Why I’m Switching Back to Paper Books

On average, I read about 25 books a year. When the iPad came along, I was thrilled because suddenly I could easily take my books with me wherever I went, and read whenever I had a spare moment. What I eventually discovered however, was that while I was reading more, I was retaining less.

Courtesy wordstream.com

My real first meaningful experience with eBooks was on the iPad 1, using both the iBooks and Kindle apps, and I eventually even bought a Kindle PaperLight. What I’ve discovered is true of my reading experience on all of them. Here’s what I found was happening when reading eBooks:

Scanning, Not Reading. Instead of reading carefully, I caught myself skimming the content, much in the same way I (and dare I say many of us) use the Internet. To deal with the sheer volume of digital information I view each day, I’d become a scanner, and it had worked its way into my book reading.

Too Little Visible Content. When holding a paper book, I can always see two full pages at a time. On iPad I get to see only a portion of a page, and on a Kindle device, only a portion of a portion of a page. I find that I both enjoy and retain the content better when I can see and be immersed in more of it at one time. It feels more comfortable to me, and my mind tends to actually absorb the content more easily. For me, paper has proven to be more relaxing and enjoyable.

Tapping vs. Turning. Holding a device and tapping/swiping to flick through the content is a much different experience than holding a physical book and turning the pages by hand. There is something about the latter experience that causes me to slow down and take my time to really read. Again, I find it more enjoyable and less like I’m online at work flying through Google results.

Memory Mapping. I find that when I read a physical book, my mind maps important or interesting concepts to the particular page, and the portion of the page, where it falls. As I review the material (get my cheat sheet on How To Really Read A Book), my recall is better because my mind can remember where it “saw” the material in the flow of the surrounding text. An eReader is essentially a large virtual surface on which the content is shown to me just one screenful at a time. My mind can’t fix a location for anything, because a page really isn’t a page in the eReader world. Why? Because an eBook page is not guaranteed to be displayed the same way every time.1This also makes it’s hard to get a sense for how far into the book that a topic of interest appears. By contrast, the content presentation in a physical book never changes. All of the it remains in the same place forever, and that contributes tremendously to my ability to recall the information later.

Sad Note Taking. All eReaders have highlighting features, but my reading process requires that I be able to mark the margins and write on the title pages of each chapter. The text annotation features of eReaders just don’t do it for me because I want to see all of my markings on the page without having to tap on a little icon (a la Kindle app) to see each one of them one at a time. eBook versions of paper books sometimes don’t even preserve the blank space on a chapter title page. I need that space to write on, because it’s part of my system for recalling things later.

Eye Strain. Unless I’m reading by candlelight, a physical book never strains my eyes. After a full day of sitting in front of a computer screen, nice though my Thunderbolt display is, my eyes are shot and need a break. Also, when I read early in the morning or later in the evening, my eyes don’t appreciate the blue light waves generated by the LED backlight (yes, it’s really blue) from an eReader. There is even science that supports the idea that blue light affects sleep quality here, here and here, so no eReaders for me before bed! The Kindle devices are a bit better about this because their display tech uses natural light, but early morning or evening reading still requires the use of backlighting. When my eyes are strained, my reading retention drops. Paper doesn’t have this issue.

Retention and Recall. The reason I read the way I do is so that I can truly assimilate, or “own”, the content of the book. I want to be able to retain the good I found in it, and recall it quickly and accurately. The markings I make in a paper book allow me to thumb through very quickly to not only find something I want to review, but also to remember the context in which it was presented.  eReader search features can often instantly transport me to the right spot if I can remember a precise phrase, but I get no sense of the context, or the notes I made along the way.

Distractions. This is more true on iPad than a Kindle device. Email notifications, tweets, texts, Periscope, etc. are all potential interruptions to the reading process. Yes, I can turn those notifications off, but there is yet one more distraction.  While reading an eBook, I may be tempted to follow a footnote that leads out to the Internet, and once I’m there, who knows what will grab my attention. Once that happens, I usually forget what I’ve just read.

So I’m going back to paper, at least for the foreseeable future. Besides switching back to paper, I’m also going to cut back from 25 to about 6 books this year. I want to really know those 6 well, rather than just make a casual acquaintance with 25. If you’d like to get more out of every book you read, just click the link below and give my method a try.


Get your FREE copy of How To Really Read A Book!

So what do you prefer for reading, paper or plastic?


  1. The reasons for this are many, but too much to go into here.

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