Review: Those new-fangled paper books

Everyone seems to be familiar with ebooks these days. I own a Kindle 2, and of course we’ve spent weeks hearing how great the Nook will be, then weeks hearing how terrible it turned out to be. But nobody seems to be casting an eye back towards paper, so I thought I’d rectify that here, especially since paper books have some serious stability issues that are often overlooked!

Before I begin, I feel it wise to offer this hint to the reader: this review should not be taken too literally. If you have an uncontrollable urge to heave a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary at me as if I am some European prime minister, please plant your tongue more firmly in your cheek and begin again.

Today I picked up a paper book to read just for fun — The Happiest Days of Our Lives by Wil Wheaton. Long-time (since this spring!) Kindle user that I am, I immediately noticed the dashing use of color on its front cover, but when I opened it, I was disappointed that I couldn’t scale the font size down from the default. It seems that paper books have only one font option — what are all these Kindle forum posters complaining about with its six sizes of a single font?

On the very first page, I encountered a word I wasn’t familiar with (Namaste). I thought I knew what it meant from the context clues, and even had the thought that on the Kindle, I could just highlight it and confirm my guess. But my paper dictionary was in the basement, so I didn’t bother looking it up until I wrote this post. (My hunch was reasonably correct.)

Interface-wise, the paper book is solid, and crashes, lockups, or other malfunctions are rare. I have, however, noted severe stability problems when attempting to read outdoors, especially when it’s windy (which, since I live in Kansas, is pretty much always). Pages start turning themselves, even without me making the “turn page” gesture. Sometimes the book will even lose its memory of my last page read. This is rather annoying, and might even involve a lengthy search for a suitable temporary replacement bookmark. Also, I haven’t tried it, but I suspect that the trick of putting a Kindle in a ziplock bag to read at the beach or in the tub without risk of getting it wet would be impractical with a paper book.

Paper does have its advantages. For one, it’s faster to flip rapidly through pages on paper than on an ebook reader. If you know roughly where in the book something was written, but not the precise wording, searching can be faster on paper. On the other had, if you are looking for a particular word or phrase, the ebook reader may win hands-down, especially if the paper book has no index.

Paper is so stable that some would argue that the extreme impracticality of making good backups isn’t really a problem at all. But on the other hand, paper books degrade slightly each time they are used, and this condition can be aggravated by placement in bags for transport. Eventually, they will wear out. If my Kindle wears out, I can always restore David Copperfield from my backup copy to a new one. If my printed edition (all two volumes) of it wear out, then I have to hope that the used bookstore will still sell me another one for $10. Otherwise I’d have to either drive 45 miles to find one for sale, attempt to deal with the DRM for paper books at a library, or wait a couple of days for Amazon to get it to my door. A fire or flood could be devastating.

Paper books also have some advantages for showing photos; no ebook reader is close to the size and resolution of glossy paper photos books in a reasonable price.

The contrast on most paper books is better than that of my Kindle, but some older ones are actually worse, smell dusty, and suffer from occasional display corruption as bits of them actually break off of the book device.

As to cost, it is a mixed bag. Out of copyright classics are free as ebooks from Project Gutenberg and the like, while still costing money on paper. I have found that the accuracy of some of these paper editions can be rather questionable — people have sometimes manually removed important bits of the story to save on printing costs, rather than let Google Books OCR mangle it for them automatically. On the other hand, used paper editions of more current works can be found for a fraction of the cost of the new ebook edition — though you are often limited in selection of these bargains. But you can usually browse a paper book for a few minutes before buying it, which is rarely available for an ebook.

What’s more, libraries might let you borrow paper books for free. But you often have to expel greenhouse gases to get to them, and then they enforce DRM on you — you only get to read it a certain amount of time before they start adding fees. You could easily wind up paying $2 if you keep it a week longer than you should have. With ebooks, of course, there is no free borrowing (and the Nook feature it too limited to count.) And you of course know that most libraries are run by the government, so they have your address. Trying to circumvent a library’s DRM could wind up involving the police, so you had best comply.

Making copies of a paper book is expensive and requires specialized equipment, even if you just want a copy for backup.

Compatibility problems with paper books are rare, and are usually found among readers with poor eyesight. A few works can be found in “large font editions,” but most can’t, so those readers are left needing expensive specialty magnifiers.

All in all, I prefer reading books on my Kindle, but still read on paper when that’s how I have a book.

9 thoughts on “Review: Those new-fangled paper books

  1. Martijn says:

    American ebook sellers won’t even sell me books (I’m in Europe). The books I want aren’t available in a Dutch e-book store (or only in the wrong format).

    Guess why I don’t buy e-books.

  2. Ben Hutchings says:

    Seems like a good opportunity to post this:

  3. Joey Hess says:

    I love the shout out to all the people who have complained about how ebooks cannot be read in the bath. Does the baggie actually work? Sounds like a good reason to have physical page turn buttons.

    Since your kindle doesn’t have a backlight, you
    still missed my biggest gripe when I find myself reading paper, which is that I have to angle the book to catch a light source, and have to turn the light up much brighter than I’d otherwise have it at night when reading.

  4. Jasmine P. says:

    I saw this linked when Will Wheaton posted it on twitter earlier. I am a fan of books for some of the faults you listed ( smell of books). I’m also a fan of books for the pros you listed (prices, sharing abilities). I like the idea of a book on paper more than a book on a screen, I look at enough of those with living on my laptop and watching TV or movies all the time. Be that as it may this made me smile, good show, sir!

  5. Eric says:

    At the risk of taking a humorous piece too seriously, I feel compelled to point out that library books contain rights management, but it’s not really more analog than digital.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that the eco-footprint for ereaders is much heavier than for traditional print, when you consider the frequency with which the ereaders will need to replaced, and the resources required to produce all those supposedly long-lasting batteries…

  6. Eric says:

    “but it’s really more analog than digital” is what I meant to say :)

  7. Mandy says:

    Fun new way to look at books, but I have to point out that a lot of public libraries do have ebook collections that allow customers to download ebooks and use for a period of time (usually several weeks).

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