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Paper vs pixels: the return of the great ebook debate

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Everyone’s talking about it. Okay, not everyone, but some: Christian über-blogger Tim Challies is definitely (maybe) ditching print books in favor of ebooks. Former Christian publishing CEO turned über-platform builder Michael Hyatt is ditching ebooks in favor of print. Christian über-nice guy Trevin Wax is saying hold up a second, let’s not get crazy here.

The paper vs pixels debate rages on, y’all. And it’s about to get interesting. (Maybe.)

I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of physical vs digital books for about as long as I’ve been blogging. I purchased my first Kindle back in 2011, my first iPad a few months later, and have read both ebooks and print books ever since.[1. Though I no longer have a Kindle, but do use the app on my iPad.] It’s been about two years since I last wrote anything about my feelings on this subject. At the time, I shared the following:

  • My engagement tends to be about the same, whether reading a physical book or a digital one
  • My retention tends to be very different
  • My wife likes my digital books because they take up less space
  • Digital books make me appreciate physical books more—they feel more special than before

Seeing the chatter coming from Tim’s decision got me thinking about where I’m at on this subject, and I’ve realized that these things are still true. I do still find I’m engaged more or less to the same degree, though I have a harder time remembering material from digital books. I also really, really like receiving physical books—they still have that specialness that an ebook just doesn’t to the same degree. And yes, Emily is still frustrated with all the books that are taking up space in our house.

But I’ve also realized that, despite all this, I really do like both—but I like both for different reasons:

I like print for books that really mean something to me

Some of these are books that made a big impact on me, personally or theologically like Knowing God or Why We Love the Church. Others are books that got me thinking differently about ministry like Preaching and Preachers or Lectures to My Students. Others still are entertaining books that I’ve read multiple times and intend to keep on reading like Neverwhere or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Though it might just be me being sentimental, I want these books—these ones that have some sort of significant personal connection—in a physical form.

I like digital for reference material

Since I purchased my first base package, Logos Bible Software has been my best friend. When I do sermon prep, I rarely (read: never) go to my print commentaries anymore. I go to my Logos library because it’s where I’m already working—my computer. As such, I’ve got several commentaries that haven’t left the shelf in three years, and have only now moved because I’m going to be giving them away to someone who will put them to good use. And by getting rid of them, I’m actually buying back several shelves on my overflowing bookcases.

I like print for books to share with my kids

In a similar fashion to my reasons for keeping certain books in a physical form, I also prefer to keep certain books like the Chronicles of Narnia series as a physical book. Also, I want my digital native kids to engage with something other than a screen, so they’re not overloading on too much time in front of a computer, TV or handheld device (though we do incorporate these into their school work). Physical books are an aid to this.

I like digital for “brain candy” or books that don’t matter that much

When it comes to the stuff that, honestly, I know I’m not going to read more than once, digital wins (or the library) hands down. There are certain books I don’t need to keep forever, or books I know I’m only going to read once. For these, I don’t need a printed copy. I need something that doesn’t take up space, or can leave my house fairly quickly.

I like print for reading with Emily at the end of the day

Whenever possible, Emily and I try to read together for a short while before bed—more specifically, I read while she listens. We’ve been doing this for the last several weeks with The Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page, which is about as Canadian as you can get for a book. Each chapter is a nice combination of funny, charming and heartwarming. Because it’s part of our evening wind-down, I want the paper book in my hands as the glow of my iPad isn’t terribly soothing.

So that’s where I’m at these days in the whole paper vs pixels debate. When all’s said and done, it really comes down to preference, though. If you like paper, stick with paper. If you like pixels, stick with pixels. If you like both, even better.


Photo by Gioia De Antoniis via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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