Minimalism,  Organization,  Personal,  Simplicity

Physical Vs. Print Books

Over the years I have waffled between print and physical books. I love having the ability to pull a book off of the shelf and flip to my notes or review certain sections. I don’t know if it is because I grew up exclusively with physical books or if that is the way that my brain works. Regardless of the reason, I’ve collected quite a few print books over the past few years, believing that it was the best path for me to take.

Technology has changed immensely since I made the initial decision to focus almost exclusively upon print books so I have realized that this subject needs to be revisited. This article will discuss the differences between the two formats as I decide if one format is better for me personally.

Ease of Acquisition

If you want to acquire an ebook it is a simple matter of downloading the title desired from the Internet. If you have access to an Internet connection you can acquire almost any book you desire within moments. Websites that specialize in creating ebooks from titles that are out of copyright are prolific these days. There are very few books that one cannot download immediately now–especially if the book in question is an older one.

Print books can be located easily enough from libraries, book sales, thrift shops, friends, and a myriad of other avenues. If a book you desire cannot be located locally you can always order it online. You will have to pay for shipping and wait a few days but you can still acquire them.

The primary difference (aside from speed) when it comes to acquiring either print or physical books is cost. A large number of ebook titles are older and out of copyright; these titles can be acquired for free in digital format but even the oldest print book may cost money to acquire. If the title is an uncommon one (like a first edition), acquiring a physical copy can become prohibitively expensive. While it may not cost much to acquire an older print book locally, shipping expense on physical books can add up over time.

Ease of Access

One of my primary issues with ebooks is the DRM that is so prevalent when you purchase books from major retailers. If those companies go under, what happens to the books you’ve purchased? Will you still be able to access them? Will the money you spent on the digital books be for nothing if the company decides to withdraw your right to access those books? This is a major concern for me. Many ebooks come packaged in a special format that would make it impossible to read the books if you lose access to your reader software or the company decides to revoke your right to read them. That problem doesn’t exist for print books; you don’t need special software to read them and never have to worry about some company telling you that you can no longer access the books you’ve purchased. As long as you have a physical copy, you will be able to read that book. Even better, you can lend that book out if you desire. Many ebooks do not have this ability. Ebook distributors don’t want people to share the ebooks they’ve purchased so they seriously limit–if not completely eliminate–your ability to share the ebooks you’ve purchased.

Search capabilities

Ebooks win in this area. If you can remember a few words from a section, a quick search will retrieve all instances in a book where those words appear. This is much easier to do with ebooks than it is with print books; if the print book doesn’t contain an index, you are forced to flip through the pages until you hopefully get lucky enough to locate the area you are searching for.

However, when it comes to actually locating a book that you are looking for, print wins out if you don’t know the exact title. Humans are geared to recognize things visually. It is a simple matter to sift through a collection of physical books to locate a specific cover, bookmark, or other identifying mark when searching for a particular book. Even with modern ebook readers that feature covers this can be difficult. Publishers (especially indie publishers) tend to change their ebook covers occasionally. When they change the covers on their ebooks, the ebook reader system will update the title with the new cover–rendering your visual ability to locate that book useless.

Space and Portability

You can store an incomprehensible number of ebooks upon a single device and carry that device with you. This grants you the ability to keep an entire library of books in your possession wherever you may go. The only way to comprehend what this means is to try carrying aound a 1,000-plus page book to read during downtimes. I’ve had to do that in the past. When I began learning about computers, many of the books I read were in this page range or even larger. These books can be a logistical nightmare. Just trying to open one up to read a few paragraphs while you’re standing in line is almost physically impossible if you don’t have a place to sit down. With a small computer or ereader, however, you can accomplish this with ease.

Moving can also become a logistical nightmare if you possess a large number of books. These books must be boxed and taken to the place where you have decided to relocate to. If you are moving some distance, this can end up costing a fortune. I’ve encountered this issue several times over the years as I’ve moved from place to place. It was one of the primary reasons I began shifting to ebooks before I settled in this house. I couldn’t afford the time or the expense of moving my immense library from a practical perspective.

Once you settle into a place, physical books add another layer of difficulty to one’s life. You need to acquire some sort of shelving or devise another method of storage for the books. Once you have that in place, you have to maintain your physical book collection by dusting it, rearranging it when the titles get out of order, as well as protecting them from moisture and other hazards. If your physical book collection outgrows the space that you have allotted for it, you either have to eliminate some of the books or expand your storage. This can become quite expensive, especially in light of how much it costs in our modern age to rent or purchase larger homes. Very few of us have the financial luxury of being able to afford a home large enough to store an extensive library of physical books.

In contrast, even the largest library of ebooks can be stored on a tablet, ereader, phone, or backed up on a hard drive. I have several DVDs worth of ebooks stored away that I’ve collected through the years. It takes very little space to store those discs in comparison to storing the physical versions.

Privacy

A modern discussion of the subject of books would not be relevant without discussing privacy concerns. Our world is slowly evolving into a state of constant surveillance. Many of us like to read books that those around us would not approve of if they saw those books on our shelves. I encountered this issue personally many years ago; I was a member of a religious faith that “discouraged” its members from possessing and reading any book that was not officially sanctioned by the leaders of that faith. In fact, that was one of the reasons I began exploring ebooks. It allowed me the freedom to read what I wanted without anyone in that faith to become aware of my unsanctioned reading preferences.

While as a society we may not have degenerated to the point where our reading material can get us in legal trouble, there are some instances where discretion is encouraged. Certain subjects like the Law of Attraction, spiritualism, and even certain reference materials can make family and friends uncomfortable or even hostile if they happen to see these types of titles upon our bookshelves. Because of this, it may be safest to keep certain subjects of reading and research exclusively in digital format–if only to avoid questions.

My Personal Situation

As much as I prefer print books, the space that I have to store them is limited. The shelf I acquired to store my library is overflowing. At some point in the future I will have to reduce my collection by thinning out some of the titles I own. Many of the books I prefer to read are older titles so I wonder at the logic of paying for a physical copy when I could download a digital copy for free instead. Does it make sense to spend money to purchase, say, Moby Dick in a physical book when I can download an ebook version for free?

While I’ve not been openly criticized for my reading preferences in close to a decade, I still carry some emotional scarring from that time in my life. There are some subjects that I refuse to even consider acquiring in print format because of my experiences in the past. Even with that precaution, I have raised a few eyebrows when a curious visitor has taken the time to examine the physical books in my collection. I’ve got a small number of books that I’ve hidden away because I know that there are those in my circle that would not understand my interest in certain subjects.

Privacy hangups aside, my primary concern at the moment is physical. I have no desire to relocate to a larger home; in fact, I may choose to move to an even smaller place in the future to save money on housing. How can I juggle this? I already know that, should I decide to move that I won’t be able to take my entire physical collection with me. If a flood hits this place, I know that I won’t be able to take my physical books with me if I have to evacuate. The DRM limitations on ebooks purchased on major retailing sites makes me nervous; when I acquire a book, I want to keep access to that book, period. There are ways around that but those ways aren’t exactly considered politically correct. Even if I don’t share a single copy of an ebook I possess I may run afoul of the law at some point in the future if I pursue this avenue.

I do have the equipment now that will allow me to read PDF files and even make notes in them on my devices. It’s not the same as holding the physical book in my hand but it’s close. Books acquired in plain text take up even less space than PDF books; if the files are named with some sort of convention, they should theoretically be fairly easy to locate even in a sizable collection. Computerized search capabilities have improved immensely over the past decade as well to the point where computers can even search inside some PDF documents and they’ve always been able to search inside of text files.

I love the beauty of physical books but I’ve reached the point in my life where I need to make a decision. Should I continue to collect physical copies, or should I gradually transition to ebooks? And how do I deal with the fact that my physical book collection has outgrown the space that I have available? Am I being overly paranoid about the privacy aspect? Do I accept the risk of loss if modern DRM controls decide to block access from my ebooks, or should I seek a DRM-free source of any ebooks that I acquire? And should I focus on formats that I can read on any device I happen to possess or resign myself to a single ereader device that may become obsolete?

What book format do you prefer? Why do you prefer that format? If you were in my situation, a situation where space and privacy are major considerations, how would you handle it? Any and all opinions are welcome. I would like to hear a variety of opinions before I make any decisions.

Thank you for your consideration.

6 Comments

  • sam

    My brain seems to remember more from a printed book. Sort of like writing a list, I remember what I wrote on the note, even if I no longer have the note.

  • John Grebe

    When it comes to ebooks, privacy is double edged. Yes ebooks give you privacy when it comes to the freedom to read certain books without other people seeing the books in your house. But you are allowing big data to collect more information on your reading habits or at least when you buy your ebooks from major retailers as compared to downloading them from some of the free public domain ebook sites. Of course when it comes to privacy from big data buying physical books locally with cash is the only way to remain truly autonomous with your reading habits. The other middle ground option when it comes to space is to digitize your physical books so you can keep the book without it taking up as much space. While time consuming (or potentially expensive if using a scanning service) for a large number of books it makes sense for a handful of books that you want to hold on to but do not have the space.

  • Essie

    Funny thing- I have also been debating this. We need to sit down, have a cup of coffee and chat, Annie!

    I haven’t made up my mind as to which format I prefer. I find usefulness and convenience in both the printed and e-books. I have yet to determine the reason but I find myself having difficulty finishing any book lately. It might be my eyesight. 🙁

    I am planning on downsizing to car living in the next year or two so I need to read and give away the printed books I do have.

    I have decided to use the physical and online library and free ebook sites for future reading needs vs buying any more books in either format.

  • Linda Sand

    I like ebook for fiction but some non-fiction, like textbooks, need to be physical. Like Sam said I remember more from physical books–to the point where I remember the location on a page of certain information. So, for instance, if I’m scanning a book I’ve read for that information I know I only need to scan the upper right column of the right hand pages. That doesn’t work for me on ebooks.

  • Carla

    Well here’s two thoughts….which may seem a bit in opposition to each other….but here goes:

    1/ I always always always prefer a print book. i do believe that “big brother” has a hand in the whole ebook revolution and we may not be able to ultimately control what happens to the original text of some of the great classics. That’s why I am a great fan of holding onto copies of good classics,….the ones that society is built on….such as the good ole king james version of the bible. I hear some folks are putting a bible in plastic and loading it into the raw cement of the foundation of new homes…..for safekeeping and perhaps a blessing?

    2/ Secondly, the photo that you attached to your post makes me think of another building material……old books? Ya …i know….not very respectful to the written word. But let’s think….have you seen those homes made from straw bales, cement and old blue jeans?
    Well, if everyone collected and upcycled their old books, that would make for a huge lot of sturdy hardcovers that could be stacked with a bit o cement or plaster to form a wall….hmmmm.

    But in my attempt to reconcile these two opposing views….perhaps i should say this….that if you are going to purge your home from excess books and fashion them into bricks…. please don’t get rid of the classics 🙂 because we must safeguard them for future generations!
    ….Hey it may actually be fun to build a grand castle out of all the others…