Tag: paper

Audio, Paper, Ebook, Shoot! (Or, My Book Format Preferences)

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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,”

3. Ebooks

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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  1. Given that the underlying text is the same, I use the term “reading” interchangeably for paper, audio and ebooks.

The Lure of Paper Systems

Not long ago, I came across Ryan Holiday’s notecard system for remembering, organizing, and using everything he reads. It was instantly appealing to me, the way that reading about John Gadd’s journals changed the way I did my own journals back in 2017. You can read about Ryan’s methods at length, but the gist of it is that he puts everything onto 4×6 index cards which he then categorizes, files, and then uses for whatever he needs. As soon as I finished reading his post (which was originally written in 2014) I bought myself 300 4×6 index cards with the idea of testing out the method with my own reading notes. (A few examples that I used for this post are below.)

I enjoy reading, but I also read to learn. I mark up books, both paper and digital, and then I take those notes and capture them in Obsidian. After that… not much happens. It took a fair amount of time for me to write the scripts that I used to capture those notes and link them the way I wanted in Obsidian. I like being able to see the web of relationships that form, but the return hasn’t been worth the investment.

This seems to be a theme with me when it comes to digital systems. I find very cool tools, and then decide that they aren’t quite cool enough, that they need more. I’ll then spend a ton of time writing my own code to integrate, automate, and manipulate the tools to do something very specific for me–in this case, take my Kindle highlights and notes and move them into Obsidian. I spent years doing this with Evernote, only to find my use of Evernote scale back to basic document capture. I’ve probably spent more hours writing scripts to automate tasks around my writing than I have actually writing fiction. And I can’t even begin to quantify the amount of time I have spent investigating tools, switching to them for a period of time, only to find something else later.

I find myself increasingly drawn back to paper systems. Recently, I tried switching to a digital journal as a mean to be more efficient, but ultimately switched back to paper. I’ve never found a notes app that works well for me for ephemeral notes. Instead, I’ve been incredibly happy using Field Notes notebooks to serve this purpose. And while I do have a digital version of my reading list, my master list is contained in the pages of a Leuchtterm 1917 notebook.

a recent page from my master reading list notebook
A recent page from my “master” reading list notebook.

Thinking about this, it seems that paper systems are more effective for me than digital ones. There are a number of reasons for this, but they boil down to four things: simplicity, ease-of-use, effectiveness, and longevity


  • If I need to make a quick note, I simply pull out my Field Notes notebook and jot it down. I have yet to find an app that works faster or more reliably than that.
  • When I want to write in my journal, I pull it off the shelf and start writing. There is no need to log into a computer, or open a document, no need to worry about formatting or data syncing.
  • For me, the thing I want to do needs to be really simple, otherwise, I’ll eventually give up on it.

Ease of use

  • You can’t get much simpler than scribbling in a notebook or on an index card. There are no keyboard commands to remember, commands that often vary from one app to another. There is nothing to “save” or “open.” I don’t have to worry about syncing with cloud services, or whether a password has expired.
  • If the power is out, or I don’t have Internet access, my notebooks and note cards are still accessible and usable.


These simple system work for me. I have little processes I’ve built up (how I number my journal entries for easy indexing) or how to Iabel post ideas in my Field Notes notebook so that I can easily identify them for later use.

But perhaps what makes these systems most effective is that I don’t get distracted writing code to try to improve them. Being on paper, they are already about as refined as they can get.


I still have notebooks from college, and diaries from 25 years ago. I have school papers going back to kindergarten. Yet I have only a small number of digital files from college: a few papers, a few stories I wrote. Most notes I took on the computer back then are gone. I can’t begin to imagine how much digital stuff I’ve created that has been lost over the years, not by accident, but because I simply didn’t care enough to keep it. For me, if I can touch it, it seems to matter more than if I can’t.

There is always the question of how long digital media will last. We’ve only had it in the modern sense for about fifty years. But there are countless diaries and journals that have survived hundreds of years. Famous examples include John Adams1 and John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. As Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Da Vinci:

His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after 500 years, which our town tweets likely won’t be.

But it is not just the paper of famous people that lasts. Currently, I am reading The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson. In it, he describes the early battles of the Revolutionary War in great detail, often relying on the diaries of average citizens and militia on both sides of the fight. I’ve made it through the first three chapters as of this writing, and along the way, encountered the following citations:

  • …Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie told his diary.
  • A physician visiting from Virginia told his diary…
  • …recorded in his diary
  • …Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own told his diary.
  • …a parson told his diary
  • …a deacon in Brighton noted in his diary.
  • …Reverend Ezra Stiles told his diary…
  • Horace Walpole, ever astringent, told his diary…

There are about half a dozen more and that’s in just the first three chapters. You get the idea. There is a level of confidence in the longevity of paper systems that just doesn’t isn’t there with digital systems. Paper can burn, of course, but I treat paper with more care than I do digital documents.

One of the reasons I’ve put a lot of effort into digital systems in the past is to leverage their ability to do things faster than I can do them myself. Searching for something is a great example of this. Having my journals in digital form means that I could easily search for stuff in them. But when I have kept them in digital form, I’ve found that I simply don’t search them enough to make it worthwhile. Instead, I’ve developed a simple way of indexing my journals (on paper) so that if I don’t know immediately where to go, I can use the index as a guide.

a recent journal "index" page
Sample index page for August 2021. Number in parentheses represent journal entries on the topic

My reasons for building the scripts that take my reading notes and import them into Obsidian was to leverage Obsidian’s ability to link notes together. I thought I’d gain new insights from this. But this wasn’t how things turned out. The notes go in automatically, and I never look at them again. It has been different with the notecards. After finishing a book, I’ll go through it and make notecards from things I’ve highlighted in the book. I’ll organize them by topic or theme and them file them away. I do the same thing for anything I read: magazine articles, blog posts, etc. That means that some themes (say “Paper v. digital” — see the images above) contain cards from many different sources. That is much more useful to me. And there is something about the tactile use of paper, whether notebooks or cards, that impresses them into my memory better than looking at the same information on a screen.

More than any of that, however, is the time saved by not writing code to build all kinds of integrations that I won’t end up using. Instead, I can just read, or write, or jot downs notes.

This is not to say that paper is always better. I use Obsidian, for instance, for all of my work-related notes. I used to keep my notes in those marble notebooks you find for 50-cents at Target during back-to-school sales. But I do search work notes frequently, and often refer back to them. It makes much more sense to me to have those notes in digital form. I use Obsidian because underneath, it is just plain text and compatible with everything.

Calendars work better for me in digital form than they do on paper.

I prefer paper books to digital versions and paper magazines to electronic ones, but the fact that the latter take up no physical space is a big plus. So I read books on a Kindle in lieu of paper when it is convenient, and I read magazines mostly on my phone, except for a handful that I get in the mail each month, also because it is convenient.

But isn’t digital easier? Maybe, but maybe easy is not the point. In his post on his card system, Ryan Holiday writes:

I don’t want this to be easy. Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that’s the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for gettin gate structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I dumb into stuff I had forgotten about.

This resonated with me. The ability to collect random bits and shuffle them and reshuffle them, that tactile feeling of manipulating the information, is important to me, and it is something that is much more difficult to do in digital systems that exist today. If you think of each “note” in Evernote as a card, how do you “shuffle” the notes into some useful order? How do you reshuffle them when needed? How do you easily “flip” to a random card? Ditto notes in Obsidian.

Paper systems are also cheap compared to their digital counterparts. Even my more expensive Moleskine Art Collection notebooks (about $28/each) cost less than half of an annual subscription to Evernote. And for the price of an iPhone or a MacBook, how many good notebooks, index cards, fountain pens, etc. could I buy that would far outlast the need for me to upgrade said phone or laptop?

A few days ago, I sat in my office with a 1996 diary in my lap, flipping through the pages and stopping now and then to read a passage. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just doing a bit of time travel. I could have done the same thing in a different way if that diary had been in digital form, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I wouldn’t have seen my own handwriting, and the cross-outs I’d made here and there. I wouldn’t have seen the color of the ink change from one day to another, or how I wrote in cursive one day and printed the next. I would have missed the blood stain on one page from a cut, or the corner I’d torn off a page to jot something down.

The lure of paper systems is about more than simplicity, ease of use, effectiveness, and longevity. The lure of paper systems, for me, is about history. The paper contains history. It yellows with age. It carries stains. It shows wear. It has a feel and smell and even a sound: pages riffling; that tap of an index card on your fingers; the whisper of a fountain pen across the page. Digital systems have none of these things, at least not to the extent that paper has. I can take a Field Notes notebook into the woods on a hike with me and not feel connected to the world. I can’t say the same when I have my phone and note-taking apps in my pocket.

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  1. Yes, I recognize the irony of linking to a digital version of a paper diary that has been around for over 200 years.

Paperless offices

I might have touched on this before, but I was thinking about paperless offices again this morning (having cleaned up much of the paper in my office earlier today). I am convinced that the move to a “paperless” office will be a very difficult one to achieve. In fact, it may be close to impossible (although I’d love for someone to prove me wrong.)

Another term for a “paperless” office is a “digital” one; that is, one in which all paper is replaced by digital represntations of the information contained on the paper. We have all sorts of technologies that allow for the digitization of information. But I still think it will be difficult to replace paper.

I have tried numerous handheld devices for capturing information. Palm Pilots, BlackBerries, etc. There are notebook computers that try and immitate literal pads of paper. There are at least two disadvantages to all of these devices as I see it: 1) I have not yet come across an interface that makes it easy to write free-form text as a piece of paper; 2) each of these devices requires some kind of power source, be it a battery or an AC adapter.

All of these devices seem to be attempting to mimic paper in an electronic form. As I see it, there are only two advantages for mimicking paper in electronic form: 1) space: data storage takes infinitely less physical space than the physical storage of paper; 2) searches: it is easier to allow a computer to search through text than to scramble through mounds of notebook paper on your own.

Aside from these advantages, I see very little gain in using electronic “paper” versus physical paper for common tasks such as note-taking, lists, etc. And when we speak of a paperless office, we are speaking of everything, I assume, notes and lists in addition to memos and briefings (which are more easily captured in electronic form).

Perhaps a better distinction is formal vs. informal “paper”. Clearly, a step in the right direction would be the elimination of “formal” paper from the office. Electronic mail has gone a long way to doing this. Memos are mostly electronic, whether written in Microsoft Word or some other word processor. PowerPoint briefings have replaced transparancies. Software like TeX or LaTex has made technical documentation easier to capture electronically. I can foresee a time when all formal paper is eliminated and converted to electronic media.

Informal paper is another story. I scribble notes in a notebook. I have my own shorthand, developed over a period of 16 years of notetaking. I don’t depend on batteries or AC adapters or network connections. And quite frankly, I can take notes faster on paper than I can on the computer. Lists seem much easier to maintain on paper. Pull out a small notepad in the bookstore and jot down the title of the book you want to buy later. It takes 2 seconds. It most certainly takes longer with your PDA. The tough nut to crack will be informal paper.

Electronic devices like PDAs and notebook computers try to immitate the virtues of paper and combine them with the virtues of electronic storage. As they say, however, immitation is the highest form of flattery. The reason these products try to immitate paper is because paper works so well. It is for this reason, the simplicity of capturing informal documents, that I see a converstion to a full paperless office to be a long and difficult challenge.