Saturday, January 19, 2013

How To Read Books: Print Books, Tablet, Phone, or E-Reader?

When electronic books started to become popular, I think I had an assumption that I would end up liking some kind of format and stick to it. That's not what happened.

I talk to a lot of people who claim they prefer print books to tablet, phone, or e-reading. Most of these people have never read a book on one of these devices. They imagine they won't like it, but they are usually basing this belief on what it feels like to read sitting at their computer, which is a very different experience.

I'm a little surprised that I find myself consistently reading books on my smartphone, tablet, dedicated e-reader, and in print. Here's why.


I have an iPad, and if I had to pick a favorite way to read, this would be it. It's an original iPad, but I still adore it. I like my iPhone; I love my iPad.

The Good: 

  1. I can read books from any company. I downloaded applications from Kindle, Kobo, and iBooks comes with my iOS software. For a while I tried to read fiction on the Kobo and non-fiction on the Kindle, but now I just read everything on the Kindle or kindle app. I have not used iBooks. I also have comics applications, which is great. Comics look amazing on a tablet, and I don't even have a retina display. 
  2. I don't have to hold up the tablet. My friend got an iPad and was complaining that he needed to hold it up, unlike a laptop. I have a case (from a company called inCase) which allows me to prop up the iPad. Having a case like this fundamentally changes how I interact with the machine. The device is not cold to the touch, it holds itself up in multiple positions, and I can toss the machine around without worrying that it will break. The picture at the top is of how I normally read. Lying down.  It might be a bit hard to see, but the case is on my belly, and I really don't have to touch it to read. I tap the side to turn the page, but if I have to grab my drink or something, I can just leave the iPad, unlike, say, a large hard cover book. Also, when I'm eating, I'm using my hands to eat, and it's nice to have the tablet keeping itself up. I only have to reach out when I want to turn the page. It might sound like a lame complaint, but I don't like having to hold up a book all the time. My fingers get sore, or tingly, or cold. Hardcover books can be heavy. Paperbacks can require some sustained strength in your fingers to keep open. I love not having to do that with my iPad. 
  3. Highlights and notes are on the web. For the Kindle app, anyway, you can go to your account on the web and see all the highlights and notes you made for every book, including ones you've borrowed! I already made a blog entry on this awesome feature, so I won't go into it here.
  4. The iPad is the best PDF reader out there. I don't read a lot of books as PDFs, but I read some, and many papers. The iPad's quick zooming, and the Goodreader app's highlighting and note taking make it a total pleasure. I prefer reading papers on my iPad to paper. 

The Bad:

  1. The iPad is still kind of heavy. I know I have an original iPad, and the newer ones are lighter, but even the iPad mini is a bit heavy compared to a dedicated e-reader and many books. 
  2. It's Big. It's big and heavy enough so that I don't always have it with me. This means I can't read on it all the time. 
  3. It's hard to flip through pages. The tactile nature of pages in a book allows you to flip through them quickly, with spatial memory of where things were. This is especially problematic for books with end-notes and reference sections. 
  4. Magazines. This entry is mainly about books, but I have to complain about reading magazines on the iPad. The app designers figure that I'm just reading for fun and would never want to save anything that I read. The Wired magazine app, for instance, looks great, but I can't make notes, highlight, and there are no page numbers. So I will continue to get magazines in paper form. 


I have an iPhone 4, which is a great machine. It's way better for reading than people think. People say the screen is too small, but I find that it's not for two reasons. First, if the book is good you stop noticing  the device. Also, turning pages is so easy it becomes automatic and unconscious. Basically, the phone disappears.

The Good: 

  1. I can read in the dark. This is also true of the iPad. My beloved falls asleep before I do, and I can read in bed without the lights on. This is something you can't do with most dedicated e-readers or print books. People often complain that the screen is too bright. But when I am reading at night, I turn down the brightness. It's easy. It's so dim that my beloved can't even tell I'm reading, but it's easy to see the text. Having a black background helps a lot. When I show people how I read on my iPhone at night, they are often shocked and say something like "I think I could read like that." The brighter one shows how I normally read and the other is how I read at night on the iPhone.Sometimes by beloved is reading on her phone next to me. We'll both be reading in a room that is completely dark, which I find amusing. I always use white on black-- I find it more comfortable.
  2. My iPhone is always with me. Have you ever heard the expression "the best camera is the one you have with you?" It's true with books too. Even though in an ideal world I'd probably read on my iPad most of the time, the fact is I don't usually have my iPad with me when I'm on the go. But if I'm in a long line at the grocery store, for instance, I can whip out my iPhone and read. I love it. 
  3. One-Handed Reading. The phone is the only device I can read on that I can hold completely one-handed. I can't even do this with my Kindle device. I can hold the iPhone and turn pages with one hand, which is great sometimes. I can also switch hands when one gets tired. 

The Bad

  1. Sometimes I get tired of holding the device. iPhones are not super light, but even holding your hand up for a long period of time can be tiring. 
  2. It is a little small. This is not so much a problem for me for reading, but for highlighting and making notes, I miss the iPad a bit. 
  3. It's hard to flip through pages. See above.

Dedicated E-Reader

I have a Kindle Touch, and in general I like it.

The Good

  1. The screen looks great. It looks great in the bright sunshine, under normal light. 
  2. It has a long battery life. I can read for a long time and not have to worry about the battery. In general I'm reading on my couch, so it doesn't matter, but for travel and things like that, the Kindle family is handy. 
  3. Whispersync. This is a feature of Kindle that is supposed to keep you up to date on your bookmarks and notes throughout all of your devices. So in principle I should be able to read on my Touch, then pick up my phone at the store and it will know where I left off. In practice, I find this doesn't work all the time. More on that later. 
  4. It's light. You get a big screen with very little weight. That's nice. 
  5. Text-to-speech. With the device, but not the app on the iOS devices, you can (with certain books) have the kindle actually read to you aloud! The other day I took a walk for over an hour. I put on headphones and just listened to my book as I walked. When I was done, the whispersync allowed me to just start reading where the listening left off. It's amazing. 

The Bad

  1. It's cold. I should probably get a case for it, like I did for my iPad, but that would add to the weight. My hands sometimes get cold on the metal device. The Kobo I had was more comfortable to hold. But I got rid of it.
  2. I need to turn on a light. I can't read on my Kindle without a light on, which is sometimes inconvenient, such as when I'm reading in a room with insufficient lighting, or for whatever reason I don't want to turn on the lights (e.g., my beloved is sleeping next to me.) 
  3. Taking notes is clunky. The on-screen keyboard isn't as nice as the iPad or the iPhone. It's workable, but I find myself taking fewer notes when I'm reading on the dedicated Kindle device. 
  4. It's hard to flip through pages. See above.
  5. It's hard to hold with one hand and turn the pages. The Kobo was great for this, but my Kindle touch not so much. Holding it in portrait mode is uncomfortable. It's okay when you're sitting down, but if you're lying down it's kind of uncomfortable to hold with one hand, and very hard to turn the pages. So I end up reading it in "landscape" mode, which is better for me because There is a place for my thumb on the side of it. I still basically need two hands, though, which seems really silly on a dedicated e-reader. 

Print Books

I still read print books, but I'm winding down, and reading fewer and fewer of them.

The Good

  1. They're often cheaper. Especially if you buy used, print books can be a lot cheaper than electronic books. 
  2. You can re-sell them or give them away. You can't do this with electronic books, although with Kindle you can lend people books for a two-week period. If they ever borrow or buy the book, the highlights they made will return. Awesome. 
  3. It's easy to flip through pages! I often have bookmarks for where I'm reading, the notes in the back, and the references section. Currently impossible with e-books.
  4. They look good on the shelf

The Bad

  1. They take up room on my shelf. I'm overflowing with books. 
  2. They're heavy. 
  3. They're unsearchable. All the electronic books are searchable, and technically, a paper book is not, but there is a workaround with Google books, so this one doesn't even really count.


So I'm surprised by two things. One, that I've written so much about reading formats on my blog already, and two, that I actually use all of my reading devices, and continue to use print.

I have to mention that whispersync has not worked as beautifully as planned. Sometimes it just doesn't work, and it will put me ahead many pages on my e-reader. This is especially a pain because turning pages on it is slow, and it might take a few annoying minutes of page turning to find your place again. So I end up reading a different book on every device! It's not so bad; I tend to read multiple books at a time anyway. So right now, for instance, I'm reading "How Music Works" on the iPad (it's the iPad enhanced edition with music clips), a book on electronic publishing on my iPhone, "The Chairs Are Where the People Go" and a draft of my sister's novel on my e-reader, and two books in print.

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Monday, January 07, 2013

2011 and 2012 Book Wrap-Up

I keep a book diary on the web to keep track of the books I've read. 

Here are the books read in 2011 and 2012. 


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt ***

The best book I've read all year. In my top five books of all time. I found this book revelatory, over and over. I bought about six copies of it for people for Christmas. It is all about how our moral foundations, many of which are inherited, determine our views about politics and religion. As a democrat, before I read this book I was a little baffled by republicans. Now I understand them. I recommend this book for anyone.

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away by Bill Bryson

This year I started reading to my wife at night, and we went through a good bunch of Bryson books. He's a very funny travel writer. We love him.

Dirty Minds by Kayt Sukel

A great book on the neuroscience of sex by my old colleague Kayt.

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

An interesting story grammar. I found this short book quite inspiring even though none of Snyder's scripts turned into great movies, and even though he got the titles for several movies wrong.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

Another great book. I recommend this to anyone who feels helpless about their own willpower. I will probably require this for reading in my introductory Cognitive Science class. She has good talks online too, if you want a gentle introduction.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert by John M. Gottman

Interesting stuff. I have heard that his workshops are great.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Funny. Great book.

The Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank

A bunch of just-so stories about how things work that might or might not be true. What's good about it is that it gives you insight into how economists think. Also, it's quite episodic, so you can read it piecemeal. That is, it's a good book to keep in the car or in the bathroom.

Faces In the Clouds by Stuart Guthrie

A very solid argument that religions anthropomorphize things. I listened to a lot of this on my kindle using text-to-speech.

Bloom by Wil McCarthy

Interesting science fiction novel about the solar system after a nanotech disaster so incredible that the entire inner solar system is taken over.

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs

A very funny and somewhat informative book about a guy trying to act in a perfectly healthful way for a year. It inspired me to get a treadmill desk, which I love.

Galilee by Clive Barker

A little long but has some beautiful imagery.

Catcher's Keeper by Johannah Spero

This is a novel written by my sister which I enjoyed very much.

Hard Contact (Star Wars: Republic Commando, Book 1) By Karen Traviss

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

A wonderful read. It's quite long, but I never got bored with it. It makes a very persuasive argument that the world is getting safer. If you're a worrywart about this kind of thing, check it out.

Ready Player One By Ernest Cline

A riveting science fiction novel about a guy who is trying to win a virtual-reality based video game contest. What's amazing is that most of the novel happens in VR. Highly recommended.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer

Another great book, with a good deal of overlap with my forthcoming book.

The Scar by China Mieville

I love Mieville, but sometimes I have to force myself through it. He's very creative, but I think it drags sometimes. This is a sequel to probably the most creative book I've ever read, Perdido Street Station.


Dramatica: A New Theory of Story by Phillips & Huntley
You can get a free PDF version of this interesting book at

This book is a story theory book with an insanely complicated theory. I have read most of it twice and it's still hard to wrap my mind around. However, the free version is worth taking a look at if you're a fiction writer of any kind.

The Work of the Imagination by Paul L. Harris

Imagination and pretend play in children. An academic book.

The God Gene by Dean H. Hamer

A neat book about how aspects of how religious we are are genetic.

Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowan

Learned some interesting things in this, but overall I can't recommend it.

The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher by Julian Baggini

Not bad.

Robopacolypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Decent science fiction book about robots and AI taking over the Earth for it's own good. It's a lot like World War Z. Recommended if you like this kind of thing.

Smart and Gets Things Done by Joel Sapolsky

A short, entertaining book about how to hire programmers.

The Best American Science Writing 2006 Edited by Atul Gawande

What They Didn't Teach You In Graduate School by Paul Gray and David E. Drew

Homo Aestheticus by Ellen Dissanayake

About how we evolved to make art.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Great reads.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

Great book about memory, the history of people's relationship to it, and also an engaging story about how the author became a champion in the weird world of competitive memory.

*** Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett

Great book. The "spell" is not religion, but our refusal to study it scientifically. Since its publication there has been a lot more study.

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Great book in a long series. I think the series is better because of Sanderson.

This is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams

Especially the first half of this is rip-roaring and mind expanding. It's about alternate reality games.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Corey Doctorow

Pretty good and free on ereaders.

The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

Fabulous, certainly for my interests.

Pictured: A Russian borzoi. I love pugs, but I think these dogs are so beautiful.

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