Paper versus Pixels – A Very Personal Take

ruined bookI’ve written at least two posts for this blog dealing with ebooks and print books (“Advantages And Drawbacks Of Both Paper And Pixel Books” and “E-book Reading 101 – Part A”), and both of them are a bit old now.

I’ve stayed away from the print v’s ebook discussion for quite a while, primarily because both of the two posts I quoted above are as studied and even-handed as I could be at the time. Since then, though, I’ve become more and more a pixel person, and I’m not sure I could talk about the pros of print with a straight face anymore.

What prompted this post was an experience I had last weekend. I was forced (yes, forced) to read a hardcover edition of a book. The experience was uncomfortable enough that it drew sharp attention to the advantages of ebooks over print in highlighter yellow.

I can’t remember the last time I had to read a paper book. It’s been years.

Because I prefer ebooks, I do nearly 100% of my reading on my cellphone. For the occasional non-fiction title with lots of images or complicated page layouts, I use my tablet, which displays the pages perfectly. If I have to, I can also read on my laptop or desktop.

I actually don’t mind reading on either of the last two – I have a very comfortable office chair and I can tilt back with my legs up on the desk, with just my little finger resting on the page down key. The laptop I can read anywhere, and I’ve even laid on my bed with the laptop propped open like a book, on the mattress next to me, with the screen orientation turned sideways.

I have a home network set up at home that would allow me, if I’m really out of reading devices, to read on my big screen TV, but I’ve never been that desperate. Although, the idea has its appeal; sprawling on a very comfortable couch and paging down with the remote while holding something hot and sweet to drink in the other hand is the ultimate in lazy reading. I wouldn’t have to wear glasses, that’s for sure!

The chances that I would run out of ways to read books is unlikely. There are at least three other options in our house, including my husbands desktop, his tablet, and his cellphone (hard to see him giving that up, but still, it’s a device I can read on). I also have three old smartphones that, while they’re no longer hooked into a phone network, they do hold a charge, and I could dump a book onto one of those to read if I had to.

I like reading on my phone.

“Oh, the screen is much too small!” is the almost universal reaction I get when I mention this directly to people, but size is actually irrelevant. Fiction books and a lot of non-fiction are one long narrative flow, sentence after sentence. It’s not like the phone displays an entire printed page at a time. It displays continuously flowing screens of text at whatever size I want the text to be – and whatever font I want, too. I can flip through the book and check the last chapter out, if I really want to (I am not one of those readers, though!). I can navigate to wherever I want to be in the book easily and painlessly. I can even add my own bookmarks. Multiple bookmarks, if I want. I just don’t need a bookmark to tell me where I’m up to in the story, because the reading software keeps track of that (and synchronizes with any other device I might read the book on.)

I won’t go into raptures over the features of ebook software, because that’s not actually why I’m writing this post. I would be here all day if I itemized them. There are dozens of features that make ebook reading more convenient, cheaper, and ultimately more entertaining than print books.

Which is why reading that hardcover edition last weekend was such a rude surprise:

  • The book was heavy. My cellphone weighs ounces. The hardcover was nearly two pounds.
  • The paper cover wrapped around it kept slipping up the book, so the book itself would drop out beneath. Then the flaps of the paper wrap would catch at my fingers and rumple. They wouldn’t stay inside the book.
  • I had to wear my glasses to read it. Major pain. I don’t wear my readers unless forced to. Most of the time, I get by without them, but the tiny print in the hardcover gave me no choice, which screwed up my sight for any other reading for the entire weekend – I had to keep using the glasses to keep things in focus, no matter what I was reading.
  • I couldn’t read comfortably in bed. Reading in bed, with the phone, is a one-handed affair. As I can use the volume buttons on the phone to page up or down, I don’t have to move at all once I’m comfortable. Not so with the bloody hardcover, which wouldn’t stay open, and wouldn’t prop up anywhere comfortably. The worst of it was, seconds after finally getting into a semi-comfortable position, I’d have to move onto the next page, and rearrange the orientation of the book to read it. Ugh.

    Also: I couldn’t read on my side because my glasses would get pushed off my nose by the pillows.

    All in all, I was not happy about trying to read in bed.

  • I had to keep the light on to read. Usually, if I read into the night, I turn the bedside lamp off, so Mark can sleep undisturbed. My cellphone is backlit, so reading without ambient light is not an issue. But with the hardcover….
  • I lost my place dozens of times. Such a pain.
  •  I had to remember where I left the book. My cellphone, of course, is never far away from me, and I always know where it is.

It’s a pretty whingy list, isn’t it? You could argue that I’m just so used to pixel reading, I’m (a) spoiled rotten, (b) a princess and (c) have forgotten or glossed over the disadvantages of pixel reading.

The Drawbacks of Ebooks

So let’s look at the original post I wrote years ago, comparing print to pixels, and focus in on the section that listed every disadvantage I could think of related to ebooks.

If you run out of batteries, you can’t read.

Yeah, well, that’s not an issue anymore. With – how many devices did I count, above? – four of my own, three of Marks and two old cellphones stashed, too, that’s nine ways to read ebooks and four of them don’t need batteries.

In some formats, fonts like italics are badly represented.  This depends upon the publisher’s preparation of the ebook.

This is a rapidly diminishing problem as ebook technology advances and publishers grow more sophisticated in their ebook preparations. It’s virtually never an issue anymore.

You can’t always tell at a glance where you are in the book – depends upon what style of ebook reader you’re using.

I can’t think of a reader or a reading application that doesn’t have a progress bar or percentage read or current page/total page count somewhere on its display. Even Adobe Acrobat tells you where you are in the book, these days. Actually, come to think of it, so does good ol’ Microsoft Word.

Not all books published are available electronically.

Still true, but the percentage of books not available as ebooks is reducing so fast, the figures are a blur. Give it another couple of years, and everything will be in ebook.

Not all ebooks published are always available in the format you want.

Still true, but no longer as issue thanks to software management and conversion programs like Calibre, and thanks to reading applications that can be added to virtually any electronic platform, which means you can read ePubs in (say) FBReader and mobi, Kindle and PDF in your Kindle program, all on the same device.

Editing from some of the smaller publishers can be hit and miss.

Still true, although it’s not just the smaller publishers who publish typos. There’s been more than one big legacy publisher forced to withdraw ebooks from sale because of errors and formatting glitches.  Will this issue ever go away? I believe it will diminish as all publishers learn to edit/hire editors/format more carefully. But it won’t ever disappear completely because books are written by humans.

It is possible to accidentally delete a book (which is where sensible back-up procedures save you).

Oh, you can still delete books. You can delete to your heart’s content, if that’s your thing. The books come back. They’re stored on the publisher’s servers, in most cases, or you’re keeping your books on a hard drive, or cloud storage, so deleting books from a single reading device is just good book and memory management.


So, the dark side of ebook reading is actually fading.

And there’s my personal opinion on print versus pixels. I’m hopelessly, happily and completely biased on this one.


2 thoughts on “Paper versus Pixels – A Very Personal Take”

  1. Sorry you had such a bad time. Personally, I like reading in ALL formats. I do a LOT of re-reading so the 6K print books in my living room come in handy. I could never afford to BUY all those books again. All those things you mention are true. Adjustable fonts. Lightweight readers. But some of us just like reading a BOOK. So I don’t see them disappearing for a while…especially in areas with frequent power outages.

    Fortunately, there’s something for everyone, isn’t there? For those who are sight impaired, there are audio books–and for those commuting to work! Some like small devices. Some enjoy sitting in their easy chair with a print book and a cup of tea.

    1. I don’t think print books will disappear, either — too many Keeper Shelves about there, for a start! But I’ve noticed that my own print editions are deteriorating quite badly, so print definitely doesn’t last forever.

      But print books, I suspect, will become like candles: A special-interest item offered to the keen collector. Paperbacks, when they were first invented, were supposed to be the cheap edition — and they were — which meant everyone could afford to read. Now, the idea of a “cheap paperback” is an oxymoron. But the legacy publishers don’t seem to have clued in on that. Their ebooks are the same or cost more. I suspect the print price will keep going upwards. Sooner or later the legacy publishers will clue in and drop their ebook prices to something more reasonable and closer to the cheap prices indies offer – they can’t possibly justify raising the ebook prices to match print….although they somehow manage to justify charging that much right now (which baffles me completely).

      Although you’re quite right, there is something for everyone, and always will be, even for the diehards. And it just so happens, we had a power outage here last night that last five hours. I used my cellphone to read. 🙂



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