Three years ago I won a Kindle in a raffle, and I was disappointed. I’d vaguely hoped to win a gift card, but then my name came up as the grand prize winner and I felt like an absolute fraud going to pick up my prize. I was a physical book person. I liked the feel of a hardcover in my hands and wanted to watch my progress as I turned a page. A Kindle was something I would never use — I re-gifted it later that week.
This past spring I was on a leave of absence, and in all of that glorious time I had, I decided to read… a lot. On average I was reading about two or three books a week, and the stacks of books I had sitting on my desk were enough to rival the height and instability of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was hard to keep up with my trips to the library, so it only took a gentle suggestion from the internet and an Amazon gift card to prompt me into buying a Kindle. And what a life changing purchase that was.
Any book I wanted, right at my fingertips.
The ability to run errands with an entire library in my purse.
A built-in dictionary for words I didn’t know.
It was waterproof.
There was even dark mode.
I’d seen the light. As have many others.
Mahesh Agarwal ’24 got his first Kindle as a birthday present when he was in the 5th grade, and he’s used one ever since. He enjoys the convenience of an e-reader as well as the physical ease of holding it while reading. As a longtime Kindle user, he’s also been able to see the developments in infrastructure surrounding e-books. Apps like OverDrive and Libby, which allow public library users to borrow e-books for free, have expanded the accessibility of e-reading.
And e-books themselves haven’t just become more accessible — they’ve made reading more accessible as well. “I have a friend who grew up in Liberia where there are not many physical books, and so the internet for him has been a huge resource in bringing reading to people who didn’t have it before,” said Agarwal.
It’s not just novels that have become easier to procure online either. All three of the students I talked with said that regardless of their general preference for e-books or physical books, they’ll at least sometimes get textbooks online. Online textbooks are nearly always more affordable than physical textbooks, and are sometimes even free. It’s also less strenuous to carry a laptop than a brick around in your backpack.
Still, despite the wonders of an e-reader and e-books in general, I haven’t completely switched over. The beauty of my bookshelf is something I’ll never be able to let go of. The undiluted joy I feel when browsing a bookstore is irreplaceable. The convenience of directly highlighting, note-taking and drawing pictures (i.e. little happy faces) with my own hand makes buying the physical versions of my school books common sense. This isn’t a debate as black and white as the printed words on a paper.
Sean Pergola ’24 described the capability of physical books to tell a story beyond the written words inside their pages. When you hold a book you’ve read before, you can reminisce about where and when you first read it. Picking up a Kindle, NOOK or iPad is unlikely to provoke such memories.
Physical books also allow for new stories to be created through annotations. Pergola described a used copy of Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” he bought for a class, which ended up having four or five different sets of annotations in different colored pens. It was a story in and of itself, seeing how other people interacted with the same text. Used books hold so much possibility in this regard, in addition to being easy to find. “The concept of that is absolutely amazing,” said Pergola.
Sofia Diggins ’25 spoke to the significance of annotations in physical books as well. “It’s almost like a diary when you annotate a book,” she said. Looking back on her annotations in books allows her to reflect on her mindset and thinking from when she was reading. It also reminds her that “any book is possible to read,” an idea which she reflects upon fondly when thinking back to her reading of “A Tale of Two Cities” in 9th grade — a book which she annotated every page of and still owns.
Agarwal said that he finds it easy to annotate e-books, and that it’s nice to be able to see all of his notes in the same place. Annotating e-books tends to be a more individual experience, though, because they are never “used.”
Kindle does allow readers to see commonly highlighted passages, but perhaps e-reading could become a more social experience if it also allowed for readers to post public comments. Wattpad — a website and app where writers can publish their original stories — enables users to post comments both inline and at the end of chapters. Maybe if popular e-reading platforms such as Kindle enacted this feature, it could help to lessen some of the isolation physical book readers experience with e-books.
But really, this is all simply a discussion of preference. Of the three Yalies I spoke to, each one was able to talk extensively about the pros of their non-preferred medium of reading. Each side has their benefits, and how you choose to read does nothing to diminish the amazing fact that you’re reading!
Besides, who knows how technology will continue to change the definition of a book. Maybe the blending of different forms of media will help to make books more immersive. Maybe music, virtual reality, audio recordings and things we can’t even imagine will make the e-book vs. physical book debate seem like inconsequential old news. Maybe there will be pushback to those developments, and maybe they’ll never fully catch on. At the end of the day, though, we all just have to take a step back and realize how absolutely incredible our capacity for language and storytelling is.
If you told me three years ago that I would become a Kindle lover, I would have laughed. People can change. Technology can change. But no matter how the world may change, reading could never go out of style — no matter its medium.
Annie Sidransky | firstname.lastname@example.org