Physical vs. digital: the textbook question - Ka Leo O Hawaii: Features

Physical vs. digital: the textbook question

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Posted: Monday, August 20, 2012 5:00 am

Textbook purchasing is one of the more expensive aspects of being a student. But before you head to the campus bookstore to drop a few hundred dollars on your stack of hardcover, 500-page textbooks, ask yourself this: Should you go digital? 


There are numerous reasons that argue in favor of abandoning your physical tomes in lieu of e-books. 

You will save space (and the environment). Every e-reader on the market has the capacity to store hundreds, if not thousands, of paperless books on a single device that weighs less than a pound and is usually no larger than the average notebook. Storing your library on these light electronic devices will save you back pain, shelf space and trees.

You will save money. Most e-books run cheaper than their hard copy counterparts. A good majority of the fiction selection on Amazon and Barnes & Noble retails around an affordable $9.99 or less, below the list price for most books. 

Dedicated e-readers function just like books. Advances in technology mean that developments like e-ink (which replicates the appearance of printed paper almost precisely) and backlights help you avoid glare and the eye strain that could come with staring at a brightly lit LCD screen all day. You can also bookmark your place, highlight passages and take notes on an e-reader with no difficulty. 


But don’t start burning your books just yet – there are lots of reasons why the old way can still be the best way.

You might not save money. Consider that a digital purchase is a permanent one: There’s a good chance you could sell your physical textbooks and recoup your money, but nobody is going to buy your PDF files. 

Not everything is available. For all the hype of e-books, there are a lot of books simply not available in the format. While public domain works and very recent releases are almost assuredly found digitally, books that fall in between these two extremes may or may not be e-books yet. A quick search of my own fall reading list revealed that at least half my books are hard copy-only, which means that no matter what, I’m going to be hauling a few dictionary-sized books around. In other words, an e-reader investment may not be the wisest if none of your books will be purchasable in the format.

Tablets may not be easy on the eyes. While dedicated devices like Amazon’s Kindle do incorporate e-ink to minimize eye strain, tablets like the iPad use backlit LCD screens. If you plan to do a lot of heavy reading – but you don’t want to buy an e-ink-based e-reader – then your eyes may end up hurting during your late-night cram sessions. 


The question of whether or not you read and retain more effectively with a hard copy or digital textbook – which might be the single most important factor in your decision – is too subjective. I personally find physical texts more effective for my own learning style, but I know that there are many people that feel differently.

My own advice would be to go for a mixture of both options. I think things like dictionaries and reference books would be easier to transport and cheaper if you can find digital versions, but I feel that it might be better to have hard copies of novels and any other texts that you will be analyzing in-depth – just so you have the freedom to annotate and highlight and fold corners as liberally as you please. But ultimately, your decision will rest on your budget and your needs.

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