To e-book or not

- May 7 2017 -

I started an experiment of reading a physical book rather than an e-book this month. I had picked up a physical copy of The Design of Everyday Things1 by Don Norman and I thought it would be a good book to experiment with. I have been a big fan of the Kindles and have convinced quite a few to buy them as well.

Why the experiment, you might ask. My dad cherishes his book collection. He even has a few books that are centuries old. Observing his collection one can figure the different phases of life he went through. There are classics, comics, references, and even religious books. Looking at his collection I realised that those were his books. He owned them. He could choose to lend a few books or sell those he thought were not necessary.

I compared it to my collection. I left most of my physical books with my dad before I left India. My virtual collection has been growing over the years. The only physical books I have now are technical ones, spare a few that were not available in the Kindle store. Could I easily lend my books? Could I sell them? Were they actually mine? I remembered reading an article on how Amazon erased books from users library2. This brought me to experiment what would I miss if I were to switch back to reading physical books.

I own the Kindle Oasis and the ergonomics of holding it comes second to none. Physical books, on the other hand, are very relative. It is hard to compare all physical books as a whole. A hard bound has the worst ergonomics usually. Paperbacks are relatively easy to hold. Yet they are not as comfortable compared to a kindle. It fits snugly into my coat pocket and I don’t have to think about carrying bag.

Typography is a topic very close to my heart. I’m not an expert, why I am an engineer, not a designer. Though I don’t have enough knowledge about typography I like a well-printed book. I have a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid which is a terrible print. The fonts are too bold and sometimes there are smudges. This is something that I rarely face while using the Kindle. The Bookerly font seems to satisfy my eyes. There are problems when I sideload books that are not from Amazon, especially technical books which tend to use their own fonts for code. But in general, the fonts are quite good.

Highlighting text is so convenient in the Kindle. I tend to read anywhere possible, even if that means when I go to the toilet. With the Kindle when I read something interesting, I can highlight it without wondering where to find a pen. Whether it is the subway or the toilet it is easy to highlight.

Having a dictionary at the touch of a word is so useful. Tough I tend not to remember the words I searched using the Kindle. The ease encourages my brain not to remember it I guess. This is something that I miss but that I can live without.

There is a unique experience reading a physical book. I am of the transition era, so this might be something the newer generation fails to relate with. The aroma of a new book, the unique typography, the binding, and so many other small things that make a book unique. This is something that you never get on a Kindle. Every book has the same boring feel. I believe the external feel helps you remember the book better. Be it the odd margins where you took notes or the off coloured page that helped you remember the odd concept.

I enjoyed writing on margins. I might have overdone it a bit on the book I’m currently reading. But skimming through the pages it gives me a quick recollection of what was interesting and what I needed to remember. This experience is not possible with the Kindle. All you see are icons suggesting you might have written something interesting.

Books might be heavy and take a lot of space but once I have bought one I know it belongs to me. I can lend it to a friend and sell it to a used books store. It gives me the freedom to do what I want. This is sorely lacking in Amazon. I could buy DRM-free books from certain stores but I usually don’t find the books I’m looking for or they are as expensive as the physical book.

After a long day of staring at the monitor, it is refreshing to have a look at something physical and not be disturbed with yet another notification. I have enjoyed the distraction free experience of reading the book. I don’t have urges to look at another book or to skim the store for new ones.

Reading a physical book again has been very good. I don’t think I will be rushing to swap all my e-books to physical ones. The experiment has taught me that I still enjoy reading physical books and there is nothing substantial that I will miss from e-books. In the future, someone may create a device that overcomes many of the limitations. In the meanwhile, I will continue to buy more physical books and enjoy the craftsmanship that goes into each one of them assured that it belongs to me.

1 Amazon link: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
2 Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle