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Paper Textbook or E-book?

I have to admit that my mind is not settled on this question. I own a Barnes & Noble nook and love to read murder mysteries on it, but my apartment is also filled with paper books. Ultimately, the choice is up to you. Here are some things to think about as you decide which format to buy.

Paper hard copy


  • You can use it when the power goes out. You don't need a great computer or Internet connection to read the book. (My home Internet connection, through CenturyLink, has days when it simply stops working—several times for half an hour or so. I could still be reading a paper book when that happens.)
  • You can underline things and write in the margins.1
  • It's yours forever (unless you have rented it).
  • A paper book just feels more like reading to some people.


  • Paper books do cost more.
  • If you tend to lose things or leave them lying around for people to steal, books are vulnerable.



  • Cheaper
  • You can search the text electronically.
  • The computer can read the text aloud to you.2
  • Even if your computer crashes (or someone steals it), you still have a way to get the text again.


  • One more thing to learn. Everyone knows how to open a book, but an E-book introduces one more bit of software to understand.
  • To get a paper book, you walk into the campus bookstore and buy it—no further steps are necessary. But to start using an E-book you need to deal with an outside vendor (during a very confusing and busy time in your life).
  • Computer systems in general (and publishers' in particular) get very overloaded at the start of the school year.3
  • Yes, there is a way to "underline" and annotate computer texts, but (again) it's another bit of software to learn. You can't just pick up a highlighter and make a mark.
  • The formatting doesn't look much like a book, and sometimes it fights you.4


  1. If you have bought the book, don't be afraid to mark in it. Marking a textbook is a very good way to help you learn. On the other hand, if you have rented the book, look at your rental agreement. Different companies have differing attitudes about highlighting and writing in the margins.
  2. Macmillan (publisher of our textbooks) is very proud of their read-aloud function, but when I tried it, I was very disappointed. Aside from sounding like Marvin the Martian with a mouth full of Gummy Bears, the electronic voice occasionally skips words or parts of words. Both Apple and Windows have much better ways for the computer to read the text aloud to you; use those.
  3. I hope things are better now, but several years ago when we attempted to go 100% E-book for freshman English at the University of Akron, the results were so terrible that the publisher was permanently banned from the English Department. Every student in the country is trying to sign up for E-books at the same time, and everyone who has questions is trying to get through to the publisher's help line.
  4. I looked at the online version for one of our books, America Now, and it was OK when it finally got around to the text, but before that the reader had to wade through a LOT of material which is in the footnotes of the paper book.

Three final thoughts

  • If you buy from the campus bookstore, you get exactly the right thing (and if you keep your receipt, you can get credit if there's a mistake). If you go to some outside seller, you must be very careful to buy exactly the item the course requires.
  • It's quite possible that America Now will be the textbook for your Spring English 101 course. An agreement which only allows you to use it until the end of December might end up costing you more than simply paying for a full school year of access.
  • Writer's Reference (even though it's going to a new edition) is the sort of book you will want to keep around for most of your college career. You would be silly to get rid of it in December, then buy it again in January (then get rid of it in May and buy it again in September).


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