Sometimes I Need to Read the Print Version: When the eBook Doesn’t Evoke the Same Reading Experience

Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

Now that I’ve been reading books on the iPad/iPhone for about two years, I’m taking stock of some evolving patterns in my reading preferences.  A few trends I’ve noticed about myself as a reader:

  • I enjoy reading books that I would consider as “fluffy” or “light” (while still very gratifying!) fiction on the iPad or iPhone.  Not only do I seem to concentrate better on these types of texts in digital format, but I also seem to read more quickly.
  • Nonfiction is a mixed bag for me–initially, I didn’t notice a difference in my reading experiences of nonfiction from print to digital, but in recent months, I have felt a need to read nonfiction in print—the digital form of highlighting and notetaking just doesn’t seem to meet my needs like sticky notes, highlighted passages, and marginalia composed in my own hand.
  • Rereads of favorite fiction are definitely more enjoyable for me in print—I would say the sensory experiences I’ve associated with previous readings of a text in print are the primary reason for this preference.

I had not tried reading a book of poetry in digital format until this weekend.   In the midst of a poetry reading binge on Sunday, I finished two and a half books in print format and one in eBook format.   While I enjoyed all of the poetry reads, I quickly realized the experience of reading a collection of poems in the digital format was not gratifying, and in fact, felt quite uncomfortable—it was akin to putting on a cozy, familiar old sweatshirt and discovering it was suddenly scratchy and ill-fitting.  I literally had difficulty concentrating and soaking in the sensory experiences of the poems; the poems almost seemed sterile in eInk.  Now perhaps this is just a personal reading quirk, but the experience left me with these immediate reactions:

1.  I will purchase all future collections of poetry in print (unless I have a desperate midnight craving for a book that I feel compelled to read in the wee hours of the morning)

2.  Do others have preferences for certain genres in print vs. digital formats?  I’m guessing they do.

3.  How and to what extent is the sensory aspect of reading impacted by a print version versus a digital edition?  I know that question has been the subject of some mockery, but I think this is a legitimate and serious question to consider as readers have diverse needs.

4.  What are the implications of these kinds of questions or points for consideration when thinking about print and digital collection development?

What are your experiences as a reader?  Do you have a preference for certain genres in certain formats, or have you noticed your preferences evolving over time?  I realize what I experienced this weekend and the patterns I’ve noticed are not unique or earth-shattering, but the absolute dissonance I felt with my transaction with the poetry text in digital format are prompting me to think a little more critically about these questions.

24 thoughts on “Sometimes I Need to Read the Print Version: When the eBook Doesn’t Evoke the Same Reading Experience

  1. I keep going back to the book format although I agree with you, I read quicker with my iPad than I do with the print format. Also, I have a difficult time appreciating the rich images of picture books without the print version. I can’t imagine reading Helen Frost’s book Diamond Willow as an eBook or other poetry…

  2. I have found that reading fiction on my ereader (Kindle) is much easier than nonfiction. I try to read nonfiction in print–all those charts, illustrations, etc. are much easier to access in the print medium.

  3. Buffy, I have pretty much the same reaction/response as you. “Beach” reads are fine as ebooks, or nonfiction that I’m not actually studying and ingesting. Anything that requires more interaction, either intellectually or physically, I need the print version. Especially if I’m writing, I need to be able to spread my resources out in front of me, physically arrange them, etc. That is just not possible digitally. And however comfortable they are technologically, I notice a similar trend among students. The first thing they want to do when they find a relevant article is print it out.

    How that translates to library purchasing, I’m not sure. There is definitely a trend among admin who want to be seen as “on the edge” to go more digital. We had a directorial candidate who asked me why I was still buying physical books. (Aargh!) I do think I haven’t jumped on the ebook bandwagon enough–Kindles for current popular fiction, some reference ebooks, but that’s about it.

    As to digital poetry? Never, ever ever! : )

    • I agree completely with what Buffy and jerihurd say, here. If I am just reading the book for entertainment purposes and to “kill time” I love my Nook, but if I’m reading something that I want to take notes on or something that will compel me to highlight it–or if it’s something I think I’m likely to read again, then I have to have it in print. I don’t know what this says about me, but I love my eReader for all of the “freebies” and low-cost digital books that are available. I’ve just recently downloaded one of Benjamin Disraeli’s novels. I read the first couple of paragraphs just to whet my appetite and I am very much looking forward to reading this. I was able to download this for free. I can already see there were some problems in transferring the copy to digital form, but I don’t think it will hamper my reading much. As for the richness and experience of print, I think it is a sensory and even an historical experience. This is a Facebook Post from a former employer (a lot of days I wish I were still there!):

      From Ken Sanders Rare Books
      One of our customers shared a great story with us about a book he purchased from us online. We had listed the book as inscribed, but we did not include a description of what the inscription said. It turns out that our customer’s grandfather was the author of the book, and this particular copy was inscribed by the author to his mother when the book was published! The book is now back in family hands, and everyone is happy. A heartwarming ending, and one that serves as a good reminder about the physicality of books–have you tried inscribing an ebook recently?

  4. I absolutely agree with your findings on different reading experiences. When I am reading nonfiction books for professional growth the urge to highlight and scribble isn’t satisfied via ereading.

    Just as we have many types of books and many types of readers, we now have many avenues of delivery to serve our students. I still think there will always be a place for print, and the addition of other formats only adds to the reading experience.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and inspirations. They mean a great deal. Cynthia

  5. Personally I prefer reading both fiction and nonfiction in a digital format. Once I got used to how to highlight and mark pages on my Nook, I was off to the races! The arthritis in my hands and wrists make it very uncomfortable for me to handle the weight of print books and the stiffness of paperback books are impossible for me to keep open. I also like making the font size bigger and the abililty to change the background lighting so I don’t even have to turn on a lamp. Although we as older adults may still prefer print, I think that young people prefer the digital format and this format is more in line with their current and future work environment and overall lifestyle. As librarians we should be providing both formats but if we cannot afford both then for a whole host of reasons I would elect to purchase digital for this and future generation of users. Let’s not fall into the trap of what is best for us but rather make sure we are providing what is best for our students.

  6. I don’t notice a big difference as far as genres go. I’m more likely to buy older books as used paperbacks from a local store, and then e-books of newer (and I’m using that term to mean less than ten years old) releases. I like to read the first book in a series as a paperback and then switch to e-books for the sequels because I’m impatient and can’t get to the bookstore as quickly as I’d like to start the book.

    Mostly I prefer reading physical books at home and e-books on the go. I’m not taking my Kindle with me into the bathtub, likewise, a hardcover doesn’t fit very well into my purse. Oh, and I love that I can use both hands to eat when I’m reading an e-book over lunch. :P

  7. Although I generally agree with one of my favorite instructor/mentors (Florence Mason) that we often waste time thinking about containers rather than content, I find myself strongly preferring printed books over ebooks as my container-of-choice for content in many cases for the same reasons cited in your article and in several of the comments–particularly in terms of taking notes for citation purposes when I’m reading nonfiction. This doesn’t mean I won’t continue to occasionally read content in ebooks–that’s definitely part of my reading mix these days–but I still find it much easier to navigate printed books when trying to quickly re-find something even though the opposite is clearly true for magazine/journal articles and other shorter pieces.

  8. Not sure about anyone else but I am enjoying my tablet for reading stuff from the Guardian or reports, journal articles, blogs etc but still go back to the paper for my literature. Though have downloaded a few classics like Dickens on the tablet. Could never replace my lovely cookbooks with the digital version though. Nigel Slater wouldn’t be the same without the splatters on the page – that way I know I love that page. Plus there are some cookbooks where the page automatically opens to the one you cook the most, so easy.

  9. The only books which I have purchased in print for the past five years are those that have detailed graphics that the Kindle just doesn’t do well with – extensive maps, paintings, photographs, etc. Oh, and those few titles not available in e-format.

    I suspect reading on an e-book reader is like learning to drink skim milk – it just takes some getting accustomed to.

    Doug

  10. I’ve found that I enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction on my Kindle and/or iPad. However, I find myself wanting to switch back to print format when I need to take extensive notes. Also, there’s something so satisfying about ripping a page out of a magazine to file away. (Not a library magazine, of course!). I did a brief beta test with a Kindle at my former school and no one requested nonfiction titles. They only thing they wanted was fiction.

    • Lisa,
      In those rare moments that I do want to “keep” something that I’ve read on my Nook, I copy the Nook screen with the copy machine or scan the image into my computer and print it off. That wouldn’t be much different than ripping the page from a magazine. Of course, then you wouldn’t get the satisfaction of the ripping!

  11. I’m seconding (or thirding?) what many of the above have said – it’s great for what I’ll call “ephemeral” reads, not so good for books I want to refer to (example? I made the mistake of downloading a book that was filled with interesting recipes and had to buy the print version because going back to the recipes was just too time consuming). One thing I’ve been loving, however, is the ability to send long blogposts and e-articles to my Kindle via Instapaper. That has prevented much printing and keeps my “in case you’re stuck in the car/at the doctor’s” pile full and very handy.

    It’s also not easy to read certain YA books on it; those with illustrations and funny typography just lose in the print-to-ebook translation.

  12. I too have tried to read on kindle or online. For leisure- I cant! Primarily due to the fact that I am doing so much computer work for my current graduate program. It is nice to have an ipad or kindle on cell so if want a quick read it is useful but I never get thru it. I do like kindle versions of cookbooks such as the vegan delight cookbook only available on kindle.

    Its all good tho. At the end of the day, I prefer to hold a book and read in bed (thats the best!)

    Also poetry is for sure best in PRINT! I like to even see if handwritten so I can figure out the emotions!

  13. Really interesting point about different genres being more enjoyable in different formats. So far, I’ve resisted getting an e-reader at all- I think real, tangible books are so precious and I’m scared that we’re going to see them die out! But I had never thought about using a Kindle/Nook more selectively, reading lighter stuff in digital format while keeping the old-fashioned reading experience as an option.

  14. I completely agree that there is a difference when I read a digital copy of a text and a printed text. I find that when I read for pleasure I have to have it in the print form. I feel more connected to the text when I can hold the paper in my hands, bend the corners of pages, and set it on my night stand. I hope all bookstores don’t end up like Borders, I love going to the bookstore to look for books I haven’t read. I typically associate digital copies of texts with school and required reading. I don’t know if I will ever get an e-reader, but I understand the convenience.

  15. I’m trying to still figure out just exactly where digital text copies vs. print copies fit into the secondary classroom. How do we provide adequate coverage of digital copies of items to classrooms where we have 35 students?

  16. I read nonfiction for pleasure and profit. I’d much rather read anything on an e-reader. When I review books, I find it much easier to take notes in a Kindle Fire than to write them on paper or on the computer. All of my notes and highlights are in one place. It saves me so much time that I’ve been known to purchase a digital version of a book I’m reviewing. Then I sell the print version on Amazon after my review appears in print.

    • Good point. Especially for a novel when there isn’t an index available.–In my experience, though, when I want to remember something I usually do something to make it stand out: highlight it, flag it, put in a marginal note, fold the page back, etc., so that might not be such a serious issue.

  17. I completely agree. I’m just fine with reading the “fluffy/light” type reading in a digital format. When I really want to study an important subject though that requires some pretty intense focus to really comprehend, I’ve got to have it in the print version.

  18. I agree! I love reading “beach” reads on my kindle (I’ll admit, things that I would, perhaps, be embarrassed to be caught reading in public–I love how the Kindle hides things!). Serious literature I prefer in print and love having a place for it on a bookshelf. I have found that my preferred way to read nonfiction is actually audio — I lose my patience when I read it in print or digital, but I love listening to it (perhaps because I can do other things while listening).

    As for how this informs collection development… my school library is still very much at the stage of only buying e-books that are requested by kids, but I do think it makes sense to spend the money on digital copies of popular titles (perhaps akin to my “beach reads”), as well as more serious literature that teachers (and students) request.

  19. Pingback: The touch, the feel of… books? | Penning Melodious Sonnets

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