The Promise and Privation of the Kindle (Or, Why I Still Buy Physical Books)


I’ve had the Amazon Kindle for about a year now and have put it through its paces. I have to say that I still like it and am glad that I got it. The ability to store thousands of books in a small device is as welcome as ever, especially on the go.

However, a year later and I find that I am still buying physical books. I have been somewhat surprised, in that I was expecting that digital books might begin to overtake my library.

After all, the digital revolution has transformed my music library. I can’t remember the last time I purchased a physical album, and now every piece of music that I purchase is digital only.

So why isn’t it the same for books? What do physical books have over digital books that their musical analogue does not?

I began pondering this earlier this morning as I was browsing Amazon’s catalog of books I might desire to read. A few points instantly sprang to mind, followed by others which built upon these. But first, it seemed important to underscore the things I like about the Kindle.

The Promise

1. Library in a book

The Kindle is basically a book which can contain thousands of books inside of it, like some sort of dimension that collapses in upon itself and expands in the very act of doing so. It’s pretty sweet to carry around countless books in such a small space.

2. Amazing battery life

With the wi-fi off, it basically lasts forever. I’ve gone nearly a month between charges with moderate reading use.

3. Easy on the eyes

E-ink is great for reading, especially for long periods as as I am prone to do. I’ve done the same amount of reading on LCD screens and usually get a headache as a reward.

4. Great free content

There are thousands of out-of-print and public domain books that one can get for free. A lot of this is classic literature, so there is no lack of reading material to be had on the cheap.

5. Instant download

You can buy a book from Amazon and be reading it in seconds. It beats driving all the way to the library or waiting for a book to be shipped. Instant gratification? Yep, we have that!


With all these things going for it, one might wonder why I am still buying lots of physical books. Well, one need wonder no longer. I also have a confession to make: I have never actually bought a book for the Kindle. And here’s why:

The Privation

1. Lack of content

This is probably more of a personal preference because of the types of books that I read, but many of the books I want to procure are simply not available in a Kindle edition. This even includes new releases, since the publisher is the one who has to make up the Kindle edition. Obviously, if the book I want is not available on the Kindle, I’m going to get the physical version.

2. Price is not right

In many ways I am sympathetic on this point. Book publishing is a diminishing industry, and publishers have to make money, authors have to be paid, etc. At the same time, the price differential between the physical edition and the Kindle edition simply does not seem great enough. Take for example the book The Saint and the Sultan. You will notice that the Kindle edition is only $2.99 cheaper than a brand new hardback edition. Granted, one might expect to to pay an additional $3 or so on shipping, (unless you have Amazon Prime) but still the differences between the hardcover physical edition and the digital edition are hardly dramatic.

The used price list makes the Kindle edition value look even worse. For $1.84 I can get (and did get) a used physical edition of this book. Even taking into account non Amazon retailer shipping fees (around $3.99) it still kills the Kindle price. To compound the matter, the used copy I received was in near perfect condition- no torn pages, no markings on the pages, dust jacket intact, etc. In all honesty, I’m not one to really care abut those types of things- as long as the book is readable I’m usually okay with it. (In fact, I kind of like the books that have marginal notes- it’s interesting to see some of the notes people make!)

A few more examples of some books in which I have opted for the used version.

3. Forced to choose between physical and digital

This is probably one of the most irksome things about digital books. Back to the musical analogy: when I used to purchase physical albums, there was some value associated with them- you got the album art, a physical disc, etc. But one of the most valuable things was that ripping the CD was easy and you had your physical copy as well as a digital copy.

With the Kindle, you do not have this option. If you want the physical version of a book, you have to buy it. If you also want a Kindle version of it, you have to buy it again. When it comes down to having to make this type of choice, I am nearly always going to opt for the usually much cheaper used version of a book rather than choosing one of two higher-priced versions which are mutually exclusive in their use.

Personally, I would be far more inclined to purchase the higher priced new book if I received a digital version along with the purchase. Movie distributors have begun to do this, and in many cases a digital version is included in the purchase. I don’t know what kind of technical gymnastics would be required for this to occur, and it raises questions about resale. After all, if you sell it or loan it out, is the digital version attached?

No doubt it would be complicated to implement, but from the perspective of someone who both really likes their Kindle yet still buys used physical books, this is a somewhat of a non-negotiable.

4. Tactile stubbornness

I still love the feel of a book. Don’t get me wrong, reading on the Kindle is a great experience most of the time. However, there is still that intangible something about a physical book that I can’t seem to shake. Part of it has to do with the way I read a book- I don’t read just to consume, but to retain. (Hence the general nature of the books I read.) That means I am making bookmarks, flipping corners, etc. Granted, you can make bookmarks on the Kindle, but there is no physical marker or reminder associated with it. Page numbers are non-existent, no ‘this side of the page, etc.’ However, those are the types of things about physical books that help me in retention and in finding things again. Remembering that it was on ‘that side of the page’ in relation to ‘that one section that I have bookmarked’ is something that really can’t yet be duplicated digitally.


So therein lies the Promise and the Privation of the Kindle for me as it stands. I am very interested in how the new Kindle Touch fares, and to see how it addresses any of the issues I have raised. To be sure they may be singular to me and my reading habits and I am certainly willing to grant that. But unless there are some rather marked changes in the future, I will be still buying physical books, with my Kindle admirably serving as a repository of classic texts and literature.

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