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Physical, Digital, and Audiobooks Compared: Which Should You Read?

It’s a glorious time to be a reader. From the public domain books on Project Gutenberg to the free digital and audiobook downloads from your local library, books are more accessible than ever before.

Not only that, but the choice of book formats is wider than at any time in history. You can read books on your phone, computer, tablet, or good old-fashioned paper. You can listen to books while you work out or commute. And you can even buy physical books that are compact enough to fit in your pocket.

With so much choice, however, you may be wondering which type of book is best. Is there an advantage to listening to books over reading them? Should you read books on a screen or on paper? Does it really matter?

In this post, we’ll attempt to find an answer. Below, we examine the pros and cons of physical, digital, and audiobooks. With this information, you can find the format that’s best for your needs.

Physical Book Pros and Cons

Even though digital books continue to become more common, physical books are still what most of us think of when we hear the word “book”. And despite claims of them being obsolete, physical books are still very much alive.

Here are the pros and cons of physical books:

Pro: Digital Disconnection

To read a physical book, all you need is enough light to see (unless you’re reading braille, of course). You don’t need to plug the book in or worry about it running out of battery. And, most importantly, you don’t have to worry about your book distracting you with notifications.

This points to one of the main advantages of physical books over their digital counterparts: disconnection. If your goal is to spend sustained time with what you’re reading, then it’s difficult to match the calm and focus that a physical book brings.

Of course, you can nearly replicate this experience with a quality e-reader such as a Kindle Paperwhite. But given the choice, I’ll still stick with paper books for complete disconnection.

Pro: Serendipity of Discovery

Though they’re far from what they were in their heyday, brick-and-mortar bookstores still exist. And these bookstores offer something that online shopping cannot: the chance for random, serendipitous discoveries.

You never know what you’ll find when you walk into a bookstore (or public library, for that matter). You’ll find sections about topics you didn’t even know existed. You’ll find carefully curated displays of books on issues new and old. Maybe you’ll even find some foreign language books to peruse while you do your business, as in the bathroom at Capitol Hill Books.

If you’re looking to discover something you could never have imagined, then you can’t beat the experience of browsing a physical bookstore or library. Online bookstores attempt to replicate this, but all they do is show you more of what you already like. To expand your horizons, you need a place where you can touch and truly browse the books.

Pro: They Have a History

As physical objects, books carry a history. This ranges from any inscriptions from previous owners, to the time and place the book was published, to any interesting annotations in the margins.

Sure, you won’t find as many of these artifacts if you buy new books, but used books are full of them. Some people might find this annoying or disrespectful, but I think it’s fascinating.

Not only that, but a physical book invites you to leave your own marks for future pondering. This way, you can look back at the book years later and marvel at what your past self found worthy of note.

Con: Not Very Portable

For all their virtues, physical books aren’t perfect. And one of their major downsides is a lack of portability.

A single book is reasonably portable, provided you’re not lugging around Ulysses or Infinite Jest. But if you want to carry multiple books or your entire library, then physical books aren’t very practical.

Granted, Charles Darwin managed to do it during his voyage aboard The Beagle (a voyage that planted the seeds of On the Origin of Species). Most of us, however, don’t have the space to transport a library of 400+ books wherever we go.

Con: Can’t Buy Immediately

If you know you want to read a specific book and just need to get a hold of it, then physical books have their downsides. While Amazon has made it possible to order a book at almost any hour of the day, you still have to wait for it to arrive.

With digital and audiobooks, on the other hand, you can start reading immediately. You just need an internet connection, and you’re off to the races.

Con: Risk of Damage or Loss

In some ways, physical books are far more durable than the devices we use to read their digital counterparts. If I dropped my Kindle and a paperback book off my roof, I’d bet on the paperback surviving the fall.

However, physical books are vulnerable to water damage, whereas the Kindle Paperwhite is waterproof. And if I lose my physical copy of a book, it’s gone forever. With digital books, in contrast, it’s more or less impossible to “lose” an individual book.

Digital Book Pros and Cons

When I was a kid, the idea of reading a book on a portable, internet-connected device would have seemed futuristic. But now, digital books are commonplace — you can even borrow them from your local library.

But what are the pros and cons of these technological marvels? Let’s find out:

Pro: Portability

When it comes to portability, digital books are hard to beat. The relatively small file size of a digital book means that you can fit hundreds or even thousands of them on your device. And you can read them pretty much anywhere you go.

Because of this, digital books are the obvious choice for anyone who travels frequently, has limited space, or wants to live a minimalist lifestyle.

Pro: Accessibility Features

Digital books bring a range of accessibility features that used to be unimaginable.

For instance, if you have a visual impairment, then you can make the text as large as you want. Even my grandma, who normally hated digital technologies, loved her Kindle because it let her read any book. She was no longer limited to what the public library had in large print.

Aside from this, digital books also make it possible to use screen readers, a huge boon for people who are blind or dyslexic. And for an even more immersive experience, you can use Whispersync for Voice to automatically highlight the text on your Kindle as the corresponding Audible audiobook plays.

Not to mention, the built-in dictionary can help whether you’re learning English or tackling a book with complex vocabulary.

Pro: Searchable Text and Highlights

With much of our work happening digitally, we now expect our books to be as easy to search as the web. Fortunately, digital books make this (and more) possible.

With any digital book, you can easily search the text for a particular word or phrase, making it much easier to reference later. Beyond this, you can also view a collection of all your highlights at a glance. You don’t have to flip through the physical book to find the portions you highlighted or underlined.

Con: Electricity Required

There’s a lot to love about digital books, but they aren’t perfect. And one of their major flaws is that they require electricity.

Sure, a typical Kindle can last for many hours of sustained reading without a charge, but you do have to charge it eventually. And when that time comes, you better hope there’s an outlet handy. Otherwise, your vast collection of books becomes nothing but a lifeless piece of plastic.

With a paper book, on the other hand, you just need a light to read by. So even in a post-apocalyptic world, I’ll still be able to read my physical books (during the day, at least).

Con: Risk of Distraction

While it’s amazing that we can access books on our smartphones, there is a risk of distraction. You can read on your phone, but your phone also wants to send you notifications or pull you down Wikipedia rabbit holes.

For this reason, we recommend reading on a dedicated e-reader for maximum focus. If you don’t want to do that, then at least take some steps to make your phone less distracting. Otherwise, you may end up browsing memes instead of reading.

Con: Harder to Annotate

Compared to early e-readers, modern ones do a decent job of letting you highlight and make notes in the book. However, the whole process is still less flexible than the options in a physical book.

In particular, I can never seem to get the highlights on my Kindle to go where I want them. In a physical book, meanwhile, I can underline, cross things out, make snarky comments in the margins, and generally write all over the place.

I imagine that the experience of annotating a digital book will continue to get better. But for now, paper still has the upper hand.

Audiobook Pros and Cons

Audiobooks have come a long way since the cassette tapes my parents used to borrow from the library to entertain my brother and me on long road trips. These days, you can download audiobooks on your phone and listen to them pretty much anywhere.

Here are the pros and cons of audiobooks:

Pro: Hands-Free

One of the biggest advantages of audiobooks is that they free up your hands for other activities. This means you can listen to audiobooks while exercising, commuting, cleaning, or anything else that requires your hands.

Looking for an audiobook that fits your interests? Here are 50 of the best audiobooks.

Pro: Accessibility Features

Like digital books, audiobooks offer many helpful accessibility features for individuals with disabilities.

To start, the auditory nature of audiobooks makes them a powerful tool for people who have visual impairments, blindness, or reading disabilities. Not to mention, individuals with physical disabilities that prevent them from holding a book can listen to an audiobook instead.

And as I discussed above, you can also use Whispersync to combine the spoken text of an audiobook with the automatic highlighting of a digital book. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for personalized learning.

Pro: Helpful for Language Learning

If you’re learning another language, then audiobooks can be a powerful tool. On their own, they’re a great way to practice your listening comprehension and improve your vocabulary. If you’re not sure what the narrator said, then you can just rewind the book.

Beyond that, you can combine an audiobook with its written counterpart. This way, you can highlight new words or pieces of grammar in the text while still benefiting from the audio. It can get expensive to do this for every book you read, but doing it with just a few can massively boost your language skills.

For more tips on learning a language on your own, check out this guide.

Con: Speed

For all their benefits, audiobooks have some downsides. And one of the main downsides, at least for me, is an issue of speed. I can read a printed text much faster than I can listen to it, which makes audiobooks an inefficient way for me to read.

Sure, I can speed the recording up, but then I risk missing out on certain details. For this reason, I reserve audiobooks for times when my hands are occupied (such as driving). I realize this won’t be a con for everyone, but it’s worth knowing if you’re a fast reader.

Con: Missing Textual Details

While the auditory nature of audiobooks can be great for certain applications, there are disadvantages. Principally, audiobooks aren’t an ideal format for books that contain lots of figures, illustrations, photographs, or footnotes.

This won’t be an issue if you’re reading fiction, but it can be a problem with certain nonfiction works. Audiobook publishers have tried to get around this issue by including supplementary PDFs that you can reference. But since you’re typically listening to an audiobook on the go, this isn’t very practical.

Con: Temptation to Multi-Task

Since audiobooks don’t require your hands to read, it’s tempting to think that they require less focus than printed books. And along with this comes the temptation to multi-task.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing something else while you listen to an audiobook — as we mentioned, it’s a major advantage of the format.

But be sure that whatever else you’re doing doesn’t require a lot of mental energy or focus. Otherwise, you risk performing worse at both of the tasks, negating any advantages of listening to the book. Multitasking just doesn’t work.

Which Book Format Should You Read?

Well, there you have it: the pros and cons of physical, digital, and audiobooks. As you can see, one format isn’t “better” than the others. Rather, the best format depends on the situation and your needs.

More than anything, arguments about which book format is “best” obscure what really matters: reading. As long as you’re reading, don’t let anyone try to deter you.

Image Credits: e-reader and open book