The Kindle Report: does it beat paper?

KindleI’ve owned a Kindle for almost a year now and so thought it was time for a comparison of ereading vs reading. I’ll look at several different categories, from the common issue of readability to more unexpected things like how it’s affected my book-buying habits.

The reading experience

As I’ve said on here before, I’m unable to read anything of any length on a computer screen. The Kindle, though, is noticeably different. I can read for hours and not get tired or distracted. But although it’s an improvement on backlit screens, it still can’t beat the feel of a real book. Reading the Kindle is comfortable and effective, but doesn’t feel like a treat to me in the way that settling down with a good book does.

Verdict: win for books

The book-buying experience

The massive disadvantage of the Kindle, for me, is that it locks me into buying from Amazon. Not entirely – I did download a piece of free open-source software called Calibre which lets me convert between formats, but it’s a pain to do the extra step and it doesn’t always work depending on the type of copy-protection used by the creator of the eBook. On Amazon, on the other hand, it’s so easy – one click and the book is downloaded, and wirelessly transferred to my Kindle.

It’s ultra-convenient, but I dislike being shackled to one company, not only for the life of this device but beyond – with a big library of Kindle-format books, which eReader am I likely to buy when this one breaks down? I also love the experience of shopping in independent bookshops for various reasons which I’ve written about on this site hereherehere, here and here.

Verdict: Kindle wins on convenience, but books win on everything else

The reviewing experience

The Kindle has one very good feature that I use when writing book reviews: the ability to search a book for a particular phrase. It’s great when I think of a section I want to quote or make reference to, but I haven’t bookmarked it. With a book I’d have to leaf through, scanning the pages for the quote I wanted, but with the Kindle it’s much easier.

On the other hand, note-taking is a pain on the Kindle, at least on my model. I know that others have some form of keyboard or touchscreen, but mine has the little four-way button you can see at the bottom of the picture, and it’s quite time-consuming to take notes. The highlighting feature is useful, but none of it can beat a good old pencil note in the margin and dog-eared page.

Verdict: books win, just about

Range of books available

In terms of new books, the Kindle wins hands-down. Amazon has the vast majority of new books available in Kindle format, and as I mentioned above it’s super-quick and convenient. The Kindle has been indispensable to me this year, because in Barbados there are only a few bookshops and their stock is pretty limited. When it comes to older books, the Kindle is good for popular ones, but the more obscure texts haven’t been converted to e-book format.

Verdict: Kindle wins

Effect on my book-buying habits

This is an interesting one. In a way the Kindle has diversified my reading: the huge range of free, out-of-copyright classics has encouraged me to read some classic books that I’ve always heard about but never tried, such as works by Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Gertrude Stein and others. Also, many new books have special promotions where they’re at 99p or even completely free for a day, and this has led me to try quite a few books I wouldn’t otherwise have read.

But, on the other hand, I don’t browse on Amazon the way I browse the shelves in a real bookshop, and so I miss out on some of the pleasant randomness in that process. I’ve discovered countless new authors just by picking them up on a whim in a bookshop, whereas on Amazon I tend to be more focused: search for a particular title, buy, move on.

Verdict: split decision, but the Kindle might just sneak it on points

What happens after I’ve finished reading

For my life right now, the Kindle is great – I moved from London to Barbados last year, and will be going back again soon, and I can carry hundreds of books with me on a single device. To ship that many books back and forth across the Atlantic would cost a fortune.

But if I was settled in one place, I’d prefer real books. I like having book-packed shelves all along my walls; one day I’ve always planned to have a house with an old-fashioned library, with shelves up to the ceiling and those little twirly staircases going up to a balcony. I love the feeling of books all around me and the knowledge and entertainment contained in their pages, just waiting to be discovered. Staring at my Kindle just doesn’t do it for me.

Also I like the fact that books can be passed on, donated to a library, given to a friend, sold, left on a park bench or otherwise given a new life. I like that they can be inscribed with personal messages that make you smile when you see them years later.

Verdict: Kindle wins for the itinerant, books win for everyone else

Overall verdict

I’ve focused here on the things that are important to me. The Kindle has some other features that I simply don’t use but others might love, like the possibility of seeing which passages in a book other people have highlighted, sharing your notes and highlights on Twitter and Facebook, and so on. I keep all that stuff switched off.

My overall feeling is that the Kindle has been useful for me this year because of my personal circumstances, but that if I was settled in one place with plenty of space for bookshelves, I’d probably stop using the Kindle for anything except the free classics and an occasional special promotion.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you use a Kindle or other e-reader? What’s your experience been? Want to take issue with any of my points, or point out anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.

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There are 25 comments

  1. Liking this a lot, an angle I’ve not seen before. I do use an ereader but only for review copies and free classics. I’m not a fan otherwise, there’s just a lack of beauty and difference in ereaders where you’re reading without covers, textures, colour, and the fact it’s easy to forget you have the books. That said I do very much like the fact that it’s opened the world of publishing to those who have the talent and would have otherwise been overlooked. And I’d like to think that trumps the issue of too much content, even if it makes finding the good books difficult.

    1. Hi Charlie
      Glad you liked the post! There is definitely a lack of beauty with the Kindle, but it has its uses. I agree that opening the world of publishing to more people is a good thing, despite the flood of words making the good stuff harder to find. We have more tools to help us, too, like blogs!

  2. Very interesting to read your thoughts, which you express in such a fair and balanced way. I can quite see how the kindle is useful in your present situation, and if I lived somewhere with very few bookshops that had only limited stock, I’d be much more interested in one myself. But I do still love books and prefer them, really, for all the reasons you mention, which I can indulge as I am most definitely sticking in one place for the time being.

    1. Good for you, litlove. If you’re not transient like me, then books are definitely the way to go in my opinion. There’s something about a stack of books that is so much more satisfying than a bunch of Kindle files!

  3. Thanks for this Andrew. Agreed. I’d never use my Kindle if the book version was to hand. I always use it on holiday (you can barely take underwear on Ryanair, never mind a fortnight’s worth of book reading!)

    I scrawl all over my books and can’t be bothered with the Kindle way of note taking.

    As for Amazon versus bookshops, I agree with the comment: ‘On Amazon I find the book I want but in a bookshop I find the book I didn’t know I wanted’

    1. That’s a great way of looking at Amazon vs bookshops – thanks for that, Barry! The Kindle way of note-taking is very laborious on mine, but I think that’s something they could improve with time (and maybe already have on the later models). I agree on Ryanair, although I’m a big fan of buying books in the place I visit rather than taking them with me. Then I suppose there’s the problem of coming home again, though!

  4. Great wrap up Andrew which (almost) perfectly accords with my experience. (I agree with Barry agreeing with you on purchasing, though with my pile of TBRs it’s probably no bad thing). I like reading on the Kindle more than I expected. Like you I can’t read a screen for a long time so don’t read books on my iPad. Just too hard on the eyes and it can’t be held as comfortably. With the Kindle cover I have, I can hold it like a book. I’m on my second Kindle now, primarily because I wanted the Kindle Touch so I wouldn’t disturb hubby when reading late at night. The click noise on page turning, and on note-taking was too much.

    But this brings me to my main disappointment with the Kindle – the note taking. It’s not as useful as I thought. As well as marking and noting the text in my print books, I also jot summary points, ideas for my blog, page numbers to go back to, etc at the back of the book. When I write my review that’s where I start. There’s no back of the book for the Kindle and I don’t want to have to carry around a separate notebook for that purpose though that’s what I really need to do. It is lovely though being able to access my highlights and notes on Amazon and be able to past a quote into the review.

    Being a couple of decades older than you I am starting to look at the next phase of my life – that is, when I need to downsize. I’m slowly trying to wean myself off “needing” physical books around me. I’ll never not have any, but I’m teaching myself not to “need” them quite so much. I’ve done it pretty much with music. Books are next…

    And now, I’ve pretty much written a post in response to your post! Sorry!

    1. Don’t apologise – I liked your post in response to my post! The note-taking is very annoying on my Kindle, although I do like the search facility. Interesting about the iPad – I haven’t used one myself, but know some people who read on it and like it. I think the backlit screen would cause problems for me, and maybe the size (although there’s also the Mini now!).

  5. That is a great post and very helpful too, as I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a Kindle for quite some time. One of the major drawbacks I see is what happens when my Kindle breaks down, can I transfer all the books I bought from Amazon on a new Kindle or at least on the computer or will I have to buy them again?
    I could never see myself switching to Kindle completely, just because I love holding a physical book (on the other hand, the trees, the poor trees! I say to myself), and even if one day I’ll have to carry the books back “over the Atlantic” I will do it.
    For the books I’m not so keen on keeping, there’s always bookcrossing, we have a meeting every month where everybody brings books, some people want them back, some don’t.

    1. Hi Delia

      Apologies for the delayed response! Amazon keeps a “library” of all the books you’ve bought on Kindle, and I’m pretty sure you can transfer them onto a new device. The trouble is, what if you want a different type of reader? I think compatibility is an issue.

      I’m with you – would never want to switch completely. Since I got back to London, have been discovering some of the books I’d left here, and really enjoying it! Bookcrossing is a great idea for sharing books and passing on ones you don’t need any more.

  6. Very useful article and articulate too! Can you read a kindle when you’re lying down in bed? I don’t have a kindle but downloaded kindle for pc on my netbook so naturally I can’t read it lying down 🙁

    Oh and you described my future home library to a tee – with a fire place and cosy wing backed armchairs either side – sigh

    1. Hi Marva

      Yes, it’s small and light, so easy to read while lying in bed. It’s pretty much like holding a slim paperback. It’s much, much better than reading on a laptop, I promise!

      Glad to know you share my dream! I want a fireplace too, but also want to live somewhere hot, so something may have to give…

  7. I have a Kindle Fire. My feelings almost exactly match yours.

    I also love the dictionary feature. In addition as I read a fair amount of history and other non – fiction I very much appreciate being able to Google various names, places etc. Buying something at a touch of a finger and downloading it instantly also cannot be beat. I do not miss paper books at all. Ion fact when I read an old fashioned boot I sometimes find myself moving my finger to touch an unfamiliar word to obtain a definition to no avail!

    I am however a little guilty as I much rather patronize an independent book – shop as opposed to a large corporation.

    1. Hi Brian

      That’s funny, about touching a word in a book to get the definition! It’s amazing how quickly we get used to new technology, isn’t it?

      I can see the attraction of being able to Google things, but personally when I’m reading I prefer to stay immersed in the book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Even on the Kindle I keep the internet switched off, and only look things up after I’ve finished reading. Your way makes perfect sense, though, and I’m glad it works for you.

  8. I have a Kindle and like it quite a lot. I used it on my daily public transit work commute and my lunch break and of course when I travel on vacation it is so much better than trying to decide which three books to pack – I can take everything. That said, when I am at home and want to curl up with a book, I don’t reach for my Kindle.

    1. Hi Stefanie

      Yes, for travel and transport it’s perfect. I agree, though – curling up with a Kindle just isn’t the same 🙂 How do you think it will affect libraries, I wonder, if eBooks become much more popular than physical books?

  9. Great article, I like how you try to weigh pros and cons and give a fair appreciation of the matter.

    I have a kindle keybord, and I’m addicted to it. I still read paper books for mostly for French and non-English books.

    Otherwise, I’d rather read on the kindle: it has an instantaneous dictionary and it’s very useful when you don’t read in your native language. I download classics, sometimes a magazine or a newspaper (I’m thinking about changing my office paper subscription to Les Echos for a kindle version. Less paper, better format)

    I also like that I don’t have to type the quotes I want to use in my blog posts, it saves time (especially when I put quotes in French and in English) and it’s safer. (no typo)

    And, when I write a billet about a French classic (like the last one on Proust), and I want to insert a quote, it’s easier to find the corresponding quote in English with the kindle, on one hand because I have access to the translation for free and on the other hand because it’s easier to search for.

    1. Hi Emma

      I hadn’t thought about the language aspect, but you raise an excellent point. It’s perfect for reading in another language. I use the dictionary sometimes when reading in English, but for another language it would be great! Personally I’ve tried a few newspapers and magazines, but can’t get used to the format (I like photos, and being able to flick through the pages). Maybe on a newer version it’s better.

      I like the keyboard on your version – mine doesn’t have that, and it makes note-taking irritating. Looks as if it would be much easier on yours.

  10. Very interesting Andrew. I would probably be more in favour of the Kindle than you and don’t have much interest in the look and feel of paper books these days. My hesitations would be in the area of being locked into Amazon – but how can one avoid it these days when there are so few book shops out in the sticks away from London and big cities.

    Did you know that UK users can log in here and see all their highlights? Very useful for book reviewing as it avoids all that retyping of quotes

    1. Hi Tom

      Thanks! I didn’t know about being able to see all the highlights online. I’m having trouble with Amazon at the moment – they seem to think I have two accounts, and the only one I can log into is blank! But when I’ve got that sorted out I’ll check out my highlights.

  11. The “book-packed” shelves don’t really interest me and I’ve recently had a substantial clear-out. I feel the same about CDs and now subscribe to Spotify which carries 99% of them ready to stream to my sound system.

    The main benefit for a reviewer is the ability to see all your highlights here and then copy them into your book review.

    A very interesting article and shows how we readers have so many diverse habits!

    1. Hi Tom,
      I’ve had a clear-out too, but more out of necessity, as I moved abroad and couldn’t take everything along. CDs I definitely agree – sold all mine years ago and went to MP3s.

  12. I have a kindle. I love it. When I am lost in a book, it’s the beauty of the words, the capture, not the feel or look of the book that attracts me. Yet, I remember the musty smell of the old Daphne Du Maurier books that first hooked me in the town library when I was young. The cheaper ragged paper edge of the yellowing page, how thick it was to turn. The extra thin pages of small type with gold edge of Wuthering Heights. To read those books on my kindle would be an inferior experience, but I love a snow day with a click!–>new book to read. Not a replacement, just an addition to my reading world.

    1. Hi Tammy
      Thanks for commenting! You’re right, it is an addition, and has a lot of advantages. It could be that this is a period of adjustment, and some readers adjust faster than others. For me, it’s still hard to get lost in a Kindle book in the same way as I get lost in what I still call “real” books! But maybe it’ll take time. Thanks for stopping by!

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