Paper or Plastic?

Choosing between books and ebooks

Paper or Plastic

I’m a traditional guy. I like cars without power windows, entry-level lights and decorations on my Christmas tree, and situation comedies that actually contain comedy. So it’s a given that I like physical books. But I’m a programmer by trade, so I also get excited about the new methods of delivering book content electronically.

When I originally came up with the Well-Read Man Project concept, I always assumed that I would select ordinary paperback or hardcover books when it came time to read each selection. I have a first-generation Kindle, and while it is nice for reading books casually, adding highlights and margin notes is not its forte, even with the embedded keyboard. Besides, this project is about reading great, classic works. If a perfect-bound softcover book with burst-cut trim was good enough for Homer, it is good enough for me.

So I was surprised when my mind started hinting at ebooks. Surprisingly, the issue was cost. With fifty great works to read, plus a few other supporting volumes for research purposes, investing in all-new books was likely to cost me well over $500, even after pleading with my bookseller to have mercy on me. Being naturally cheap, I planned to purchase most of the books used. Buying used books online is an option, but once you add in shipping, the cost isn’t much better than choosing new. Used book options are limited in Orange County, but there are a few Half Price Books locations in the Phoenix metro area. They sell books for half off the original cover price, so a thirty-year-old copy of Plato’s works could set you back a whopping 75 cents. Since I have family in the Valley of the Sun, I decided to drive over for a weekend and pick up the books in one whirlwind shopping spree.

At least that was my plan until Moammar Gadhafi asked for a ride. Thanks to events in the Middle East, it will cost me nearly $200 to make the cross-desert journey to Phoenix, not to mention the cost of the books, food for the trip, and sunscreen.

That’s when the ebook option started to look attractive. Technology has come a long way since the first Kindle. The iBooks app on the iPad highlights passages and adds notes with little effort. Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color device has similar features, and at just over $200. Let’s see: pay gas and spend a weekend with the relatives, or buy a geek toy. What a dilemma.

I’m leaning toward an Apple iPad 2 (16GB White WiFi-only, $499), something I thought I would never buy. There are other options out there. Here’s where you can help: buy me an iPad 2. Or, add your own advice in the Footnotes section below about whether I should choose paper or plastic, or what device I should consider.

[Image Credits: Maximilian Schönherr under a Creative Commons license]


  1. Well Tim I realize this article is dated, but I wanted to commiserate a little because I have made a similar ‘transition’ to yours. I use Kindle in three places–an iMac, a Windows PC, and an iPad Air (2 I believe). I wanted my reading material to be more portable. But as of 2012 when I retired from the work world that became secondary. I wanted to lighten my load–the volume of my household effects–since I envisioned a more “gypsy-like’ existence of moving around from one place to another.

    I know that you understand the tech side of things well since I first met you in your “Learning C# STF” book (Kindle Edition by the way). So you know that ‘plastic’ is the future–and the present actually. Over the past few years I have become pretty fluid in this e-Book world. My only concern is what will happen if/when it is cut off (internet is severely limited or worse)?

    As I read your articles here I see that we share lots of ideas and beliefs. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you for your feedback. As you probably read in other articles on this site, I did eventually obtain an iPad 2. It gave me a good five years of service. Just last fall, I passed it on to a family member, and replaced it with the iPad Air 2, also a decent machine.

    I’m still on the fence about whether paper or plastic is better. For current publications, electronic is great. But I’m in the middle of doing research on American history, and it’s surprising how difficult it is to find old books of sufficient quality or availability through electronic means. The Google Books scanning project from years ago put a lot of old texts online, but because the conversion was automated, the books are riddled with font-interpretation errors, making searching difficult. Highlighting and note-taking on an iPad is still cumbersome, at least compared to paper, and I can’t believe how much time I spend trying to beat the commenting features of each e-book program into submission, something that was never necessary with paper.


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