Electronic Readers: Blessing, or Abomination?

This is a favorite question: Do I own an e-reader? Yes, I do. Wait, conservative elements, don’t leave yet. Let’s talk about this.

I could ramble for some time about the overall trend of digitization and what it means for readers, reading culture, and print books (not to mention book collecting). Perhaps I’ll create a miniseries on the subject so we can discuss it at length. But for now, let me throw out one main preliminary thought:

Print books and digital books both have unique advantages and drawbacks.

Which medium is right for you (or which medium is right for which book) will depend on what advantages you most desire, and which drawbacks you mind the least.

Follow me? It’s simply a question of your personal reading and studying habits.* Let’s consider some of the advantages of each medium. I’m willing to bet that your preference fits the medium whose advantages most fit your sense of value in your reading experience.


Advantages of digital books

Keyword search. Remember that story about how people used to think mice could reproduce asexually in salt? No? I can simply keyword search “mice” in Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and find it in an instant.
Highlighting. I can highlight quotes, facts, references to other books, etc. on my digital copy without feeling like I’m defacing my book. Then I can pull these highlights up all at once in order to review, compare, or use.
Access. I used to have to haul a number of books within my suitcase whenever I traveled. I never knew how much or how little time I’d have to read. I might get through none—or six—but the tragedy to be avoided at all costs is be marooned without anything to read. Now I have hundreds of books at my fingertips.
Price. Classic works are cheap. Most new books are also significantly cheaper in e-format. When you buy as many books as I do, such facts are worth mentioning.
Privacy. No one can judge me if I’m reading Fifty Shades of Grey in public.


Advantages of print books

Sensory experience. The feel of the paper. The binding. The type of ink used. The layout. The illustrations. There are companies making strides in digital versions of some of these things (particularly the latter two), but as a rare book dealer I can tell you with professional expertise that holding a book from the 18th century is different from holding one from the 19th century. Physical books are all different creatures and produce their own unique sensory experiences.
Sharing. I imagine digital books will get easier on this front in the future, but for now this really requires a paper copy. You recommend a book to someone. The next day, you lend (read: give) your bruised paperback copy to them, sharing the love. I’ve discovered many a wonderful book this way. Further, the culture of book sharing is one of the most rewarding (if one of the only) social aspects to being a bookworm.
Cathexis. This builds on the previous two. In our context, cathexis is when one attributes emotional energy to an object that is inherently neutral. What I mean is: do you still have the copy you read of your favorite book from 6th grade? If you were given a new copy of that book, would you value it as much as the one that first brought you that joy? We transfer our feelings of affection and gratitude created from the reading of a book to the book itself as an object. Individual copies of books can become special to us.
Note taking. I’m not going to dive into whether writing in your books is ok—but if you do, and it’s an important part of your study habits, sometimes highlighting a passage in a digital copy just doesn’t allow the information to stick in your mind as well as physically underlining it yourself or writing in the margin.


Collecting. As a combination of points 1 and 3 (sensory experience and cathexis), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that collectors value physical books as historical objects that are reflections of particular their time and context. (An e-reader is also an artifact that reflects its historical context, but by its nature it does not reflect the physical materials of the various printed books that have their own individual history.)


So what do you value in your books? And what advantages did I leave out?


*This leaves open the question of the next generation growing up with so much digital content, and so much education in the digital sphere, that perhaps their reading habits will naturally default to prefer digital over paper books—unlike the current generation that grew up developing habits with paper books. But that’s for another post—stay tuned!


37 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave Jude says:

    Need to read..watching the wire..but an e-reader maybe for a road trip or for the plane (saves room)..Dave

    1. sloinker says:

      I think what is probably most important about E-readers is actually in the publishing aspect. You now have many more authors available to read via Kindle. Now most of these self published authors are crap. The bothersome editors and readers at publishing houses have spurned their entries but that can’t stop most of them. You can now sample the wares of the un-vetted author for little or no money. I have to say I usually force myself to finish a book once i start reading but I have abandoned that compunction now. I have also found a few small gems hidden among the broader ilk.
      Been awhile since I have visited this site, didn’t want to come across as too big of a stalker of the intelligent, articulate and always smokin’ hot Rebecca.

  2. Larry Cerullo says:

    I love books and have collected (sometimes I think unfortunately) many thousands over my life. I love the smell, the feel (all the sensory things INCLUDING the weight). I don’t own an e-book reader–yet. I have downloaded and read e-books on my laptop and desktop. The convenience is definitely there. Also, there is a plethora of new titles available as e-books that will probably never be published. I’ve found some new authors this way.

  3. Wonderful points. Still won’t motivate me to get an E-reader, but I appreciate you being open minded to both mediums and making a fair argument for both.

  4. Sean Kerns says:

    Great points, Rebecca. I have collected physical books since I was a kid. Nothing valuable, but a lot of them have sentimental value to me. I can remember when I read them first, and I love to re-read them and even just look at them once in a while. At the same time, it’s hard to beat the convenience of books you can take with you on your phone. You can have them with you all the time, and they give you something to read when you’re waiting somewhere, and wouldn’t normally have a book with you. I will sometimes switch back and forth several times from the paper to the electronic versions of a book in the course of reading it.

  5. David Sweet says:

    Very well presented! Bottom line, as in so many things, is neither is “best”, there is room for both.

  6. I’m big on print. I do like the e-reader app on my tablet at work though if it’s a slow night…….(I’m a paramedic) give me something to do.

  7. Connie McAfee says:

    I agree completely with your observations. Although I have my own books as well as my Mother’s books, I bought my Nook a couple of years ago. I love the convenience of having lots of books with me, as well as the ability to get free samples of books. I have picked out my favorite books and have either given away or sold the rest because of storage problems. I shutter at the thought of people trashing books, but I know they do because I have picked up some. I read non-fiction, especially history, but prefer fiction based on history. I loved reading “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.” I’m currently reading “Killing Jesus” by Bill O’Reilly, on my Nook. But, I’m in love with Debbie Macomber’s books because they make me feel so good, and I love the community atmosphere.

  8. JC Knoll says:

    I like both. the E-readers are particularly good for long trips – I used to carry a bag when me; now I take the Kindle with lots of books. Also there are some entertaining books that are ggod reads that are here today and gone tomorrow and frankly have no collectable or resale value. Then there are those that i feel compelled to possess, want to hold when i read and see them on my shelves. These are enduring and special; some I own in both formats to have them whenever and wherever I desire.

  9. awax1217 says:

    I to like the feeling of a real book. I grew up that way. I use to read when I was a kid, in the days of the dinosaurs The Hardy Boys. Boy that was a long time ago. Then it was Doctor Doolittle. Then Sherlock whom you wrote about. I have yet to read an e book. Guess I am old fashion.

  10. Zoltan says:

    I’m curious where audio books fall into all this. While I’ve never become comfortable with e-readers, I have an Audible account and currently average “reading” two audio books a month.

    1. I listen to audio books often during my commute to work. The only way to read and drive!

  11. Highlighting!!! Underlining!!! Margin Notes!!! People can not understand why I can not do this to a book, don’t get me started on Bible highlighting!!!

    From a reading standpoint I prefer the eBook, but from a training book standpoint I still want the paper version! The past 2 years I’ve read most books using Public Library eBooks, saves money, less to carry, and my eReader also plays audio books too!

    Another nice feature of eBooks is sharing, sharing notes, highlights, favorite passages, you get to share with a much bigger audience with an eBook.

  12. Rudolf Zaras says:

    Although I bought my young son an e-reader to encourage reading being that he is of the generation of electronic gadgets, I myself will always walk around with a book attached to my hand.

  13. This post makes me so happy, because I feel like I answer this question constantly and now I have an awesome link to refer people to. 😉 I particularly love your point about cathexis–I think a lot of people who are harshly critical of eReaders and refuse to acknowledge their advantages are unknowingly under the influence of a sentimental feeling towards printed books that they developed as young readers. But, as I always tell people when I’m asked about this, books have evolved significantly over time–true, the standard codex has lasted a long time, but it hasn’t always been the same and anyway, change is good! Or at least convenient when traveling and wanting to take a bunch of books on your trip. 😉

  14. Mike Gothard says:

    Great post, Rebecca! I’m almost convinced 😉 I’m going to try to muster the courage to purchase an e-reader before the end of the year. But your post has prompted so many new questions for me:

    – Before purchasing your e-reader, did you usually over or under pack books when taking a trip?
    – Do you jot notes to yourself in your physical books?
    – When taking a trip, if you could only bring along one book that you’re already read, which would you bring?
    – Which e-reader do you use?
    – Do you only use your e-reader when traveling?
    – Do you sometimes just sit and stare at the books on your shelves?
    – What was your last book purchase?
    – What will be your next book purchase?
    – How do you decide whether to purchase a certain book for your shelves or your e-reader?

  15. Paul R. says:

    I agree that access and ready availability/affordability of classics are two major reasons I own an e-reader. I love that I can have hundreds of books with me at any time and, because of that, I always have more options of what to read next that I would carrying physical books. And because the classics are in the public domain, It’s easy and inexpensive to sample “new” (to me) authors or classics that may not on the surface have immediately appealed to me. (So digital media has actually increased my exposure to new titles.) I will disagree with you about sharing, though. It’s easy to lend most books from my Kindle. All I need is someone’s email address. Yes, there are limitations but it’s very doable.

    I think you missed one other major benefit of e-readers. As we get older our vision frequently changes. The ability to increase font sizes as needed is a great feature and one that may enable people to read books otherwise unavailable to them in print. Not all books are available in large print editions and those that are tend to be very expensive. For this reason alone I’ll always keep my e-reader handy.

    1. The increased font size capability on e-readers is certainly a major benefit that I missed in my list. Thanks!

      1. I agree with this 100%. I won a Kindle at work and didn’t want to start using it. When I was able to adjust the font, this not only increased my reading speed, but allowed me to read longer than before. I currently use the e-reader for a lot of modern writing, and fall back on print books for collectables and those I know I will re-read. Even though I can get Jules Vern for free on the e-reader, I still seek out physical copies. 

        Love your posts and appearances on Pawn Stars. Keep up the great work.

        Have there been any explorations on you getting your own show?

  16. vanbraman says:

    Great post. I use an e-reader for a lot of the technical documentation at work, but for pleasure reading nothing beats holding a book in your hand.

    I especially like your point about collecting. The provenance of books can also bring back memories. Some of my favorites are ones that belonged to my ancestors. I have a few from as far back as my 3rd or 4th great grandparents.

  17. Karen says:

    You are absolutely right in all points, Rebecca.
    I love reading books, a room in our flat comprises thousands of them. To avoid our having to move 😉 my husband gave me an electronic reader (“Tolino”) for epub and pdf formats, I read books in paper and in digital form – and I love it. A Kindle is also due – my smart-phone’s screen is just too small…

  18. Ed says:

    Well, I have to admit that I have “borrowed” my wife’s e-reader for a long enough period of time that even she considers it mine. The benefits of taking it with me when traveling pretty much trumps everything else. Not that print books don’t have some advantages. I spent many a class in grade school and junior high drawing stick figure cartoons in the margins of print books (paperbacks were better for this than hardbacks). OK, so maybe I did it in high school too but I swear I quit once I got to college. Moreover, I’ve given books autographed by the author as gifts on occasion. Finally, the wonderful smell of print books, especially older books is pretty hard to duplicate with an e-reader.

  19. Dal J says:

    I use, and enjoy, e-readers and agree with all your points. There is one that is a bit more specific part of “Access”…For me, there is a convenience of selection that is a major part of the reason to use it…that ability to have numerous books at my fingertips, browse quickly thru them to see what strikes my fancy at that moment, is the main reason. That combined with not having to wait, to have almost instant access, is both informational to scratch an inquisitive itch and answer some question or satisfy some unforseen desire… see an interesting book mentioned in an article or a blog or a review or bibliography and minutes later, its downloaded and I’m perusing it to see why the writer/blogger felt that it needed to be pointed out. It can be very satisfying to be reading a blog in bed at 11pm and be able to immediately be reading a book that one has no knowledge of before reading about it minutes earlier.
    Also, digital media has become transformed to be able to include links, pics, and videos that no book could include. Its very satisfying to be able to link to a high definition pic of a painting that is much better than a small printed image that is typically made of dots. Have a link highlighted in a text book or technical work and you get videos that show specific aspects of some arcane or obtuse subject. No printed media can do that.
    Lastly, in view of collecting, several times I have read a book in an e-reader and ended up buying a printed copy just to have on my bookshelf. An interest that was heightened reading enabled me to spend the money and search out a signed, first edition copy of a book that had become a favorite.
    Anyway, I love printed books, collect them, read them and treasure them. A lot of times, an older book might not be available in electronic format. Therefore, for me at least, probably the most prevalent reason for buying one is when I can’t get a specific edition or copy in e-format. No electronic media can give me a first edition, signed copy. A lot of times, editions change and typically only one edition will be in electronic format and maybe I want another edition. That happens quite often with technical tomes.
    Lastly, for some reason, being able page thru a printed book has no equivalent capability in an e-reader. You know where you are just by feel, you can easily go to the pics in the middle that you might not even know are available in e-format, you are not restricted in what is before your eyes. In printed form, the whole book is before you, in electronic format there is only one page in an almost sterile context. That overall sense of holding a book compared to just being able to look at a digital image of a page is the major difference. Sometimes its a loss, sometimes its a benefit, always on a case by case, contextual basis…Dallas’s Jacobs

  20. Una says:

    As a student of the next generation, being taught to study pdf-files instead of ‘real books’ and used to highlighting and commenting in this medium, I’ve come to value real books even more. Apart from being able to read faster and more easily on paper, it is BECAUSE I study article after article on my computer that the real books almost become sacred. I think that like you said, the two mediums are for different people or different situations, and I suspect that as time goes by and people get more used to digital reading, paper books will become what they used to be: something for the collectors, the elite or the people who want to ‘feel’ their culture and history.

  21. Jason Hu says:

    There is a moral issue with ereaders as they do lead to more piracy of books. In general ereaders may be a worthwhile investment if you do not care about actually owning the physical books and finding yourself buying a lot of them. Brand name ereaders otherwise cost a lot of money and it may take a while to make the cost back. Also, most ereaders do not have backlights which makes them just as useless in the dark as a book (however the ereader apps for tablets and phones gets rid of that problem.)
    You can however share ereader files with your friends so long as they an ereader or a phone with an app. Also, there are certain applications that allow you to make annotations in ebooks 😀

  22. Paul Ewen says:

    Primarily it’s love of the written word, so I’m comfortable with either medium. Love the tactile nature of books, of the paper, the excitement of opening a new book the first time. Love the convenience of carrying around a library at my fingertips, and of not damaging a book by stuffing it in a suitcase!

  23. Dave says:

    Excellent run down of the pros and cons. I concur, finding both media useful. One of my greatest frustrations with eReaders that books afford, is the ease of flipping backward or forward in the text with ease. With a physical book I feel as though I always have control of the entire text, able to access it in anyway I like. The electronic version seems to limit me to the page at hand while the rest of the text is, in a sense, locked away, only accessible by a precise series of taps and keystrokes.

    1. Yes, that’s a good point; I feel a little irritation at the clunkiness of navigation with e-readers sometimes, too. However I expect over time that problem will disappear as newer, better readers come out.

  24. Craig Johnson says:

    There was a time in my life when I would have said that I hated audio books; however, having a job that requires me to spend up to 2 hours/day in my car has changed my opinion. For the most part I confine my listening to what I would consider to be fluff, ‘summer’, reading. Too often when I am doing more serious reading, I find myself wanting to reread passages, refer to previous chapters, or consult external resources. But for fun reading it’s great.

  25. If you read foreign-language books, Kindles have an onboard dictionary, which also means you don’t have to haul around a Zingarelli or whatever. Further, winter in Minneapolis lasts about 10 months or so and I don’t like cars and therefore I bike EVERYWHERE when I can. I’ll take an ebook over Romola or Rasselas or whatever brick has insinuated itself recently into my reading life.

    1. Saul Jimenez says:

      You are absolutely right. You hardly loose the bottonline of the story with that feature (Ha, ha, … or whatever brick, ha ha)

  26. Jim C. says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    I always enjoy your appraisals on “Pawn Stars” not so much for knowing the value of a book but it’s historical meaning and context more than anything else. You do a great job in both regards. One aspect of antiquarian books I enjoy and appreciate is the book’s binding. Some of the hand-crafted bindings are works of art in themselves. When you see and handle a Doves or Kelmscott binding, it doesn’t get much better, though I will never be able to afford to buy either. I must travel to the nearby university’s rare-book room to view these jewels.

    One thing I’d like to ask you is do you think a complete Gutenberg Bible will come up for sale anytime soon?

    My wife is the electronics wizard in our household and is as happy with her iPad as I am with a “real” book. The main reason for this is because she is visually impaired and can read and navigate with her iPad or tablet better than a book. The retinal display and zoom features on Apple products (I’m not an Apple spokesperson or salesman!) give her as close to a “normal” reading experience as a physical book does for me.

    Best regards

  27. Micael says:

    When I read from my computer or laptop I find my eyes get tired in a way they don’t do when I read a real book. I suppose it’s because of the light coming from inside the ebook? A page in a book has a softer “glow”.

    When it comes to audio books I find it hard to concentrate. I drift away, realising I just missed a chapter! You don’t do anything when you listen! When you read a book you have to read the words and the sentences. It’s your voice you hear in your head telling the story. It’s you who have to change page, so that the story can go on.

  28. Excellent post. I really liked your point on Sensory experience. Thanks for sharing insights on this wonderful question. 🙂

  29. J.W. Larrick says:

    I have thought a lot about getting a digital reader recently given the many books I have been reading. I just love having a book however to add to my collection at the end of the journey it takes me on. Just finished “109 East Palace” by Jennet Connant as well as “The lady in Gold” by Anne-Marie O’Connor, both fantastic! Rebecca thanks for your advocacy for antiquarian books.

  30. Saul Jimenez says:

    Not in the same line of this discussion, but I would love to underline how digitalization has got several books and engravings and pictures out of the national libraries to the public in general.
    Spaniard as I am I feel very proud about the work is doing the National Library of Spain on this subject:

    1. I completely agree. Thank you for sharing this.

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