It’s been widely reported that in the past couple of years e-book sales have leveled off. Barring some currently unforeseen innovations — and those could certainly happen at any time — we have a situation in which a relatively few people read books on dedicated e-readers like the Kindle, considerably more people read on the smartphones, and the great majority read paper codexes.

My own reading habits have not leveled off: I have become more and more of a Kindle reader. This surprises me somewhat, because at the same time I have learned to do more and more of my writing by hand, in notebooks, and have limited my participation in the digital realm. So why am I reading so much on my Kindle? Several reasons:

  • It would be disingenuous of me to deny that the ability to buy books instantly and to be reading them within a few seconds of purchase doesn’t play a role. I am as vulnerable to the temptations of immediate gratification as anyone else.
  • When I’m reading anything that demands intense or extended attention I don’t want to do anything except read, so reading on a smartphone, with all its distractions, is not an option. (Plus, the Kindle’s screen is far easier on my eyes.)
  • I own thousands of books and it’s not easy to find room for new ones. My office at Baylor is quite large, and I could fit another bookcase in it, but I read at home far more often than at the office, and I already have books stacked on the floor in my study because the bookshelves are filled. So saving room is a factor — plus, anything I have on the Kindle is accessible wherever I am, since the Kindle is always in my backpack. I therefore avoid those Oh crap, I left that book at the office moments. (And as everyone knows who keeps books in two places, the book you need is always in the place where you aren’t.)
  • I highlight and annotate a good bit when I read, and the Kindle stores those highlighted passages and notes in a text file, which I can easily copy to my computer. I do that copying once a week or so. So I have a file called MyClippings.txt that contains around 600,000 words of quotations and notes, and will own that file even if Amazon kills the Kindle tomorrow. My text editor, BBEdit, can easily handle documents far larger than that, so searching is instantaneous. It’s a very useful research tool.
  • Right now I’m re-reading my hardcover copy of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head — more on that in another post — and it’s an attractive, well-designed book (with one of the best covers ever), a pleasure to hold and read. But as a frequent Kindle user I can’t help being aware how many restrictions reading this way places upon me: I have to have an adequate light source, and if I’m going to annotate it only a small range of postures is available to me. (You know that feeling where you’re trying to make a note while lying on your back and holding the book in the air, or on your upraised knee, and your handwriting gets shaky and occasionally unreadable because you can’t hold the book steady enough? — that’s no way to live.) Especially as I get older and require more light to read by than I used to, the ability to adjust the Kindle’s screen to my needs grows more appealing; and I like being able to sit anywhere, or lie down, or even walk around, while reading without compromising my ability to see or annotate the text.

For me, reading on the Kindle has just one significant practical drawback: it’s too easy to abandon books. And I don’t mean books that I’m just not interested in — I’m generally in favor of abandoning those — but books that for any number of reasons I need to stick with and finish. I can just tap my way over to something else, and that’s easier than I’d like it to be. (That I’m not the only one who does this can be seen by anyone who activates the Popular Highlights feature on a Kindle: almost all of them are in the first few pages of books.)

By contrast, when I’m reading a codex, not only am I unable to look at a different book while holding the same object, I have a different perception of my investment in the text. I might read fifty pages of a book on Kindle and annotate it thoroughly, and then set it aside without another thought. But when I’ve annotated fifty pages of a codex, I am somehow bothered by all those remaining unread and unmarked pages. A book whose opening pages are marked up but the rest left untouched just feels like, looks like, an unfinished job. I get an itch to complete the reading so that I can see and take satisfaction from annotations all the way through. I never feel that way when I read an e-book.

That’s the status report from this reader’s world.

UPDATE: Via Jennifer Howard on Twitter, this report on book sales in the first half of 2016 suggests that the “revival of print books” is driven to a possibly troubling extent by the enormous popularity of adult coloring books. Maybe in the end e-books will be the last refuge for actual readers.


  1. "It's been widely reported that in the past couple of years e-book sales have leveled off."

    They're no longer leveling off. Since last year, they've been falling, at a double-digit clip. (Trade publishers' ebook sales were down 25% in January, year over year.) You're now officially an outlier, Alan.

  2. That all makes sense! Here's my own weird little problem with owning a Kindle: If I buy an ebook and I like it, I want to own a physical copy. And that's true both because of more ephemeral emotional connections to physical books, but also because a book that sits on my shelf is a book I may take off the shelf, whereas a book buried in a digital library is one I'll never open again. I have many Blu-Rays and some digital Amazon movies I "own." I never look at the Amazon library; it's too incorporeal.

    On the other hand, if I buy an ebook and I don't like it, I don't like it. So my ultimate feelings are negative either way.

  3. Ebook sales are falling because:

    1) **price** — new releases are $15 or more, it's not uncommon for ebook price to be greater than hardcopy. I know I'm an avid reader (read 100+ books a year) but my Kindle purchases have slacked off because I grimace at paying more than $9.99 for an ebook

    2) **stagnant technology** — the Kindle Oasis didn't seem like much of an advance over the Kindle Voyage I own. eInk looks like a dead-end now — no color, not even a bigger screen (as I age, my eyesight really needs the boost of a bigger canvas & I wish I had eink device in the size of my iPad Pro, or even regular iPad size — I find for certain books, like history books, I like the iPad Pro Kindle app better than the Voyage, because I'm able to grok the images better).

  4. Wow, Nick, me an outlier? Never had that experience before, wonder what it'll be like.

    Also, thanks for the correction.

  5. My wife loves her Kindle (old enough to have a physical keyboard, also a good thing for her). She uses it mainly for Dickens, Trollope, etc that she acquires for little or nothing and reads through them all over a period of a year or two. She also reads lots of library books and occasional purchases of new books. However, we're running out of space for books at home. Before she retired, her work space was full of books, but they were not there to be read. She was the supervisor for holdings management in technical services of a university library.

  6. Alan, I've been reading and annotating more in both codex and ebook form. That said, it's not an activity I was ever really trained to do, and I haven't really found my own style there. So, I'm always interested when you write on your approach and was amused by the writing in codexes posing thing, which I've also noticed.

  7. I am not so sure that ebook sales are leveling off. Ebook sales from major publishers are leveling off or falling and price is a big deal. But huge numbers of Ebooks are independent and not easily trackable. And those, accepting that they are hard to accurately track, seem to be increasing, in part because of low price.

    Regardless I am basically not buying paper unless not available on kindle

  8. I tend to use my e-reader (a regular Kindle, without the keyboard) for reading text-documents (long essays). Partially, this is because I have very tight budget and it's difficult to afford purchasing a lot of (even significantly discounted) digital books. Most of the books I've read recently and am currently reading are print books I've owned and either haven't completed or am re-reading (a book worth reading is never finished).

    The temptation of switching to something else on the Kindle is real and the device's access to the Amazon store can further the sense of missing-out on better reading just a click or so away. I largely eliminated the latter temptation by disabling the device's wi-fi and changing the security password to some hodge-podge I wouldn't remember. The former temptation, switching to a different text already on the e-reader remains though and for that old self-control. As Dr. Jacobs has noted, it's more difficult to flip through pages on an e-reader than a codex. At the same time, as aforementioned, it can be easier to turn to an entirely different text than with a print book. Although, depending on where one's reading a codex and what other books are around, it isn't much more difficult to simply pick up a different book nearby (I do this a fair amount since my bookcase is right next to my bed) than to click to a different text on an e-reader. Except in my experience (which is of course my experience and certainly not representative of anyone else) reading a print book or journal is more immersive than reading on my Kindle (not to say I haven't had immersive reading experiences with texts on my e-reader).
    Anyhow, I think that forming good reading habits online (less time on "big Twitter" certainly encourages this; and Twitter is the only social-media platform I use) has helped strengthen my reading habits on the whole.

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