Last week, a friend and I were discussing books versus e-books, or rather we were talking about the snobbishness of some readers when it comes to favouring ‘real’ books over e-readers.  This is not the first time I have encountered the ‘which is best?’ argument, but there were a couple of points raised in defence of e-readers that I had not considered before, so I thought it worth a comment here.

Now, I love books.  I would go so far to say that I am slightly obsessed, with a bookshelf groaning under the weight of over 200 unread volumes.  An hour spent browsing in a bookshop is one of my life’s guilty pleasures and my local bookshop also incorporates a coffee shop! The staff are quite happy for customers to browse and drink, or read and munch, without hassling them to make a purchase or move on.  It’s no coincidence that one of my ‘if I win the lottery’ dreams has always been to incorporate books, beans (of the coffee variety) and beer, hence my blog name of Ashe’s Bar.

That said, I adore my e-reader, which happens to be one of the early models of Kindle, before it had fancy functionality.  I can read books on it; that’s it, but I have other means of surfing the web or watching movies, so that is all I need it to do.  I also have the Kindle app on both my phone and tablet, which gives me further options for reading electronically, and best of all, it syncs my progress across all of those devices so I never lose my place, whichever device I have to hand.

I don’t think I fall into a particular ‘camp’ with my preference, as I find the two formats meet different needs.  I also don’t see how one can be seen as superior to the other when comparing the same text.  If I am reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example, the same words appear in the same order, telling me the same story.  I don’t find Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet suddenly inhabiting the 21st Century and hooking up via an online dating service, just because the words are delivered to me electronically.  Almost a shame, as I think I would quite like to read that story…

So what do I consider the pros and cons of each medium?

Books are somehow more satisfying than downloading an e-book, because I feel I have something tangible for my money.  The fact that in most cases I have actually handed over physical money for it makes it feel like a significant transaction.  A deal between me and the bookseller to liberate another story from its paper prison.  A book has weight and substance, each unique in its way.  It has cover art for you to admire, and blurb to draw you in.  It feels like a whole product, something to be valued and loved.  Too romantic a view?  Perhaps.  But an e-book, no matter how I love the author, doesn’t have the same thrill.

Another point firmly in a book’s favour is that it never runs out of battery just as you get to an exciting part!  My Kindle seems to enjoy doing this to me, and then I’m scrabbling around, trying to get my phone to sync quickly so I can find out if the character received the killing blow, or by some miracle, escaped unscathed.

Neither medium is particularly suited to my favourite reading spot, the bath.  However, I think I’d rather take my chances with a paper book which is relatively cheap and easy to replace, than my Kindle, with its entire library.

Speaking of an entire library, that is surely the biggest point in the e-reader’s favour.  For something that is only a little larger and heavier than a single book, you can have dozens of different adventures at your fingertips.  In theory, instead of my huge groaning bookcase, I could take it all with me in my rucksack wherever I roam, and free up a massive amount of storage space in my home.  Also, if there is nothing on there I want to read, I can browse and buy yet more with no effort at all.  Read the first book of a series and enjoyed it?  Go online and almost instantly obtain the next four volumes.  Heaven for someone like me, who hates to break in a series when I’m hooked.

Books, in whatever form, are largely comparable in cost.  The publishing industry is there to make money for the authors after all (and themselves, of course) so it’s in their interest to balance revenue from all markets as best they can.  Often new releases are cheaper as an e-book when searching an online retailer, but hardback copies can be heavily discounted in stores.  Book stores often run ‘three for two’ promotions, which you just don’t seem to get in the world of e-books, however, there are lots of free, or very cheap, books available for e-readers, particularly the classics.   In both cases I have found it pays to shop around.  If like me, you don’t have a preference, you can get plenty for your money with savvy searching.  Or better still, go and browse your local charity shop…

Which brings me neatly to recycling.  Do you hoard your books?  Hang onto them, as if each is a precious friend?  Or do you set them free, to bring pleasure to others?  Except in a very few cases, all of my books are passed on to friends or family, or are donated to one of my favoured charity shops.  If I have enjoyed a story I love to pass it on so we can discuss it afterwards, which is simple with a regular book, but not so easy with an e-book.  Things are changing, with Amazon now allowing some titles to be loaned to another Kindle user for up to 14 days, but if your friend doesn’t own a Kindle, you’re a bit stuck!

One of the strong advantages of an e-reader over a regular book is something that actually hadn’t occurred to me until the conversation with my friend.  An e-reader allows you to change the size and font of the text, and even the line spacing, which can be a huge help to those with poor eyesight or who suffer from reading disorders like dyslexia.  Libraries sometimes stock large print books, but the choice is often limited, and there doesn’t seem to be many more options to buy, though I confess my research into the availability has been rather cursory.  Dyslexics often find a sans-serif font much easier to focus on than the traditional print formats like Times New Roman used in many print and e-books.  Altering the line spacing can stop words from ‘bleeding’ into one another, particularly where the font has long ascenders and descenders.  This can make so many more books accessible to readers who would previously have given up in frustration.

I think my favourite thing about my e-reader is that nosy people don’t have any idea what I am reading.  I don’t use public transport often, but when I do, everyone else seems to be reading something terribly sophisticated and deep, while I have my nose buried in something trashy, probably involving vampire erotica.  Not that I am ashamed of my reading preferences, but I do so hate to be scrutinised while reading sex!  And it feels slightly unprofessional to read sexy urban fantasy during my lunch break in the office, with a cover showing a scantily clad muscular hottie.  The e-reader solves that problem, and a chilled drink keeps the flushing at bay.

So, for me at least, there is no definitive answer to the ‘which is best?’ debate.  I will continue to purchase books in all formats, and enjoy them either way.  Perhaps those who see the e-book as somehow less should widen their horizons.  After all, no one said it had to be either/or…