Print Books or E-Books: Understanding Leisure Reading Preferences

This past weekend, my husband’s family held the annual “Christmas in November” celebration before his parents head south to avoid the often less-than-pleasant Canadian winter. We draw names and share our “wish list” with the family member who has our name. I always have books and magazines on my list and am always so thrilled when I receive those items. I instantly start flipping through the pages and my heart fills with joy. This weekend, during this moment of joy, I noticed myself thinking, “I hope there are always print copies of books”. Reading is one of the leisure activities I greatly enjoy and I’m learning that I prefer to read print copies of my leisure reading materials. What about you? Are you someone who prefers a hard copy book or magazine or do you prefer the digital versions?

e-reader versus book

Innovation in the Formats of Reading Material

My effort to understand my own attraction to print books, I began with reading about what researchers have called the “innovation” in reading.

In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen various innovations that have allowed us to access reading materials in different ways. In the early 1980s, my parents made the decision to get an encyclopedia set which was a tremendous investment at the time. By the late 1990s, I was seeing digital versions of encyclopedias in the reference section of book stores meaning you could access large volumes of information by putting discs in your computer. Definitely a welcomed innovation as far as I was concerned. Easier to find information. Easier to store. Much less expensive. I was in favour.

As an academic, I have gone from spending time and money photocopying journal articles or book chapters to being able to save downloaded PDF copies of the material I need to my personal computer. I could probably get rid of one of my filing cabinet which was originally intended to hold all these resources I would need to access and refer to. Paper, time, money, and space have all been saved as a result of the digital access to scholarly articles and books. Again, I have been in favour of the innovation and the resulting outcomes.

In the realm of leisure reading, we’ve seen the development and improvement of e-readers. In Canada, the Kindle (Amazon) and the Kobo (Indigo) have been the most popular e-readers and there have been a few “generations” of these devices each with improved and added features designed to enhance the reading experience. Apps on tablets (e.g., iPad) also allow us to read books purchased or borrowed from the library. Amazon has reported that Kindle users buy three times more books than they did before they had owned the Kindle (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2010) and the rapidly growing e-book market (Indvik, 2010) is expected to see demand for e-books continue to stay strong. Even magazines have become available through tablet apps. A year ago, I subscribed to Next Issue which offers me access, on my iPad, to over 150 magazines – about 10 which I would, on rotation, “treat” myself to each month – for $9.99/month plus tax.

Advantages of Digital Format of Leisure Reading Material

I understand there are some obvious advantages of the digital options for books and magazines. Cost is certainly one – I would never spend the money for 10 of my favourite magazines each month let alone the 150+ that I can access monthly through Next Issue for the cost equivalent of two magazines a month. For those who have storage or clutter issues (e.g., lack of bookshelf space; small living quarters) or subscribe to a minimalist lifestyle, there are clear advantages to books being stored on a tablet or e-reader. For those, like my husband, who have vision problems, e-readers offer options for larger print and contrast options such as reading white type on black background. As Joe Queenan pointed out in his Wall Street Journal piece, if you don’t want others to know what book you’re reading (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey or a self-help book), e-readers may allow you the privacy you’re looking for. Travellers can take multiple books or magazines on vacation without weighing down their suitcase (Hupfeld, Sellen, O’Hara, & Rodden, 2013). In some cases, e-books and digital magazine issues offer readers a more interactive format and supplementary materials (e.g., magazines with links to “how to” videos or books with links to a dictionary; Richardson & Mahmood, 2012). E-books and digital magazines also offer convenient and immediate access – no need to travel to a bookstore or wait for your book to arrive in the mail (Culén & Gasparini, 2011).

For these reasons, many people view e-books as a better modality for reading and have adopted e-readers as their primary or sole format for reading books and magazines. However, as Josh Catone states in his article, “Why Printed Books Will Never Die”, “e-books are not simply a better format replacing an inferior one; they offer a wholly different experience”.

The Attraction to Print Books

Despite my initial excitement about the advantages of e-books and digital magazine such as the lower cost and less “stuff” in the house, I still find myself longing for print forms of my leisure reading material. This realization made me curious to understand why this might be and to hunt down some of the existing research on reading books versus e-readers when reading is a leisure experience.

Print books as offering a multi-sensory experience. It is likely that I’m drawn to buy and keep print books because I like the physical object of a book. Research has shown that people who prefer books like the feel of books, the smell of books especially those from the library or used book store, and the look of book cover and/or spin (Culén & Gasparini, 2011). I would say that I’m primarily drawn to the content of books, especially in the case of non-fiction, and I do recognize the same content can be accessed through an e-book. However, I often find myself drawn to the cover of a book – to its beauty or the feeling it evokes when I look at it. In those cases, being able to put it on my shelf and look at it whenever I wish becomes important. In fact, I put favorite books on a shelf that I walk by multiple times a day – simply because I enjoy the look of the spines of the books.

Permanence. The permanence of a physical book is another reason that people seem to choose print over e-books (Catone, 2011; Hupfield et al., 2013; Lynch, 2001). With technology changing so rapidly, some have concerns about long-term compatibility. I can relate to this. I’m regularly frustrated by how technological advancements contributes to obsolescence and waste. While on vacation this summer, I lost my 4th generation iPod Nano and I eventually decided to purchase a new one. I discovered that the new (7th generation) wasn’t compatible with my Sony radio/disc/iPod player and the recommended adapter was reviewed as not working well with the new iPods, and in some cases, had ruined users’ new iPod Nano. My player was only 5 years old and worked perfectly well, but was essentially obsolete in terms of playing music on new generations of iPods . Ugh! While I enjoyed the features of my new iPod, I was happy when my old one turned up and I had the opportunity to fully use my player again. I worry about the same happening with books. Perhaps I lack trust in the innovators to maintain compatibility and to ensure that my e-books will be forever accessible.

Sharing/gifting books and magazines. One year for Christmas, I gave my sister a collection of specialty magazines I had bought over the years. Although some of the magazines were 5 years old, she appreciated and enjoyed the collection. I have also enjoyed buying books for her over the years – print and e-books. I will admit that buying an e-book as a gift for someone feels less satisfying somehow. Perhaps this is more about my gift giving practices – liking to look at the book, flip through the pages, and wrap the gift. I like thinking that the my sister has a physical object and that when she looks at it, will know I was thinking about her and her love of reading. The book is a symbol of knowing her and of loving her. Gifting physical books and magazines feels more personal, but I also feel as though I’m giving something that has more value (Richardson & Mahmood, 2012). From a practical perspective (e.g., storage), my sister may prefer that I gift e-books rather than contribute to a growing household book collection.

Expressions of identity and interests. When I visit someone who has shelves of cookbooks or travel books or mystery novels or has a biographies or books on gardening on their coffee table – I quickly learn something about that person. Arguably the books we keep and display communicate something about us – to others and to ourselves (e.g., reminders of aspects of our identity or our values). When we read in public places the same can occur. If we are reading a book on the bus or in a coffee shop and someone notices and shares an interest or love for the author’s books, it presents an opportunity to connect and interact. While e-readers offer the advantage of privacy, the disadvantage may be a missed opportunity to engage others in a social interaction related to what is being read. Perhaps as the technology of e-readers develops, there will be opportunity for those reading on devices to communicate to those near them what books or magazines they are reading.

Nostalgia. Catone (2011) talks about the nostalgia that is associated with books. This makes sense to me. For example, I imagine that for some there is a different experience when reading a Bible at church on an e-reader versus taking the Bible that has been passed down through the family or was given at a Baptism or Christening. I find myself experiencing disappointment when I see books that I used to read as a child with new, updated covers. I’m currently giving my 7 year-old niece books from the Judy Blume series. When I first looked at the new Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, my heart sank a bit. The cover was nothing like my copy. While the content was the same, it didn’t produce the same feeling of nostalgia as the Little Bear books do when I look at them. They have maintained their same covers over the years and I have had that experience of nostalgia when buying them for my nieces. When I first caught a glimpse of the cover of the latest print version of  Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing, I wished that I had kept my Judy Blume books to pass on to my niece. But as Catone points out, nostalgia is generational and print books may not produce the same nostalgia for today’s youth as it might for those who are over 40 or or 60.

As covers of books change, does this impact the "nostalgia factor" associated with physical books?

As covers of books change, does this impact the “nostalgia factor” associated with physical books?

Lessen screen time. And perhaps my affinity for a physical book is my perception that by choosing a physical book, I am choosing to have a non-screen leisure experience. While the improved contrast features of e-readers means I could read a book from an e-reader while enjoying the sunshine on my deck, as someone who spends 8 hours a day working in reading from a screen, I feel the need to move away from it during my non-work hours. I enjoy the shift to reading a physical book or magazine – both the physical shift away from the computer and the mental shift from work reading to leisure reading.


Based on the research, it seems that in the work environment and for knowledge workers in particular, there is a great appreciated for the digitization of print media and the opportunity to read material through various modalities. When it comes to other forms of reading such as leisure reading, there are also significant advantages of e-readers and users seem to weigh these advantages in the context of their own lives against both the disadvantages of e-readers and the advantages or perceived value of physical books.


Cantone, J. (2011). “Why Printed Books Will Never Die”. Available at:

Culén, A. L., & Gasparini, A. (2011). E-book Reader and the Necessity of Divergence from the Legacy of Paper Book. In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Advances in Computer Human Interaction (pp. 267-273).

Hupfeld, A., Sellen, A., O’Hara, K., & Rodden, T. (2013). Leisure-based Reading and the Place of E-books in Everyday Life. In Human-Computer Interaction–INTERACT 2013 (pp. 1-18). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Indvik, L. (2010). “E-book Sales Up 193% So Far This Year”. Available at:

Lynch, C. (2001, June 4). “The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World.” First Monday, 6(6), Retrieved from

PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2010).Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2010–2014.. Available at:

Queenan, J. (2012, October 22). My 6,128 favorite books. Wall Street Journal. Available at:

Richardson Jr, J. V., & Mahmood, K. (2012). eBook readers: user satisfaction and usability issues. Library Hi Tech, 30(1), 170-185.


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One thought on “Print Books or E-Books: Understanding Leisure Reading Preferences

  1. Jen Stymiest November 11, 2015 at 7:11 pm Reply

    I prefer print books over e-books, although I do enjoy the easy access to online articles. My goal each month is to read one book! 🙂


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