardcover edition!
The (Environmental) Elephant In The Room
Yes, I’m ignoring one of the most contentious parts of this debate: the environmental impact of eBooks vs printed books. I’ve heard very strong arguments on both sides. eBooks eliminate the fuel used to print and ship books, not to mention the use of paper and synthetic chemicals to produce them. But there’s an equally strong argument that the manufacture and distribution of eReaders is just as big an environmental problem (the last thing we need is more plastic and electronic waste!), and most reputable publishers use responsibly-sourced and recycled materials to produce printed books now, anyway. The details of this part of the debate are complex, and constantly changing, so I’m just going to go ahead and declare it a wash. Whichever way we read, it’s going to have an environmental impact (as does our very existence).
Are people really buying more eBooks vs printed books?
Well, that depends who you ask (and when!). There was a huge spike in production and sales of eBooks and eReaders a few years back, but that didn’t last as long as everyone expected. Printed books are far from dead. The data I’ve seen suggest that eBooks are still a smaller chunk of the market: roughly $940 million-worth in the U.S., compared to $3 billion for hardcovers and $2.5 billion for paperbacks (as of 2019). That could be partially attributable to the lower cover price for eBooks, but the pendulum is definitely swinging back in printed books’ direction.
Well, then? eBooks vs printed books – which is better?
Sorry to disappoint, but I’m going to have to revert to the traditional fence-sit on this one: it depends. For some readers, eBooks are their preferred format for reading, and I can definitely see the benefits. Heck, I might even be convinced to give them a go myself one day. But, for now, your girl stays hopelessly devoted to printed books. Even though they hurt when I drop them on my face, nothing beats the look and feel of paper and ink in my hands.
July 10, 2020 at 8:56 AM
I like both. I’ve been an ebook fan from the beginning, starting with an iRiver, which I actually still have. It’s not wifi though, it’s old school where you purchased and downloaded books via your computer and then ran them through your Adobe Digital Editions to transfer them to your device. It also came preloaded with 150 classics. I can still use it, but I don’t very often. The convenience of reading apps has superseded it. I love the freedom of buying and downloading straight to my phone and tablet (which sync). My preferred retailer is Google Play Books but I use the Kindle app for NetGalley downloads. I have an extensive Kobo library too, as back in the day, when using my iRiver, Bookworld was the place to buy ebooks from. They were then taken on by Kobo who are generally a bit pricey compared to other retailers. But, my iRiver library is in my Kobo app now, hence another reason why I don’t charge the old dear up anymore.
But I do still love to be surrounded by physical books. Sadly though, we have no bookstores out here so any books I want to buy have to bought online, so more often than not, ebooks are more convenient.
I’m definitely a hybrid reader! I really do enjoy swapping it up, an ebook while on the go, a physical book at home, that sort of thing.
July 11, 2020 at 4:09 PM
You definitely seem to have the best of both worlds, Theresa! And I’ve got to say, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll invest it in opening a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in your area. You deserve it! ❤️
July 13, 2020 at 10:38 AM
I’ll quit my job and run it for you!
July 13, 2020 at 11:02 AM
July 10, 2020 at 9:51 PM
A resounding “it depends” from me too. Personally I greatly prefer physical books, although I’ve never been able to put my finger on why. I definitely like owning them, but even for books I don’t plan ever to buy, I just feel more satisfied when I’m reading it physically and holding it in my hands. That’s in part because I read the end before I read the middle so it’s nice to be able to flip through — but it’s more than that, I think!
July 11, 2020 at 6:10 PM
Yes! There’s something ineffable but magical about the flip-through feel, isn’t there?
July 10, 2020 at 10:38 PM
I agree – it depends. But I’m reading more and more on my e-reader these days. It’s so convenient, light, and portable. Plus the dictionary feature is great since I am trying to read in French this month! However, I do believe that reading paper books is better for retention, and I hate e-books when there is any chance I will want to flip back and forth and look at two pages at once. And I refuse to pay money for them, except in rare cases. Mostly I check them out from the library.
July 11, 2020 at 6:14 PM
Oooh, yes – that is a major pro in the e-books column, I’d imagine it’s amazing for language learning!
July 13, 2020 at 6:51 AM
I’m firmly in the physical books camp though I’m sure my husband would love for me to finally cave and get some sort of ereader and stop cluttering up the house with books. 😂 I love the feel of a book in my hands, and I also love to see my progress when I’m working my way through a particularly large tome. There’s something about picking up your book and seeing where the bookmark is that I’m guessing you’ll never get with a little progress bar telling you what percentage of the book you have left. 🤷🏼♀️
July 13, 2020 at 11:03 AM
LOL! He married you for better or worse, and when it comes to book clutter that’s all a matter of perspective 😉
July 14, 2020 at 10:22 PM
At one stage, I was so taken with the economy and portability of e-books, I thought I’d never turn back. But I eventually realised another drawback, which is that they tend to get lost in the black hole of my device if I don’t remember the title and author names perfectly. The number of times I’ve remembered a great kindle book about something or other, but can’t find it among a glut of hundreds or thousands made me turn back to print books. It’s more straightforward to have spines to check on a physical shelf any day 🙂 Then of course there’s the great page smell, attractive covers and lendability you’ve mentioned.
July 15, 2020 at 1:10 PM
I must say, looking over the spines and stacks of books in my personal library is one of the greatest small joys in my life – I can’t imagine getting that same calming satisfaction from scrolling through titles on an eReader 😉 Good on you, Paula!
July 15, 2020 at 5:23 PM
I never thought I would be an eBook reader but the accessibility, portability and cost won me over. I still love my real books and probably read 50/50 now.
July 19, 2020 at 2:29 PM
Best of both worlds, eh? 😉 Love it!
July 15, 2020 at 5:41 PM
There are eBooks now?
July 19, 2020 at 8:04 AM
The more you know 😉
July 23, 2020 at 8:47 AM
I remember having a conversation about 20 years ago along the lines of “I wish someone would create a device like the iPod, but for books”. Well I got my wish granted – and while I was doing a lot of international business travel I loved my e-reader. It was such a relief for my neck and shoulder not to have to carry 3 or 4 books in my hand luggage. But I then began to notice something – I didn’t recall what I was reading on the device. Research I have read since reinforces this – that we don’t recall as much of what we read on a screen as we do in physical format. We tend to scan the text rather than read. …
As for affordability, it astonishes me that e book versions are often the same price as a paper book
July 23, 2020 at 5:44 PM
I completely get that – eBooks would be SO much more convenient for regular travellers, I don’t begrudge anyone that!
November 18, 2020 at 11:42 PM
Love this! You compare the two perfectly, and I never considered some of the benefits of ebooks!
November 19, 2020 at 1:24 PM
Cheers, Stuart! 😉