Why I’m still reading hardcovers in the e-reader era.

Why I'm still reading hardcovers in the e-reader era.

Last month, I stumbled upon a blurb that made Susan Rieger’s newish novel The Divorce Papers sound like the next What Alice Forgot: a book that reads like chick lit, with staying power of serious fiction.

I downloaded the ebook and got to reading.

As in popular novels The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Anne of Windy Poplars, the plot of The Divorce Papers unfolds through letters … and emails, legal briefs, depositions, interoffice memos, financial worksheets, and case summaries.

I enjoyed following the novel’s paper trail, and not just because my background is in the legal field (although, blessedly, not in family law). It wasn’t the next What Alice Forgot, but it was entertaining enough.

And then I finished the book, and forgot about it.

The next time I was in a bookstore, I spied a copy of The Divorce Papers prominently displayed on a “new fiction” shelf. I stopped to page through it, wondering if the hardback rendering of all those legal documents was any different than in my Kindle edition.

Well. I had no idea what I was missing.

The Divorce Papers

When I opened the hardback, I was stunned to see that the depositions were formatted as actual depositions. The cases were formatted as proper legal cases. The emails look like emails; the pleadings look like legal pleadings. In the Kindle edition I’d read the correspondence, but I’d missed out on the fancy letterhead of the U.S. Court of Appeals and the swanky (and scumbag) law firms involved in the divorce proceedings at hand.

Those details changed the experience.

Within 10 seconds, it was clear to me that The Divorce Papers was engineered to be experienced on paper, not on an e-reader. The difference was substantial, even for those who had zero legal background.

I’m not a hardcover snob, even though I still read more hardcover books than ebooks. I think some books are better when experienced digitally.

This month I’ve been reading 11/22/63 and Team of Rivals—both 800 page behemoths that are much more manageable on an e-reader, and lose nothing in translation to that medium.

I remain skeptical of those who say ebooks are taking over the world. In my defense, I present Exhibit A: The Divorce Papers.

Have you read a book that’s clearly superior in hardcover format (or as an ebook)? Tell us about it in comments. (I can only think of one other book that was much, much better as a hardcover, but I didn’t have the stomach to finish it. I’m wondering if one of you will mention it here!)

P.S. Why I’m still reading novels in the age of social media, and 5 books that make me feel like I’m not crazy.

And 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess is on sale for $2.99 today (for Kindle, the only format I’ve ever read it in). Find this and more current Kindle deals here.


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  1. I’m reading the Nesting Place this week. I can’t imagine that on an e-reader. Any book that has pictures, or important visuals, I just want in my hands on beautiful paper. I can get Vintage Baby Knits wouldn’t be the same without the glancing at the photos while I read.

  2. I prefer regular books just because I tend to forget about books on the Kindle. Out of sight, out of mind. But if a physical book is sitting around, I’m much more likely to pick it up and read it.

    Also, for books I want to flip back and forth in, like cookbooks or textbooks, I much, much prefer a paper format. For things I read straight through, ebooks are fine, but the navigation in ebooks is still not awesome enough to compete with being able to quickly flip through physical pages.

  3. Anything that has stunning images or that I want to take copious notes in needs to be on paper for me. One specific book would be The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen. It’s a gorgeous cookbook that includes narratives before certain recipes and sections. The photography is spectacular. It’s just too beautiful to be an ebook.

    Plus, like The Frugal Girl said above, I tend to forget about books that are on my Kindle.

  4. Jennifer H says:

    Even in fiction, I sometimes like to flip back and forth through the pages. An examples of this might be where there are a lot of characters or a complicated plot, and I start reading again after a day or two and want to refresh my memory about what happened before. Also, if I start reading a book that has a very slow start, sometimes I like to flip to the end (gasp!) and read a few pages to see if it’s worth my while to keep going. ereaders do not lend themselves to flipping around in a book AT ALL!

    • Sara K. says:

      Yes, I agree! I forgot to mention that in my comment. I have run into this issue several times with an ebook 🙂

    • Erin says:

      I totally agree with this. I also miss out on the changes to the text when it is a letter or flashback on my e-reader it looks the same and it takes me a bit to catch onto what the author is conveying.

  5. Sara K. says:

    I haven’t really run into many books that don’t translate well to ebook format (or I wasn’t aware of the difference the format would make 🙂 ). Having said that, sometimes I just NEED a book with paper pages. I like turning pages instead of clicking a button or tapping a screen. I like bookmarks (you know, the real ones with pretty pictures!) and I love seeing a stack of books on my nightstand just waiting to be read! Traditional books are easier to share with others too.

    On the other hand, my kindle fits so nicely in my purse. It’s lightweight, and I can carry so many books with me!

    I just love books. Any format!

  6. Kailey says:

    For me, the texture of the paper always makes a difference to me! I just think of books as tons of little decisions that had to be made for it to be what the author intended and sometimes that’s how thick it is, the font, the page size, etc. so I don’t really feel like I’m getting the fully intended book on an e-reader. Or there are just some classics that I want to stay in their time period, like Anne of green gables I would never read on my kindle. I just couldn’t, it’s Anne and she belongs on physical pages! Haha

  7. Beth Kensinger says:

    I benefit from “real” books (be they hardcover or paperback) when:
    1) they are heavy on the visuals (as someone else commented, Nesting Place would be a different experience on an ereader. Especially since I’m
    “Old school” about ereaders- it’s paperwhite all the way for me, so my kindle doesn’t have great illustrations
    2) it’s something that I will reference frequently in various locations in the book, such as a cookbook. I can find things much more readily by thumbing through pages. (I sold my old hardcover edition of The Well-Trained Mind when I bought a later edition on kindle, and I’m kicking myself, because it’s much harder to jump around.)
    3) it’s something that I will want to underscore and take a lot of notes in. I find the process of doing that on kindle both tedious and less effective as a memory aid.

    As much as I do love my kindle, I’m realizing lately that I seem to have better focusing skills when I real a paper book. My kindle serves me best for novels and for family read alouds. Because we also have a kindle app on the iPad, I also buy some colorful kids books that wouldn’t work so well on my paperwhite.

  8. Jessica says:

    I admit to reading a lot more ebooks these days, but to be fair, the books I’ve been reading are pretty much fluff fiction. Books that I prefer in paper are all cookbooks or any kind of reference book, as well as books that have meaning to me such as my favorite childhood books. I really do not understand how students can use ebook textbooks these days. I need the physical book in front of me. Along with personal meaning, I intentionally bought a hard cover pre-order of a book in support of the author as I’ve been following her blog for years.

  9. I’m a paper book lover – the font, paper, heft and design of the book are all part of the experience for me. I love seeing my physical progress through the book; I love watching the books pile up on my shelves. Seeing a series all in a row on my shelf is so satisfying. Also, I stare at a screen all day long at work, and I like the shift to paper pages when I’m reading.

    I enjoyed The Divorce Papers and definitely agree that “just” reading the text would have changed the experience!

  10. I didn’t remember that you had a legal background – me too. Anyway, it’s funny b/c I was just thinking about this last night as I was reading on my Kindle. I think formatting is an issue with some e-books, like the one you describe, and I’ve also found that with short story collections and instructional writing books I prefer paperback or hardcover because I want the ability to easily flip around to get where I want to be. I continue to use my Kindle, especially when I travel, and I like the built-in light on my Paperwhite, but I do prefer hard copy when possible, especially for those types of books where formatting or “flipping around” is an issue.

  11. Angie says:

    I go through a greater volume of books on my paperwhite (it’s always with me!), but prefer hard copy for all the already mention reasons above.

    The biggest reason to read hardcover is that I remember the content so much better. This didn’t make sense and first, but I’ve come across a few studies that explain how the brain uses the extra information from the book’s physicality to anchor the information. Things like the weight of the book, and the text’s position on a page. I find this to be so true for me! It’s easier to pull up information when I can “see” the page. My kindle only leaves me with a progress bar, and identical pages. It reminds me of the way a schedule or list is 200% easier to remember when I’ve handwritten it instead of typing.

    I still love my kindle, and audiobooks, but notice that I’m saving both options for overwhelmingly long books, or for fluffier fiction. My nonfiction and my favorite authors tend to rate hardcopy.

    Here’s a link to one of the studies I mention:
    (it starts off like it’s going to be all alarmist and anti screen, but skim down to the third paragraph or so and it gets interesting.)

    • Kate says:

      Absolutely! I find I don’t concentrate as well reading on my tablet (I have a Kindle app on my Nexus, so the backlight is less kind to the eyes than e-ink), and don’t retain what I’ve read nearly as well as with “real” books. I use Kindle primarily for sampling books and for books I want right now.

      House of Leaves is a book that must read in paper format because the variations in text are part of the reading experience. I’ve started the book a few times but haven’t been able to quite get into it. Someday!

  12. Amanda says:

    I think all books lose something in the e-reader translation; the question is how much and if it’s worth it. I read long books on the tablet sometimes, in situations when a big tome is just prohibitive. I don’t remember them as well though. I read some article suggesting that we use a lot of subtle physical cues to remember the book–seeing the real cover, sensing physically that you’re a third of the way through, vaguely recalling that quote was halfway down the page on the left, and generally having one book actually be different than the next.

    • Corby says:

      That is interesting. I totally believe that. When I see a book cover of a book I’ve read in hardcopy, I remember where I read it (by the pool, during lunch breaks, on vacation etc.) Kindle is great for fluff and really long books or those that would challenge my arm muscles trying to hold them to read.

      • Mallory says:

        Yes! This! I listened to The Botany of Desire while painting my house, read The Age of Miracles while nursing my days-old baby in the middle of the night, and read Her Fearful Symmetry while at the beach.

    • Anne says:

      “vaguely recalling that quote was halfway down the page on the left…”

      Yep, this is me. I’m good at remembering where something was on the page, even if I’m not sure which page it was. It makes searching for the right quote much easier. (Of course, on the Kindle I can search for individual words, but it still frustrates me to not know where something is on the page in the ebook edition.)

  13. Anne says:

    Interesting! I read something recently on the Kindle app and realized it was different enough than the paper version to be significant. I can’t think of what it was, but I remember thinking I had missed part of the book’s experience.

  14. liz says:

    I was gifted with a Kindle, and didn’t like it one bit. Part of the joy of reading is holding the book in my two hands. I don’t have to turn the book on, adjust the background, or fiddle with anything when I’m finished. Just open, read, close, set down, pick up later and open again. And I really didn’t like the Kindle for cookbooks and technical books. It was beyond frustrating to use!

    I also admit that the sight of the hundreds of books on their shelves makes me smile. It’s comforting to see them. People come to the house and browse the shelves, and then it’s, “Oh, you have The Diaries of Lord Moran!” or “Did you like The Goldfinch?” or “Wow, that’s a lot of Agatha Christie,” or “Okay, what’s up with all the biographies?” or “Why do you have a book about ancient siege weapons??”….the books are the catalyst for conversations even when they aren’t open. I like that.

    My BFF loves her Kindle, I love my booky books, we both love to read. ;D

    • I could not agree more. My house is stuffed with books and it would be so lonely without them. Looking at the books on my shelf is like taking a tour through my childhood, my teenage years, my college years, my adulthoood … I can pick up a book and remember so clearly when I read it, and how it shaped me, and I love having that tangible reminder.

      I love old-fashioned books for lots of other reasons too. I wrote about this a few years ago: http://bustedhalo.com/features/between-the-covers. Reading for me works best when it’s a physical as well as mental/emotional act … the feel of the cover, the smell of the ink and paper … it’s all part of the experience.

      • liz says:

        Approximately a third of my library consists of books printed between 1840 and 1950. I’ve had the most fragile books restored, but the rest are in good condition. To hold in your hands and read a book that was crafted generations ago is, for me, an acknowledgement (spelling error?) and a quiet “thank you” to the printers and bookbinders from an era long gone. And the workmanship is mesmerizing…I often wonder, did the craftsman who bound this book ever think it would still exist in 174 years?

  15. Julie says:

    My brother recently recommended the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series, then added “it is NOT to be read on KINDLE!” He explained that there are photos to reference, and the e-reader formats loose the experience.

  16. Corby says:

    Any non-fiction book with footnotes or end notes must be hardcopy. Yep, a legal eagle here too and having written many a legal article or document, I do love reading the footnotes and end notes. (Find lots of future reading titles in those notes)

    • liz says:

      Oh, yes, agreed! Footnotes and end notes help you find the most interesting (and sometimes, less interesting but highly useful) material!

  17. Liza Lee Grace says:

    I find that I have a much shorter attention span reading on my Kindle as well as less retention of what I just read. I also forget about what I have available to read. I have books that I downloaded years ago that I still haven’t read.

    My recent experience with Kindle vs. hard copy was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. My sister LOVES this book and we have very similar tastes. I didn’t like it at all. As it turns out, there’s a theatricality to it that I completely missed…and the theatricality starts before the book does. There’s a list of the cast of characters at the front of the book. If I had seen it before reading, I might have better understood the theatricality behind it. But since the Kindle opens the book at the beginning of the actual story, I missed it. Now that I know it exists, I plan to read the book again with a different perspective and (hopefully) will enjoy it more.

  18. Karlyne says:

    I have a hard time with e-books, because I like to read in the morning before I’ve put in my contacts, and the too close exposure to any kind of electronics really bothers my face! Seriously, it makes my eyes “tired” and my face flushed, which can’t be a good thing. I like the references above of how we remember things that are anchored physically. Just have to agree to that one!

  19. Gabrielle says:

    I love reading books on my Kindle Fire because it’s convenient to carry around, literally gives me a library of hundreds of books at my finger tips, and allows me to snatch up some great deals. On the other hand some books definitely need to be experienced in the flesh. My most recent find is “S” which was created to mimic an old library book complete with due dates. The main story actually takes place in the margins through notes between E and J and between the pages are pictures, folded letters, and maps drawn on napkins. Not only would the charm be completely lost in a digital version but I suspect it would leave the reader thurouly confused.

  20. Heather says:

    Books that I will not get for my Kindle are Children’s books. I only have a paperwhite, so I don’t get the beautiful illustrations in color, but my boys and I like to just sit down with a book and turn through the pages even though they are not able to read yet. It would be such a different experience looking and reading a children’s book on an e-reader.

  21. Ana says:

    I am just realizing this. I’m reading “A Tale for the Time Being” which is set half in Japan. Throughout that part of the book, there are lots of footnotes that define the japanese terms, and there is no easy way to go back and forth to the footnotes in the Kindle edition (I got it from the library, and this is by far the easiest way for me to use our library system since there isn’t a branch “along the way” to anywhere I routinely go). I think I’m missing a big part of the book by skipping the footnotes.

    I never do children’s books on the e-reader, my kids are still young enough to NEED to see the pictures and fight over who gets to turn the page!

    I just got 11/22/63 for the Kindle for $2.99, thanks! I hadn’t even HEARD of this book before and it sounds right up my alley (I cannot stand horror, so I may have just ignored any mention of it because of my association with Stephen King).

  22. Julie says:

    This book just came up in my hold queue this morning. I have to admit that I was a little shocked when I saw how thick it was, but when I flipped through and saw the formatting I was all in. I’m definitely a hard copy kind of reader.

      • Lauren says:

        This may be one case of the movie being as good as the book! One of my daughters loved the book and was skeptical that the movie would live up to it; she actually approved! One of my sons couldn’t be bothered with the book and loved the movie. Don’t miss the movie…..so good!

        • Jennifer says:

          I agree. Read the book first. It’s a picture book like none other. It won the Caldecott in 2007. Fast, stunning read. Your children would love it. Then enjoy the film which is equally as beautiful. I believe the movie is just called “Hugo.”

      • Jennifer says:

        It is the book behind the movie, Hugo. I did read it on an e-reader when it first came out and was very confused but fascinated. Luckily, I investigated more and realized it was a graphic novel of a whole new style so I got the real book next, making much more sense and being totally worth it.

  23. Erin says:

    I guess I’m in the minority, because I much prefer my Kindle. I don’t have a lot of space to store books, so I either get them from the library or for the Kindle. I never buy “real” books anymore. It’s also much easier for me to toss my Kindle in my purse for those waits at kid activities. And when I travel I love to load it up with a few fiction and a few non-fiction so I have lots of choices right at my fingertips!

  24. Kendra says:

    I haven’t been able to get into digital reading. I love my books, and I just don’t see that changing any time soon. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on 11/22/63! It is the only Stephen King book that I’ve read, but it is way up there on my list of favorite books! The language was a bit much for me, but I thought the story was incredible.

    • Anne says:

      I really enjoyed it! Such great storytelling. One of my favorite books of the summer, for sure. (I finished and told my husband, “You HAVE to read this next.” I don’t do that very often.:) )

  25. Michelle L says:

    My husband bought me a Kindle a few years back, and at first I was horrified and offended – how can he not understand me in such an obvious way???? I thought I’d never use it as I love paper books, although I tend to borrow everything from the library and only buy favourites and ones I want to re-read. My biggest advantage was discovered when my children were little and I could tackle the ‘classics’ I’d always intended to read during long nights of feeding – I read Vanity Fair with my first daughter and War and Peace with my second (who was named Amelia – after the Vanity Fair character). It is very hard to hold open a book with one hand, let alone a huge volume, but it’s easy with the Kindle. I do lots of things with one hand with two little ones! I actually find the underlining/marking easier with a kindle – just using the enter button – whereas with a print book I have to search through to find the bit I liked later on when I have a pen and notebook handy. The major disadvantage for me is, as others have mentioned, is not being able to flick back through and re-check past events. As someone who grabs 10 minute snatches here and there, I can easily get confused on a Kindle when it’s too hard to re-read. PS I also loved 11/22/63 – the first Stephen King I’ve read since my teenage horror reading days when I graduated from the ‘Point’ books to something more adult. It’s made me put Under the Dome on my reading list!

  26. I was in a book club where we read Behind the Scenes of the Museum by Kate Atkinson. It is formatted as chapters with “footnotes.” There was some confusion about this – I think maybe on the Kindle people read the footnote and then went back and read the rest of the chapter, whereas in the physical book it was evident you were just supposed to read the chapter and then the “footnote” chapter.

    Also graphic-y novels can be difficult. And I cannot do cookbooks on ereader.

      • Behind the Scenes at the Museum was her first book. As I understand, it’s somewhat autobiographical. Totally different idea than Life After Life, but her writing style is pretty much the same. I really enjoyed them both, but I read them in two consecutive months and it was a little much for me.

  27. Joline says:

    I finally gave in and purchased a Kindle when I bought Game of Thrones and was unable to read it because the print was too small. Sadly, my eyes will no longer cooperate with many novels printed for adults. The e-reader gives me the ability to size the print so that I can read it without a magnifying glass.

  28. kimmie says:

    I’ve started using the library again. I’m too cheap to buy the books for my Kindle and there’s just no room for hardbacks in our tiny house. LOL

    • Corby says:

      I just started working at my local library. And I love all the things you get for FREE. I forget what an awesome resource the library is.

      • kimmie says:

        Our library is part of a state network so if something isn’t available within our’s it’s probably available somewhere else and they transfer it. We’re also part of “overdrive” so some books are available for Kindle or Nook for usually a 2 week check out.

  29. Kym says:

    Now I feel I must know the title of the unfinished book!

    I agree about the “Miss Perigrine’s House…….” Comment. That book really didn’t come across on Kindle in the way I believe the author intended. It was a different experience reading it by holding it in my hands. :).

    Great topic….I grudgingly admit to loving my kindle (it was traveling with all those books at my fingers that won me over), but I love to read a “real” book from time to time. It dawned on me recently that my kids can’t tell when I’m “reading” (email, blogs, Instagram) on my tablet vs. READING on my tablet. I want to set a good example for screen time for them, and they are so young. I try to have one paper book going at all times to pick up during the day (I’m trying to keep my days screen free. Social media is a slippery slope for me)

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