Should We Read Print Books or E-books?

Books on a wooden shelf

 

Is it better to read paper books or electronic books?

E-books have their benefits: They are convenient, especially when traveling, and they are often significantly less expensive than physical books. They are also becoming more like physical books as developers continue to improve the technology. Also, I think all reading is good, so I don’t oppose the reading of e-books. However, here are four reasons why printed books may be better for us:

1. Print Books Aid in Memorization

The case studies I’ve read indicate that subjects remember more and have greater concentration when reading physical books.1 It appears that human beings retain information better with paper pages than with electronic screens. Scrolling makes mind mapping difficult, so it seems any online-like reading is inferior to a physical book when it comes to memory.

If e-readers improve to eventually simulate ink on paper, eliminating all scrolling, then reader memory will no doubt be reinforced. But isn’t it interesting that as e-readers improve in quality, they get closer to copying the experience of reading physical books? I think that is an indication that there is something markedly artificial about reading text on a machine.

2. Print Books Preserve Our Humanity

As a philosopher and teacher, I think learning, reflecting, and especially reading is best done away from a machine, or at least not exclusively on a mechanical device. Computers and the various technologies we use today have many practical advantages, but I am concerned about what they do to our humanity and how they give an impression of learning that is somewhat artificial. Handling a smartphone, a laptop, and various other mechanical devices for a significant part of our day tends to hinder interaction with others and detracts from serious reflection.2

3. Print Books Appeal to Our Senses

Many print book readers enjoy the pleasant glue and ink smell inherent in a real book, the sound that the pages make as they turn, and the feel of the paper beneath their fingertips. These sensations are not only aesthetically pleasing. When a person is able to physically interact with books, the interaction enhances the learning experience.

Educational studies have indicated that students remember more when they write by hand than when they type on a machine. Though e-readers claim to provide ease in reading and studying (giving the impression of deep learning), the machine isn’t allowing the user to connect with the material or work hard enough to get to the next level of understanding. Educators Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren emphasized the importance of “making a book your own” by marking, underlining, outlining, and dog-earing the book.3 Updated e-readers allow for some of this connectedness, but they still don’t stimulate the senses in the same way. With physical books, the reader has an encounter with a book that doesn’t disappear when you hit the off button.

4. Print Books Offer a Unique Ambience

Physical libraries with thousands and thousands of published books are places that deeply enhance the joy and satisfaction of reading, learning, and thinking. Seeing the title of a physical book can provoke thought about the volume’s central theme. Just being surrounded by physical books in my office inspires me to think and reflect. When I seek knowledge, learning, and wisdom, I naturally turn to my physical library. Unlike e-books, that athenaeum is never shut down or unplugged.

So, these are some of my reflections about the specialness of physical books and why I prefer them to e-books. Personal preference no doubt plays an important role in which kind of books we choose to read. I am definitely old school in many ways, and I like to take the phrase “People of the Book” literally. Yet again, all reading is good, so if you are an e-book reader, keep it up.

Reflections: Your Turn

Do you prefer to read physical books or e-books? Why?

Endnotes

  1. Jon Levine, “Reading Books Instead of Kindles Can Improve Your Memory, Concentration and Good Looks,” ArtsMic (blog), Mic, August 20, 2015, https://mic.com/articles/124120/reading-books-instead-of-kindles-can-improve-your-memory-concentration-and-good-looks; Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens,” Scientific American 309 (November 2013), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-reading-brain-in-the-digital-age-why-paper-still-beats-screens.
  2. See my article, “Do You Like Being Alone with Your Thoughts?” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, August 12, 2014, http://www.reasons.org/blogs/reflections/do-you-like-being-alone-with-your-thoughts.
  3. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 48–51.

  One thought on “Should We Read Print Books or E-books?

  1. October 11, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Ever since the first Kindle I’ve flip-flopped back and forth between buying physical books and digital books. Just a few months ago I was arguing against Tim Challies’ position of going all in on digital books and I raised some of the same points you have here.

    Currently I’m in the digital-books-are-best category although I think all your points are valid. Both print books and digital books have advantages and disadvantages and it’s not really a matter of which points are valid but which points carry more weight with the individual.

    One advantage of digital books, which relates to your third point, is the ability to more easily highlight and take notes that are attached directly to the passages you want–and then to export these notes to another note-keeping application like Evernote or OneNote. (Recently Kindle has made this process even easier by allowing you to export all your highlighted passages and all of your notes directly from your Kindle device!) In print books I would often have to rely on post-it notes in order to write down all my thoughts and then I ran into the problem of the post-it notes falling out of the books over time. … and my space was still limited. Also, highlighting in a book is permanent and it can make the book look messy over time. It’s nice that in a digital book you can hide all your highlights without deleting them and this can allow you to approach the book “fresh” again.

    Another major advantage to digital books is search functionality. If I don’t remember exactly where I read a quote or exactly what the quote is, I can quickly find it in a digital book. The process is much longer (and I may just give up) for physical books.

    For these and other reasons (significantly cheaper, no physical storage space) I’ve decided to buy digital content for myself. However, for my nephew I still buy him physical books and I still take him to a physical bookstore instead of buying on Amazon. In my experience, the qualities of ambience and the appeal to our senses that you mention in points 3 and 4 are very important for getting young people interested in reading. I’ve always had an e-reader sitting around the house but it wasn’t until I took my nephew to the local Barnes and Noble that he started to get interested in thumbing through the books and then reading books.

    • October 11, 2016 at 11:52 am

      Jonathan:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your comments.

      As I state in the article, I clearly think reading physical books is best but any and all reading is good.

      So keep up the reading.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • October 31, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Yay for digital books (especially Kindle on iPhone/iPad). Backlit pages provide higher contrast for easier reading, all my notes and highlights can be filtered and/or searched, and I have my books with me all the time!

      • November 1, 2016 at 9:41 am

        Kathleen:

        Greetings.

        Thanks for your comments.

        E-books have continued to improve and provide convenience. My biggest concern is that we seem to learn more from reading paper over a screen. But as I say in the article, all reading is good.

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

  2. Phil Hystad
    October 11, 2016 at 9:33 am

    I read ebooks all the time using my iPad. I have readers for B&N Nook books, for Amazon Kindle books, and for Apple e-pub books with iBook. With all of those book reading apps there is no scrolling involved. Not sure where this scrolling idea comes from mentioned by Ken.

    However, all those ebooks are either fiction novels or non-fiction books that are not technical. All technical reading that I do whether published journal papers, mathematics or physics books, or certain engineering and computer programming books are all with actual printed words on paper. I do this for several reasons: (1) I like to take notes, especially in mathematical physics topics; (2) equations and other diagrams just don’t come across well in ebook format — that “art” has not been achieved yet in my opinion; (3) these technical books are all “keepers” on my bookshelf and usually heavy and thick which sort of adds to my enjoyment.

    Therefore, things are read in ebook format on my iPad are usually transitory, quickly to be replaced, or just throw-away such as the adventure novel of the day. Actual books though with print on paper are still part of my library which counts to more than a 1000 volumes primarily in physics, math, electrical engineering, and computer programming topics.

    • October 11, 2016 at 11:21 am

      I recently bought a C programming book in Kindle format. I was concerned that it might not format well, but it was a lot cheaper than the print edition. I’ve read through about 20% of the book and so far it has been great. No formatting issues.

      Books which have been out on Kindle for longer periods of time tend to have more formatting issues than the newer ones. For instance, I have Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology (Gomes ed.) in Kindle and the formatting errors are horrible and pervasive. In fact the book is no longer available to purchase on Kindle (last time I checked) and I think this is one reason why. But over time Kindle books have improved in formatting, typesetting, etc.

      • October 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm

        Thanks, Jonathan.

        Ken Samples

    • October 11, 2016 at 11:46 am

      Phil:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your comments.

      My recollection is that the earliest ebooks involved scrolling but I might be wrong about that. Nevertheless, reading on the Web definitely involves scrolling and scrolling according to tests hurts the ability to remember.

      As I state in the article, I clearly think reading physical books is best but any and all reading is good.

      So keep up the reading.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  3. Jim Chatfield
    October 15, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    I like both. Digital is helpful for downsizing. And the irony is that I read the article on my phone.

    • October 15, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      Thanks, Jim.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. Dale Gloer
    October 18, 2016 at 7:10 am

    I use both print and e-reader books. I like an e-reader for fiction and similar books which I read for entertainment and enjoyment. They are the sort that I read straight ahead from beginning to end with little need to refer to any previously read part. However, for books which I need to learn from, I want a printed copy, It makes referring to a part easier, can be marked up, etc. to help and enhance the learning process. For me both have a useful place.

    • October 18, 2016 at 4:20 pm

      Dale:

      Thanks for your helpful comments.

      Ken Samples

  5. Rita Gorski
    October 18, 2016 at 8:04 am

    It amazes me at times to reflect on how genius God is in creating each of us so individually and uniquely, with the liberty for each to choose likes and dislikes differently (sometimes not for good). I place different choices in preferred reading methods in that category. I, personally, love books surrounding me (space can be an issue), the touch and scent of pages, even the difficulty of searching for a particular passage I forgot to mark, only to discover other portions in the search that needed re-reading…God is so good to provide that which satisfies each of us in the unique way He made us. I bless all my loved ones that prefer e-books, but I mostly stick to the more cumbersome method in my cozy chair, even with pages closing up on me, the heaviness of some, and hope printed materials don’t abandon us.

    • October 18, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      Rita:

      Always appreciate your helpful comments.

      Ken Samples

  6. GR Sumpter
    October 18, 2016 at 10:17 am

    I love the printed word…however the cost and storage is often prohibitive. I am on the road and use audiobooks. If it is instructive and I like what I have heard, I will often purchase it in paperback. Enjoyed the article and responses.

    • October 18, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks for your comments, GR.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  7. Jon Wenzel
    October 20, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    I prefer to read physical books. I save all the books and articles I read for future reference. I do not know how I would reference a book or article on an e-book.

    • October 20, 2016 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks, Jon.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • Nina
      January 9, 2017 at 5:00 am

      You can reference the location number. Also, newer e-books give you the page number in a certain view.

      • January 16, 2017 at 11:54 am

        Thanks, Nina.

        Happy New Year!

        Ken Samples

    • October 28, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Thanks.

      Ken Samples

  8. Stew Lang
    October 31, 2016 at 5:32 am

    I too prefer physical ink on paper to its electronic counterpart when it comes to books. On the other hand, I like my magazines in digital format for the added content and links they generally provide.

    • November 1, 2016 at 9:45 am

      Stew:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your helpful comments.

      Keep up the good reading.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  9. Denny Haver
    October 31, 2016 at 8:17 am

    I sometimes read e-books but prefer hard copy. The computers and ipads are pretty slick but I wonder what will happen down the road, many years from now. Perhaps our current formats will be antiquated and we will no longer be able to access our books. We will not be able to access the writings of this generation. Have you ever lost a digital photo of family members? I have quite a few times when they were accidentally erased before they were backed up. I currently back up my back up discs but I am sure even that is not fool proof. Every time I re-read the love letters that my wife and I wrote back and forth from when we were dating, I think of my children not being able to do this. All of their communications are digital and eventually are lost in the digital wasteland. Kind of brings a tear to my eye as I type away on my laptop.

    • November 1, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Denny:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Keep up the good reading.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  10. October 31, 2016 at 10:06 am

    Hi Ken. Thanks for this interesting article. I much prefer to read a paper book as well, and I like making it my own. However, I find I also need e-books, especially my Logos library. With the electronic library, I can search and find things I didn’t even know I had, and it all takes up only as much space as my laptop. Then, if I find something I really want to chew on, and it isn’t too long, I print it out to read! Keep up the good work, I love your podcast.

    • November 1, 2016 at 9:35 am

      Eric:

      Greetings.

      Keep up the good reading (print and e-books).

      Thanks for the kind words about the podcast.

      Ken Samples

  11. January 9, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    Kenneth, you may have seen the recent reports that printed book sales have risen in the last several years:

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/72450-print-book-sales-rose-again-in-2016.html.

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:56 am

      Daniel:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for the link. I’m glad to hear it!

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  12. January 9, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    The issue of insomnia from certain wavelengths of light emitted from electronic devices at night is another aspect supporting the use of printed books, particularly if one wants to read prior to going to bed. Subjectively, I’m sleeping better having turned off my iPad and iPhone prior to going to sleep. I believe the light wavelengths involved are with smart phones, tablets, computer screens, and TV’s. If one is determined to read an electronic device to read prior to going to sleep, a plain black-and-white Kindle is probably the safest to avoid insomnia. So yet again another point in favor of printed books: It’s healthier for you!

    http://bmcneurosci.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2202-10-105

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:58 am

      Good points, Daniel.

      Thanks.

      Ken Samples

  13. January 9, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    Hi Ken. We’ve interacted on this subject before, and I have to say, almost all your points strike me as red-herrings, when the medium is an e-Reader, as opposed to a tablet or computer device. And the Kindle apps replicate nearly exactly the experience of the eReader.

    First, eReaders have always done page flips and never scrolled. Second, since the second generation 180 DPI screens, and certainly since the current 300 DPI screens, e-Reader text in indistinguishable from printed text. Third, eReaders have long allowed you to mark/highlight (much easier than with paper and they provide automatic collation for later review and reference) and take notes (though that is considerably more cumbersome than with paper). Fourth, eReaders do not have “electronic screens” in the sense you seem to imply – they are reflective, not backlit, have print resolution, are black and white, and are to all intents indistinguishable from paper. Fifth, books don’t smell good, neither does glue. Sixth, physically turning pages takes time, two hands and effort, all of which disrupt the experience of reading; whereas turning a page on an eReader is so fast and effortless that you are no longer aware of it happening. In the time it takes your eye to return to the top of the page, the next page is there. This is especially beneficial for one-handed and bedtime reading.

    “Handling a smartphone, a laptop, and various other mechanical devices for a significant part of our day tends to hinder interaction with others and detracts from serious reflection.” Ummm… so does reading via an medium — just ask my wife, since I take reading material nearly everywhere I go and am often in trouble because of it.

    What I will grant you is the ambience of the bookstore or library — there is no more peaceful place except, perhaps, outdoors in nature.

    Benefits unique to eReaders include: Control over typeface, line spacing and font (I can’t tell you how many books over the years were let down by a poor typeface, line spacing or low-quality printing); Control over column width and margins (for speed readers this can customize the text width to the ideal for the reader’s ability to “block” read); Automatic bookmark & one touch bookmarks (like dogearing without the damage); My personal favorite, one-touch dictionary lookups which encourages learning new words and understanding known words more precisely with very little effort; Electronic text search in a book, collection, or your entire library; Front-light (reflective) with auto-power off after 10 minutes, for those of us who like to fall asleep reading, but don’t like being woken at 4 am to turn off the light that’s been killing your REM sleep for the last 6 hours, or who just like to read after their spouse is sleeping; and probably several more I am not thinking of right now.

    Anyway, blessings; you are still my favorite (living) philosopher, except perhaps WLC. 😀

    • January 16, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      Lawrence:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your comments. It was partially my interaction with you that sparked my article.

      As you know from taking my class I view reading as ultimately about developing the mind and becoming wise. All the studies I am aware of indicate reading print is superior to screen reading of any type in terms of understanding and memory. For me that is the crucial point.

      I don’t think my points constitute diversionary tactics at all. I view printed books (as opposed to all machines or screens) as much more in keeping with a life of thought and reflection. And I think the most educated people of the 20th century (Adler and Lewis if they were alive) would agree with me.

      E-books have some conveniences but also carry some critical deficiencies. Nevertheless as a reading teacher I think all reading is good.
      So if you are convinced that e-books are good for you I say keep it up.

      To even be mentioned along side Bill Craig is a big compliment.

      Happy New Year and keep up the reading!

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • January 19, 2017 at 2:25 pm

        Ken,

        The reason I suggest the arguments are red-herrings, is because they address the *device* on which the reading occurs, not the claimed core thesis of paper vs. electronic medium. Almost without exception, the criticism of eBooks I come across critique the *device* (backlit, blue wave-lengths, scrolling, distractions, and so on). All these critiques are valid… but *only* when the device is a computer, tablet or phone. The do not apply to an e-Ink reading device.

        Had your post been entitled, “Should We Read on Paper or Computers?”, I would merely mention and reinforce the eReaders like the Kindle (not the Kindle Fire tablet), are a sepearate class with few, if any, of the disadvantages of computers, nearly all of the advantages of paper (sans smell/feel), and many advantages over both.

        In addition to the points noted in my comment, I have absolutely failed to see any measurable difference of recall between reading on biological paper and electronic paper; I find my recall far more affected by how consciously I interact with the material, internalize it and make it “my own”. My memory sucks on an individual book, but tends to be very good across an entire body of material, e.g. after I’ve read several books on the subject or the same book several times. Even the simple act of highlighting a point improves my absorption and recall, something much easier to do with an eBook. However, I am, admittedly, a sample size of one.

        So, therefore, I feel my red-herring critique is indeed valid, because you fail to differentiate the devices on which eBooks are consumed. Now, that said, I am rather passionate about reading, and especially so about eReaders; my reading volume and breadth went up markedly when I got my first eReader, and has continued that way ever since.

        PS: I find myself being much more careful in proofing my comments on your blog. I wonder why that is? Intimidation, perhaps? 🙂

      • January 19, 2017 at 4:16 pm

        Dear Lawrence:

        Greetings.

        I examined an e-Ink reading device and in my opinion it still constitutes a screen and is not regular paper. You’re welcome to disagree with me but I think I’m being reasonable in my claim. And while your personal experience may differ, all the studies I’ve seen indicate reading from screens of any kind hinder understanding and memory (see the endnotes in my article).

        There appears to be something unique and substantively different about physical, paper books. Maybe that is why God gave us a Book instead of a Nook (though papyri manuscripts were more like pieces of paper than what would later become codices). I think what also supports my view that print is superior is how far e-books have gone to try to copy print books.

        So again I understand what a red herring is but I respectfully think your critique is unfounded.

        But while we disagree on the best venue of reading, I think it is great that you have a passion for reading and I want to encourage you to keep it up. I hope the thinking and learning class you took through Reasons Institute has been helpful and encouraging to you in pursuing the life of the mind to the glory of God.

        As I readily mention in my article, part of this question is preference and as an “old school” teacher and philosopher I’m a traditional, bookish person. You seem to have a greater appreciation and ease with technology than I do and there are advantages in being “new school.”

        Best regards in Christ.

        Your friend,

        Ken Samples

      • January 19, 2017 at 4:34 pm

        “I examined an e-Ink reading device and in my opinion it still constitutes a screen and is not regular paper. You’re welcome to disagree with me but I think I’m being reasonable in my claim.”

        We can agree to disagree on that point. Regardless, we certainly agree that reading via any medium is better than not reading.

      • January 19, 2017 at 4:46 pm

        Lawrence:

        Amen, bother. Keep up the dedicated reading!

        KS

      • January 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm

        Missed on, “separate”, not “sepearate”. Arrgh!

  14. Robert Eby
    May 13, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    Both, and I am leaning towards print.

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