15 use cases comparing e-books to traditional books: an illustrated list

I’ve now been reading e-books for more than 2-1/2 years. For the 37 years prior to that, I read paper books exclusively. For a while now, I’ve been meaning to compare the two forms of book in some reasonable and understandable way, but I was hard pressed to come up with a format for such a comparison. Then it dawned on me: use cases!

By day, I am a software developer and creating use cases is an important part of the construction and testing process. A use case is used to describe a real-world use of how the product in question might be used. So I came up with a number of use cases for e-books to see how they compare with traditional books. 10 of these use cases demonstrate (I think) how e-books are superior to traditional books. The remaining use cases demonstrate areas in which traditional books still have an edge over e-books.

My e-book reader, for the purposes of this exercise is my iPad 2, using the Kindle App for iPad. I’m sure I didn’t capture every possible use case, but these are the ones I seem to deal with most frequently.

1. Finding a book on the bookshelf

Depending on how many books you have, and how organized you are, this can be a fairly daunting task for traditional books. Here is an picture of me illustrating the use case by searching for a book on my shelves:


I used to have my books organized alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within the author. That fell by the wayside the last time I moved. While they are arranged alphabetically by author, they are completely random within a given author. That may not sound like trouble, but for someone who has several hundred Isaac Asimov books, for instance, it can make any one book tricky to find.

Searching for a book on my virtual bookshelves within the Kindle App is only slightly easier. I give the Kindle App the edge because it sorts the books for me and allows me to change the sorts on the fly, making it easy to find a book by title or by author, or by how frequently I last had it open:


2. Reading while eating

During the work week, I spend my lunch hour reading. I try my best to multitask, reading and eating at the same time. With traditional books that was often difficult because I often required at least one hand to hold a page down. It made it difficult to eat and read at the same time. I would often switch to doing the tasks serially, eating first and then reading. Here is an example of what I’m talking about:


Note how the pages in the book flip back when note being held down by something? Now take a look at the same scene where the traditional book is replaced with an e-book:


See! Nothing to hold down. And all I have to do is gently tap the right side of the screen to turn the page. Thanks to e-books, I can eat and read at the same time!

3. Accidentally leaving your book at home

How many times has this happened to you? You rush off to the office, spend your morning working away, and come lunch time, you settle down to enjoy the next chapter in the book you were reading, only to discover that you left the book at home! Here was my reaction when this used to happen to me:

Missing Book.jpg.jpg

However, since switching primarily to e-books, this problem has gone away. For one thing, I almost always have my iPad with me. And if I forget my iPad, I can switch to my iPhone and read the book there without a hiccup:


(And if I forget my iPhone? Extremely rare, but in that case, I can just use Amazon’s Cloud Reader. And if the Internet is down? Well, in that case I’m no worse off than if I forgot the physical book in the first place, right?)

4. Skimming a book

I’ve heard people complain that it is more difficult to skim an e-book than a traditional book. I haven’t really found that to be the case. Of course, I can’t flip through physical pages the way I can with a traditional book:


But then, it is virtually impossible to “skip” a page when flipping pages in an e-book. And as an added bonus, the chances are nil that I’ll give myself a paper cut.

5. Searching for a passage

But really, when I am skimming a book, it is often because I am searching for a passage. It always seems to happen when I am in a hurry, desperate to prove some point or other, and when I rush, I can never seem to find what I am looking for. It all starts out well. I’ll begin searching at the beginning of the book:


The problem is that after an hour or two, I’ve gone through the entire book and still haven’t found what I’m looking for:


With an e-book, however, searching for a passage takes seconds. I just use the Search function built into my e-reader app:


There’s really no contest in my mind. An e-book wins hands down.

6. Highlighting passages

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had an aversion to highlighting passages in my traditional books. I think of them as collectors items and hate to see them defaced in any way. Even if the highlighting would add value to me (make it easier to find a passage I’m looking for, for instance), I just can’t bring myself to do it. My hand twitches and my fingers refuse the commands:


But with e-books, I have no hesitation whatsoever and in fact, I highlight to my heart’s content:


7. Annotating a book

My reluctance to highlight a book extends to annotations as well. The thought of writing notes in a traditional book fills me with a horrific dread:


But I annotate freely and copiously in my e-books. Indeed, I read my own first drafts on my e-reader and mark them up with highlights and annotations before getting started on the second draft:


8. Traveling with books

I used to travel a lot and it was all I could do to fill the boredom of those long flights with reading. It meant I had to bring a lot of books with me, which weighed down my luggage. A typical stack might look something like this:


Traveling with e-books is manna from heaven. I have close to 200 books and 30 or 40 magazines on my e-reader. Here is what that stack looks like in comparison:


The traditional stack (20 books) weighs 18.2 pounds. The e-book contains hundreds of books weighs 1.33 pounds. Again, e-books win, hands down.

9. Reading in bed

I often will close out the day by reading in bed before going to sleep. With traditional books, this required a light of some sort that often made it difficult for Kelly to sleep. It made the room brighter than it should be for quality sleeping:


With my e-reader, I don’t need that superflous light. The backlit screen, which I can dim down so that it bright enough for me to read, but does not disturb Kelly works perfectly for this:


Hard to see me, right? But I can read the words on the e-book page just fine.

10. Reading during a meeting

Meetings can be (and often are) boring. I sometimes feel like I’d make better use of my time by getting some extra reading done during the meeting. But pulling out, say, Allen Steele’s Coyote might not be taken well by the others sitting around the meeting table:


However, if I am reading a book on my iPad, it might simply appear to the others that I am taking notes:


Yes, that’s me, “taking notes,” wink-wink.

Having listed 10 use cases that I think demonstrate the superiority of e-books over traditional books, let me now list a few use cases where traditional books still have the edge.

11. Using a book as a doorstop

When the door needs to stay open, books are often a handy doorstop. Compare this:


To this:


Same book, but clearly the traditional book is a more effective doorstop.

12. Torturing a book

Granted, this is not something I condone and the image below may be disturbing to some people, but it is far easier to torture a poor traditional book than it is an e-book:


13. Loaning a book to a friend

This is probably debatable, but I think loaning a traditional book to a friend is easier than loaning an e-book. That is, if you can get over the emotional impact of loaning a traditional book at all. What if it comes back damaged (see #12 above). What if they lose it?

In the end, you can just hand them the book and be done with it. (You hand them your reading copy of course, not the one you think of as part of your collection.) It is a bit tricker to hand over your iPad.

Some publishers allow for the loaning of books. I’ve “loaned” a book to a friend one time using that feature and it seemed to work okay. But it wasn’t as easy as just handing them a physical copy.

14. Showing off your books

It is certainly easier to show off your traditional books than it is your e-books:


I’m not even sure I’d know how to go about showing off my virtual stack of e-books.

15. When the world ends later this year, and there is no electricity, traditional books will flourish

Because, you know, e-books will be dead.

There you have it, my 15 use cases. I’m sure there are many more on both sides, but I’ve listed the ones that affect me the most. What are some of the use cases I’ve forgotten?


  1. 16. Reading a novel while taking a bath (like I this this AM with Count to a Trillion).

    Moderately risky with a traditional book. Potentially fatal with Nook.

    So this librarian will still have to juggle both formats.

    1. Mark, someone (possibly Rob Sawyer) suggested putting the e-reader in a plastic ziplock bag while you are in the tub. You can still turn the pages, something you wouldn’t be able to do with a similarly-enclosed paperback.

  2. Being out of software development myself I appreciate the use case methodology, but have got to admit, they might have gone a lot better if my development teams went out and took photographs.

    Like many, I’m waiting for the bathtub UC. And what about the UC where young ladies learn how to walk eloquently and with good posture by putting a stack of books on their head? What – come on, we’ve all tried it!

  3. This is hilarious! My first laugh for the day! Thank you for that!

    On another note, does anyone know if there is a website or group specifically for software-types-by-day-and-sff-writers-by-night?

    1. Austin, glad I could provide the laugh. Hopefully not your only one for the day.

      I don’t know if there is a specific website or group for software-types-by-day-and-sff-writers-by-night, but it seems like a lot of members of Codex Writers fall into this category.

  4. Never understood the ubiquitous no-reading-in-the-tub restriction. My wife reads in the bath tub all the time with her Kindle. (I’m pretty sure it would only be potentially fatal–to the reader–if the device was plugged into an outlet.)

    If she were to drop the Kindle, it would likely ruin it, (although I’ve resurrected more than one iPhone after they went through the wash.) She has already damaged it outside the tub. Surprisingly Amazon replaced the Kindle for free–twice. And of course all the books were just re-downloaded. Compare that to dropping a book in a bath.

    Also apparently there are drypacks that are available for those who don’t want to take the chance. Or like reading in the rain, again something you can’t do with a paper book–but then who would want to? Maybe if you’re stuck at an unsheltered bus stop?

    All I can say is I am happy Jamie did not think of this use-case and go to the effort of illustrating it.

    Great post, Mr. Rubin.

    1. Thanks, Michael, although I must admit I did consider the bathtub use case. I decided to spare everyone involved the horror. I mean, could you imagine seeing a picture of me actually dropping my iPad into a tubful of water? Or a traditional book for that matter?

  5. I think one problem with e-books that could be fixed would be if someone developed a “paper cut” app for android and iPad. Then you could get that pleasure with an e-book.

  6. “That may not sound like trouble, but for someone who has several hundred Isaac Asimov books, for instance, it can make any one book tricky to find.”

    Nonsense! I only have 258 Isaac Asimov books (hint: I’m mentioned by name of three of them, and by inference in at least two others), and I can find what I want pretty easily. The oversize books (one of the Ginn textbooks, three editions of the Guide to Science, Annotated Gulliver’s Travels, etc.) go on top of one bookcase. The robot and Foundation books (all hardcovers, including some of the limited editions) go on the top shelf, followed by the collections, Black Widowers, and hardcover science books and anthologies. The paperbacks are in another bookcase, with the Great SF anthologies in number order, the Norby books (blech) together, many paperback science books, and the miscellaneous other anthologies following. Well, it’s true I have a stack of twenty or so books on the floor, but I’ll get around to shelving them, really I will!

    1. I’ve read Asimov’s autobiographies enough times to recognize your name. Didn’t you find a lost manuscript in the Boston collections? I was being a little facetious, playing more for the humor than the actual fact. I will say, however, that my paperback Asimov books are crammed into the shelves so that there are multiple rows on a single shelf to save space–that does making one of them a bit harder to find. 😉

  7. Oh, of course I knew you were having fun, so why not add to it with my real-life scenario? There must be more of us with “hundreds” of Asimov books; I just happened to be the one to reply.
    Yes, you can find my name in In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, as well as “The Sin of the Scientist” in The Stars in Their Courses. And I’m afraid I’m the unnamed 15-year-old in the introduction to “‘Repent, Harlqeuin!’ said the Ticktockman” in The Hugo Winners (vol. one).

  8. 10,000+ books (yes that is how many I have, paltry when compared to some, I know) have a very high insulation factor. Especially when used on an outer wall.
    Let’s see any amounts of ebooks do that!

  9. I too have been switching from paper books to ebooks with great glee, once my spouse gave me my Android tablet. I love it. In addition to adjusting the brightness, there’s adjusting the FONT size for those of us whose eyes are getting older.

    Two cons to ebooks you didn’t mention – I see the picture of the book signed by Asimov, but you don’t bring up the problem of author autographs in ebooks. The other problem is that it’s difficult for people to GIVE ebooks, it’s not something you can easily box up and wrap for someone for their birthday. I’m trying to train my family, telling them they can buy an ebook as a gift, delay it, and then just give me a gift with a picture of the book cover in it!

  10. Hi Jamie, BTW, the comment update e-mails coming from your website are lacking formatting for some reason. They show as HTML code with no breaks or anything. Just a heads up.

  11. Sorry, shouldn’t type with a baby in hand. Not HTML code, just no formatting AND no HTML code at all. That is, no clickable links, etc. Just a block of text.

  12. Hunter, I think the ereader on the head works even better for posture. After all, if the book fell, it was not a big deal. If my ereader falls it is potentially a large amount of money to replace it, so i am going to be very careful about posture.

  13. Hi, since I’ve periodically had some traffic to my blog from a reference up above (for which I’m very grateful), and since this stuff is funny, and I’ve put out a funny ebook, I thought I’d drop a note in here. The funny thing about the funny ebook, as explained in somewhat more detail at the blog, is that it’s a revival of an old tradition in publishing — short topical novels of political satire — which had become virtually extinct because the publishing cycle was so long that all the jokes went stale, and perhaps because large numbers of people had to agree that a thing was funny, which rarely happens. If Gronk had had to wait a year and a half before anyone could hear him making fun of something stupid Chief Ogg said, and then the tribal elders (including Chief Ogg’s cousins) had all had to either agree it was funny or that it was funny after a little tweaking to stop being so mean to Ogg, then we might not have these endless caveman analogies today, and where would we be?


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