Much ink, digital or otherwise, has been spilled concerning the various advantages or disadvantages of ebooks vs printed books. Some people are very passionate in their defense of the printed word. Nevertheless, here are 17 reasons why I love ebooks.
1. Ebooks Are Less Fragile Than Physical Books
In his book Antifragile (which I, ironically, have a printed version of), Nassim Taleb differentiates between three classes of systems:
- Fragile (hates volatility)
- Robust (isn’t bothered by volatility)
- Antifragile (benefits from volatility, including time)
He says that ebooks are in the class of “fragile” and physical books are in the class of “robust.”
I assume this is because:
- You don’t technically own your kindle books. You effectively just pay to license them from Amazon, who is the actual owner
- Because of (1), you cannot give away kindle books.
- Also because of (1), if Amazon suddenly got wiped off the face of the planet tomorrow, you will lose all your kindle books.
- If you die you cannot give your kindle accounts to another Amazon account.
However, let’s think this through further.
You can give your kindle books to your heirs when you die by giving them the account information of your Amazon account. While you can’t transfer kindle books to someone else, there is no rule against giving someone the password to your Amazon account. So this does in fact make them transferable upon death, lasting as long as Amazon is in business (and I imagine even in the improbable case they do go out of business, Amazon would likely sell off their Kindle business to another company.)
Further, I am doubtful of the argument that ebooks are more fragile than physical books.
For starters, there is a high probability that I will die before Amazon goes out of business.
Amazon is itself an example par excellence of an antifragile company.
Antifragile systems survive through trial and error and tinkering.This is Amazon in a nutshell.
Their entire product culture is based on the idea of rapid experimentation, gathering data, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. They are not fragile with respect to risk, and indeed seem to benefit from taking risks (think, for example, of the massive success of Amazon Web Services).
This is what antifragility is all about.
Thus, using the very concept of antifragility that Taleb is so passionate about we can make the prediction that in virtue of its antifragility, keeping my books stored on the Amazon servers is less risky than keeping them in my house, where they are prone to going up in flames, being lost, being borrowed and never returned, being damaged, wearing out, etc.
Accordingly, it seems reasonable to suppose that a kindle collection is less fragile than a physical book collection.
One might retort that if the zombie apocalypse happens and all of society collapses and there’s no more electricity, then physical books (e.g. cookbooks or survival books) would be more robust than ebooks.
While yes, that is technically true, I would simply retort that if society really did collapse like that, my inability to grow food in my apartment would be top of mind as opposed to the fact that my electronics no longer work. If all of society’s electronics failed, the global food delivery system would instantly collapse and we’d all die pretty quickly except for the prepared survivalists.
However, if the argument for physical books’ superiority lies on the hypothetical scenario of society collapsing, then sure, I will admit, ebooks are more fragile.
On the same token, however, suppose I had a supply of external batteries to power my kindle that would last 5 years. And in virtue of the zombie apocalypse, suppose I had to flee the comfort of my home and seek shelter in the local fortress, or whatever. It would be highly impractical to carry hundreds of books with me. I would have to abandon my books if I ever needed to flee. But with my supply of batteries, I could potentially transport tens of thousands of books with me and save the world with my ready access to the world’s information.
2. Ebook Collections Can Grow More Easily
As someone with a large collection of physical books, and also as someone who has moved that collection around a lot, I can tell you managing a physical book collection is literally a pain in my back.
I am always reluctant to add another physical book to my collection because what if I decide I want to move to another country? Obviously, I can’t take hundreds of physical books with me except by means of massive expense.
But no such burden applies to ebook collections. I add buy tens of thousands of ebooks and carry them wherever I please in my back pocket.
3. Ebooks Are Less Expensive Than Physical Books
This isn’t always the case but it is a general rule.
As a bibliophile and collector, there is nothing I love more than having quick and ready access to my private book collection.
It is not uncommon to see kindle books in the range of $1, $2, or $3, and even the standard $9.99 is cheaper than most physical books.
I can thus expand my collection of readily-available knowledge on a steep discount relative to buying physical books.
For me, having a large library of ebooks is ideal because, like Taleb, I believe there is value in being a dilettante reader. Dipping your toes in, perusing, browsing, getting bored with one book and instantly going to another, and in general having a large, instantly accessible collection lends itself to wide exposure to knowledge and facilitates broad, interdisciplinary erudition. For me, at least. That’s how my brain works. Your mileage may vary.
4. Ebooks Are Accessible Anywhere
The purpose of a book is to be read. If you are like me, you get bored with one book rather quickly and tend to simultaneously read dozens in a sporadic fashion, letting my whims dictate what I read at any particular moment.
If I am sitting at an airport and bring a few physical books with me, and that’s all I have access to, then obviously that’s all the books I am capable of reading in that moment.
But with an ebook library of hundreds of books, I can read exactly what I want, when I want. For me, this is greatly beneficial and lends itself to more reading.
5. The Smell of Books Is Overrated
In most cases (with some exceptions), I find that the people who only read physical books tend to read less. And yet it is these very same people who will not hesitate to tell you how much they “love the smell of books” while their book collection gathers dust on the shelves. Don’t get me wrong, I love the smell of books too. But I love reading more. And reading cannot be reduced to looking at printed ink.
6. Ebooks Can Be Easily Loaned from the Library
While yes it is perfectly possible, and indeed, quite enjoyable to go in-person to a library, and I do in fact support such endeavors, I also know from at least my own personal experience that this leads to me finding a bunch of books I like, taking them home, not finishing them all, and then having to carry them back, often with the risk of late fines.
In contrast, loaning ebooks from the library is hassle-free. They automatically get returned without me needing to leave the house and I never have to worry about late fees. It is massively more convenient and again, lends itself to having getting more reading accomplished, which, if I recall, is the core purpose of your local public library.
7. You Don’t Need Light to Read an Ebook
While yes, one can debate the health benefits of staring at screens during the dark (unless you have a kindle paperwhite, which illuminates the “e-ink” in an eye-friendly way).
However, most modern devices have night shift to reduce the emission of blue light.
This is a relatively modest benefit compared to physical books but it bears commenting, only insofar as needing light shined on the page is a fundamental limitation of printed books that ebooks don’t have in virtue of producing their own illumination.
8. Endnotes and Footnotes Can Be Hyperlinked in Ebooks
For those of us nonfiction fans who read a lot of books with endnotes, it is tremendously convenient to be able to just click on the number and have it pull up the notes along with an easy way to navigate back. No more awkward usage of bookmarks.
(to the credit of physical books, it is annoying when it’s hard to navigate back to the page; I’ve found this is inconsistent sometimes but generally the trend seems to be improvement in this area.)
9. You Can Highlight and Markup Your Text to Your Heart’s Content
While I have never been shy about highlighting my physical books with markers, I know some people are hesitant because they place a high value on the intrinsic quality of the book.
With ebooks, this is of no concern. Moreover, highlights will never bleed through the next page. And you can also delete them if you wish! Moreover, you don’t need impeccably tiny handwriting to fit into the margins.
10. Ebooks Have a Built-in Dictionary
I read David Foster Wallace’s entire 1,000+ page opus on my iPhone and I cannot tell you how useful it was to have a built-in dictionary because Lord have mercy did Wallace have a highfalutin vocabulary that he loved to show off (R.I.P.)
It’s inevitable that we will occasionally run into words we don’t know the meaning of and having a built-in dictionary (as well as built-in Wikipedia) is one of the greatest advantages of ebooks.
11. You Can Search Ebooks
Looking for just one particular phrase in a 1,000-page book? Have fun finding it in a physical book unless there’s an index!
With ebooks you can use the power of computers to instantaneously search your whole book collection for words or phrases.
12. Ebooks Have a Clickable Table of Contents
Arguably this is a marginal benefit but nevertheless could be handy. Navigation is instantaneous.
I will say, however, to the advantage of physical books, it is very annoying when ebooks do not have clickable Tables of Contents.
13. Self-published Books Are Surprisingly Great
It is much easier to self-publish on kindle than any other format. Self-publishing physical books has a lot of downside compared to just straight going with Amazon’s kindle self-publishing. And lest you turn up your nose, there is a surprisingly amount of quality books being published independently, outside of the narrow gatekeeping of elitist New York Publishing Houses.
If you are skeptical of this, just look at The Martian by Andy Weir, which eventually became a massive best-selling and blockbuster film starring Matt Damon. It was originally self-published on Amazon for a mere $.99
Also, did you know that self-publishing on kindle lets an author keep ~70% of their royalties compared to the common ~10-12% of mainstream publishers?
14. Kindle Unlimited Is Pretty Great
I promise I am not getting paid by Amazon to write this post. I just love kindle and I am especially a fan of kindle unlimited. For just $9.99 you can read as many books in their Kindle Unlimited collection as you want, keeping up to 10 books at a time. While yes, a lot of the unlimited collection is crap, there are a lot of really amazing books in the collection, including bestsellers from top publishing houses. I have never found it didn’t pay for itself and then some in terms of bang for the buck.
15. The Font Can Be Customized
Font annoyingly small or hard to read in a printed book? Too bad!
Not so with ebooks, where you can customize the size of fonts to be just right for you. While I have good eyesight, not everyone does and it can be hard to find the book you want with larger fonts.
16. Instant Gratification
Ever run across a book and you just must have it? Say what you want about what this says about my patience or maturity, sometimes it is nice to be able to instantly start reading whatever I want right then and there. No driving across town to the book store, hoping they have it. No waiting for the postage to deliver it. Instant feels good.
17. Ebooks Are Still “Real” Books
I wanted to end this blog post with a retort to some particular phraseology of people who hate ebooks. Often you hear them say physical books are “real” books.
I find this annoying because it is just bad metaphysics.
If printed books are “real” does that mean the ebook on my iPhone is “imaginary”? The 0s and 1s that make up the book are literally encoded into the physical hard drive of my phone and that hard drive is just as “real” as a dead tree.
Furthermore, if ebooks actually were not “real,” then neither is the money in your online checking account. Then neither is the entire internet. So if you only want to enjoy “real” things, you better just throw your computer in the trash and never use software again because, hey, digital media isn’t “real.”
Guess you can’t watch Netflix either because that’s just 0s and 1s as well, clearly not “real” entertainment like reading ink splots on dead trees.