Digital vs. Printed Books: The Questions You Should Be Asking

Graphic of books vs. Digital Tablet

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Whether digital or printed books are better is a highly debated topic. During the pandemic, the question as to which is better has seemed to come up in conversation more often than before. This is partially due to libraries being closed at points during the pandemic, making digital copies of books the only version available to borrow sometimes. With classes being moved to remote learning, textbooks I may have easily bought a physical copy of from the school bookstore after class now have to be shipped to me instead. Since the pandemic has sometimes made items take longer to ship than before, this meant some textbooks may not arrive by the time I need them. This makes an immediately available digital copy tempting to buy instead. However, being more immediately available does not necessarily mean a digital book makes for a better reading experience. At first, I leaned towards preferring physical books when having this debate with people, but over time, I realized the question as to which is better is way more nuanced than it seems at first. Often, it is not the book being digital or physical that ends up mattering most as much as other factors. Therefore, asking whether a digital or physical book is better is sometimes the wrong question to be asking. Here are other questions to keep in mind instead when determining what version of a book is best for you: 

An important question to ask, regardless of whether a book is physical or digital, is what the formatting is like. For both digital and physical books, the font may be a size or style that is hard to read. However, font size can often be enlarged with a digital book. Another common issue is when the color of the font does not contrast well with the background. I have noticed in one of my science textbooks, for example, that the text sometimes overlaps with an image that poorly contrasts with the text, making areas of the text difficult to read. This issue is not specific to the book being digital or printed. Personally, another aspect of formatting I find important is whether the text is written in multiple columns or not. For both digital and physical books, I find it easier to read single-column text. With multiple-column text, you cannot simply turn the page once you reach the bottom, and instead, have to return to the top of the page again and start reading the next column. This is especially difficult to do with digital books. Not all digital books allow you to have the whole page visible on screen at once without zooming out to the point the font becomes too small, which forces the reader to scroll up and down multiple times to read a single page of multi-column text. With a physical book, I can at least have the whole page open at once, but multi-column text is still a more difficult reading experience. Sentences often become fragmented between multiple columns and it may not be immediately clear what order to read each section in if some columns are broken up vertically with charts or other graphics while others are not. This is especially true if some of the graphics have their own associated text under them that is separate from the main text. It is very easy to start reading the sections out of order or lose my place while reading compared to when reading single-column text, regardless of the book being digital or printed. 

Another important question to ask is what the user experience is like when reading the book. This includes the formatting, but goes beyond that. With digital books specifically, sometimes you can download the whole book as a single document while other e-books can only be read in software that displays 1-2 pages at a time. If the digital book can only be read in a web application, there may be buffering when going to turn the page if only one page loads at

a time compared to if multiple pages can be loaded at once. Even if buffering does not occur, it also takes a bit more time to hit a button that turns the page compared to a digital book that lets you simply scroll to the next page. Whether a book can be read across multiple devices easily or not is also a factor to keep in mind with digital books. 

With physical books, an important aspect of the user experience is the weight of the book. This matters especially if I plan to travel with the book. When school was in-person, I would avoid carrying back and forth any heavier textbooks while smaller, lighter textbooks were not a burden to have in my backpack. For most classes, I know in advance whether the textbook is needed during class. However, if I chose to leave a heavier textbook at home and suddenly find myself needing access to it while away from home, I will not be able to use it. More specifically, I may suddenly find myself with extra free time between in-person classes if a class unexpectedly ends early, but then be unable to do any homework in that time that involves a textbook I left at home. Regardless of weight, some textbooks have also been too large dimension-wise to fit in my backpack, forcing me to carry them in my hands if I needed to bring them to class with me. Sometimes, I also need to bring too many textbooks with me on the same day to all fit in my backpack. 

Digital books, in comparison, do not add weight to my backpack or have trouble fitting inside, since I usually need to bring my laptop to class with me anyway and can access digital books through it. However, being less weight to carry does not automatically make a digital textbook better. I cannot read a digital textbook in certain spaces when I suddenly have free time to read. For example, I sometimes used to commute to school by public transit and read while riding. It was easy to take out a physical textbook and read, but there were too many places without wifi along the route to read a digital book that required wifi. There was also the risk of my computer being knocked against the seat in front of me if the bus or train abruptly stopped while a physical book would not be as severely damaged by that. 

Another factor to consider when it comes to the user experience of physical books is how easily the book stays open. Some physical books take more force to keep the page turned or the book in general open while reading, especially small paperbacks. Some physical books require two hands to keep open either due to resistance to staying open or being larger in size or weight. These books are slightly harder to read than a book that only takes one hand to read, since they do not leave a hand free to turn the page. Additionally, whether a physical book is a paperback or hardback also affects the user experience. I find paperback books get damaged much more easily. Larger paperback books have very little structural support. Two hands might not be enough to easily support a large paperback book without it bending in ways that make it harder to read. Such a book can only be read when placed on a table for support. This not only limits where the book can be read but when placed on a table, a book also becomes more horizontally angled than when held in my hands. This means I also have to bend my neck down more to look at the book. The texture and material of the pages of a printed book also matter, with some glossier or thinner pages being harder to turn and some types of paper tearing more easily than others when attempting to turn the page. 

There are also a few aspects of user experience that apply to both digital and physical books. One of these aspects is the type of rhetoric the author chose to use. Some authors word their writing in ways that are easier to understand than others, with the type of rhetoric used appearing across different formats of their book. Some authors will clearly explain any technical terms used while others expect readers to already have knowledge in a certain academic field to understand their writing. An author may reference the work of another person without going into much detail about the piece they are referencing, forcing the reader to have prior knowledge of the other piece to understand the author’s argument. For example, I was recently reading a political scientist’s book for one class that referenced ancient philosophers without going into much detail. The reader would have needed previous experience with the works of Plato and a few other philosophers to understand her arguments. I also read a piece by another author recently that referenced a character from Greek mythology as a major part of his analysis of the world around him without providing details about the myth itself. The reader would have to be familiar with the story of the mythological character referenced to understand his argument. While I enjoy creative writing, the rhetoric of some authors can also be hard to understand simply based on the style of their writing. In those cases, academic knowledge does not necessarily help and interpretations of the text may be highly debated. Some authors also go on tangents or structure their writing in ways that are harder to follow, even if the word use is in layman’s terms. Personally, I prefer books in which the writing flows well as you read. 

Another question to ask when debating whether to buy a physical or digital copy of a book is how accessible the book will be. Some aspects of accessibility overlap with the other questions I have already explored. If a physical book is particularly heavy or large, it makes it harder, if not impossible, to carry. If someone cannot lift more than a certain amount of weight at once, having multiple heavier textbooks may become impossible to travel with. Whether a digital book requires a constant connection to wifi or can be read offline will affect accessibility for people with limited internet access. One aspect of accessibility I have not previously touched on is the cost of the book. Digital books are often less expensive than physical copies, especially if you have to pay to ship the physical textbook. Especially since college textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars, someone may only be able to afford the digital copy, assuming a less expensive digital copy is available. However, some books are only available in a single version. Additionally, while digital books are usually less expensive, I once had the opposite experience occur for a textbook where I was able to get a used printed copy for less than the digital copy would have cost. Another factor to keep in mind is how long you will have access to the book. Both digital and printed library books have a limit on how long they can be borrowed. Some textbooks are rented for a limited time. A digital copy of a textbook might have an expiration date for how long you can access it. Meanwhile, a physical textbook that is not rented could theoretically be accessed indefinitely as long as it is not lost or damaged. 

The intended use for a specific book also matters when trying to figure out if a digital or printed copy is better. If I am in a class where the professor often asks students to turn to a specific page, it is much easier to do so with a physical textbook compared to most digital ones. I can run my finger along the corner of a physical book, flipping quickly until I reach a certain page number. If I know in advance I will need to access a certain page, I can place a bookmark or sticky note in a physical book. It takes longer to scroll to a specific page in a digital book in comparison, although some software allows you to type in a page number and jump to that page. In that case, the specific application used to access the book matters more than it being digital. For other classes, I may need to find certain keywords in the text more so than page numbers. This can easily be done using keyboard commands when reading most digital books, although some digital books do not allow you to search the text for keywords. In comparison, I would have to manually use my eyes to scan a physical book for a certain word or phrase, which takes more time and energy. However, these factors usually only come into play when reading a book for school. If I am only reading a book for leisure, I simply need to be able to quickly find the page I last stopped on while reading. Some digital book formats allow you to bookmark a page or automatically load the page you were last on, but it is easier to resume reading a physical book. With a physical book, I just have to pick it up and open it where my bookmark is. With a digital book, even if I can bookmark a page, I have to wait for my phone or computer to turn on and load the book. Physical books that are smaller in size are very convenient for leisure reading since they can be easily traveled with and reading can quickly be resumed. Since a digital or physical copy can each have different benefits for school, sometimes it is best to have one of each version if that is an option. However, unless the book comes with a free digital copy, it costs more to have both a digital and physical version. 

In the end, it is not the book being digital or physical that matters as much as the user experience, accessibility, and intended use for the book. Digital books can have a large amount of variance between them depending mostly on what application and device type is needed to access them. Printed books meanwhile differ mostly by size, weight, and materials used to make them, with any additional differences between books, such as font style, being shared by their digital counterparts. While this might already feel like too many details to consider, it is also not a comprehensive list of questions to ask. There may be factors an individual must consider in choosing a digital or printed edition of a book that does not apply to me. For example, someone else might need an ebook to be in a format that works well with a screen reader. That the reasons for choosing a specific format for a book vary by the individual is a further reason this debate of physical versus digital books can become so nuanced.