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

I am on an Internet Vacation this week. I promised one old post and one new post each day while I was on vacation. This is the second of my old posts. It was originally posted back on January 19, 2012. I brought this one back because I thought it was funny. It also got a fair number of comments from people.

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. I agree with everything you’ve said yet…. The physical presence of a real book in my hand instead of an iPad or Kindle still stacks the deck in favour of real books for me. I guess it’s an emotional/tactile thing that overrides common sense.

    And you can’t buy e-books from charity shops yet…


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