For most of my life, if I wanted to read a book, I had to have the book in my hands. There had to be enough light to see by, and I couldn’t really do anything else while I was reading. Even a TV in the background was too distracting for me. Then, in 2009, I got my first Kindle device and my first ebook, which happened to be Jack McDevitt’s Polaris. It was so convenient to be able to get the book instantly and not have it take up any space on the shelves, especially considering the size of the apartment we were living in, with a baby due to arrive any day. In the months that followed, I accumulated and read more ebooks that paper books. Then in February 2013, I set aside my perceptions of audio books, and gave my first one a try. I loved it. From that point right down to today, audio books are my primary format for reading books1.
Given that today, I can get most books in any of three formats (audio, paper, and ebook), how do I go about choosing which to get? There are two ways to answer that question: my ideal book format preferences, and practical book format preferences. Below from left to right is a paper, ebook and audio book I’ve really enjoyed so far in 2021.
My ideal book format preferences
- Paper books. Anyone who loves reading and loves books knows that there is something about the tactile nature of holding a paper book in your hands that makes it a full sensory experience. There is the heft of the book. The feeling of the pages. The scent that the pages give off when you riffle them. Some books are beautiful to look at. Big books make a satisfying thud when you close them, and the sound of pages softly turning provides a pleasant heartbeat rhythm to read by. My ideal book format is paper for all of these reasons. And ideally, I am sitting in some quiet place, an enclosed porch looking out over a lake while rain patters on the roof; a beach, with the sound of my kids playing in the sand. The chair in my office while a snow storm brews outside. The book transports me and leaves me where I am all at once.
- Audio books. In the absence of a paper book, an audio book serves as a nice substitute. Audio books don’t have the same tactile qualities of paper books, but they have an added dimension that paper books lack: a narrator who gives a performance while reading the book. A good narrator can make a mediocre book tolerable. A great narrator can make a poor book enjoyable, and what they can do to a great book is really remarkable.
- Ebooks. Ebooks take no physical space, so I can accumulate a lot of them without worrying about filling my office and the rest of the house with books. Ebooks also allow me to get books instantly. Unlike paper books, there is no practical way to get an ebook signed. There is also no practical way to display ebooks on your bookshelves, so unlike paper books, they serve a strictly utilitarian purpose, and ideally, I would use them only as a last resort, when paper or audiobook editions were unavailable.
My practical book format preferences
1. Audio books
Years ago I had a realization that I would never be able to read all of the books I wanted to read. I decided that it was worth finding was to read as much as I could manage. Up to that point, I’d been reading between 30-50 books a year, but beginning in 2018, I stepped things up. I read 130 books that year, and 110 the next. The numbers have continued to stay high, and a large part of this is due to audio books.
Audio books allow me to read when I am doing other tasks that don’t take much brain power. Prior to audio books, I could not read while on long drives, or while doing chores around the house, or while exercising or out for my morning walks. Since I started listening to audio books, I have filled these moments in addition to the time I’d normally spend reading. I have also worked my way up from listening to audio books at 1x speed to listening to nonfiction at 1.8x – 2.0x (depending on the narrator), and fiction at 1.5x.
In every sense, audio books are the most practical format to allow me to read as much as I possible can in the available time. They are my first choice when it comes to reading a book these days.
2. Audio books in combination with ebooks or paper books
If audio books have a downside, it is that there is not yet a good method for taking notes in them. There is no practical way of highlighting passages or jotting comments in the margins. There are no margins! What I will often do with a book for which I think I will want to take notes, therefore, is listen to the audiobook in combination with either the ebook or the paper edition. What determines this secondary edition is typically (a) do I already own the paper edition, and (b) price. Often, you can get the ebook edition and then “add on” the audio book edition at a reduced price. If the reduced price is less than the cost of an audio book credit, I’ll usually just get the audio add-on with the ebook.
When I am listening to the audio book, I follow along in the ebook or paper book so that I can highlight relevant passages, or make notes. If I happen to be doing something else like walking, exercising, driving, or doing chores, I try to remember the places where I want to highlight or note, and then come back to them in the ebook or paper editions when I have the chance. This isn’t ideal, so I am interested in ways that audio books can be more interactive in terms of highlights and notes. Maybe a voice-activated system can control this better, e.g. “Highlight that last paragraph and add note to highlight: See also xyzzy,”
If an audio book edition is not available (increasingly rare these days for newer books, and getting rarer even for older books), then I’ll resort to an ebook edition. I’ll often resort to the ebook edition even if a paper edition is available out of practical concerns for cost and space. (Ebooks are usually, but not always, less expensive than their paper counterparts.)
It is easier to pull notes and highlights from ebooks, but even there, the system of highlighting and taking notes still feels clunky to me. I like scribbling in the margins, arguing with the author there, or noting something that made me laugh. I like making my own index of my notes in on the blank pages at the front of the paper editions–something I can’t do with an ebook because there are no blank front pages. My use of ebooks here is entirely practical.
4. Paper books
These days, paper books are a kind collector’s item for me. With limited shelf space in my office, and with a kind of collection of books established, I am picky about what I add to the collection. It needs to be worthy. Most often, I will buy new hard cover editions of books from authors I admire in order to add them to an existing collection of their books. Also, rare used books fall into this category. Or any used book that catches my eye in a book shop. Since I don’t get to book shops frequently, and I try only to buy books outside the chain book shops, adding these books doesn’t happen often. I will order paper books from Amazon. But I also order special editions of books I like. For instance, many of the beautiful editions of Stephen King books I own come from Cemetery Dance publications. They make works of art.
The problem with paper is more than one of space, it is one of time. There is no way I could read as much as I do with paper books alone, not while I still hold a full time job, am helping to raise three kids, writing here every day, and doing everything else I have to do. It just wouldn’t be possible. And so, as much as paper books are my ideal form for reading, from a practical standpoint, they don’t align as well with my goal of reading as much as I possibly can in the time I have available.
Do you have a favorite format you like for reading? If so, I’d love to hear about what it is and why in the comments.
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