Do We Have to Choose Between Print and Digital?

The Logos Pros are here to help the church. And one of the things the church is processing right now, along with much of the rest of the world, is the role digital tools will play in their reading.

D.G. writes:

I seek out many of the volumes mentioned on Logos newsletters for print editions since I literally hate reading on either my computer or iPad. I have personally purchased over 25 volumes in the last three months—none of which are digital. Am I alone in this or is it a trend to which computer focused businesses should reconsider?

I wrote back:

D.G.,

Interestingly, Faithlife (which produces Logos Bible Software) is now putting out print books through their Lexham and Kirkdale Press imprints. So it’s not as if we’re constitutionally opposed to ink and paper (even if we sometimes sound like we are!).

Print vs. digital arguments are too often zero-sum. I take a both-and approach. I’m always asking, “Which of these technologies—‘analog’ codex or digital text—will best help me accomplish what I want to accomplish with this book?”

With some books, like Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections or Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I’m aiming to accomplish something great in my reading. I want to read and assimilate and remember the content. I’ve been reading books long enough that I have some idea when a difficult book is going to reward this kind of attention. For such books I personally have found that I cannot achieve that accomplishment well in digital format. (And, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t process the audio version of Edwards’ work, either.) I need that technology we call the “codex.” I need to mark up each text with highlights and numbers and notes in order to follow it. I also need to do a lot of page-flipping to make sure I know where I am in the argument.

Different formats for different types of books

Fiction books, however, I can read very easily in digital formats. Reference books, too—like biblical commentaries, dictionaries of all sorts, journals, lexicons, grammars—are much better “consumed” on a computer screen than in a big fat codex. Logos Bible Software finds the right place for me so quickly, and it allows me to mark up and copy the text (with attribution, a feature I use constantly) so readily. I’m only reading a little bit at a time, so on-screen reading is very doable, even if the content is intricate. I’ll never go back to paper for reference works if I can avoid it.

But then there are books in the middle, books that I might possibly prefer to read in codex form if I were on a leisurely vacation but instead read digitally simply because I know I’m more likely to finish them that way. If I have to remember to bring my print copy of Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular with me on the bus or to the doctor’s office waiting room (great read, by the way), I’ll never finish the book. The main thing I want to accomplish with these books is to get through them and gather some highlights for future reference. Digital formats are better for my busy life, because digital devices are always with me.

An important aside: I’m also a firm believer—along with one of my favorite writers, Alan Jacobs—in reading by whim. I wanna read what I wanna read. And though I’m willing and eager to shape my wannas with good advice from others, I know that whim (my personal interest at the moment) is a key ingredient in the motivation necessary to read well. I have many times fallen away from a challenging read after a few chapters, only to come back two or three years later when I was impelled by a circumstance or desire I didn’t have before. One of my current favorite books in the whole world, John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, was recommended to me by a respected friend, and I think I read the first chapter four times over three years. Eventually my needs and brains aligned with its content and I got through. For this and other reasons, I’m always chipping away at multiple books, and my digital devices let me change my whims, never losing my place when the whims of change blow.

All devices are not equal

And that raises my final point in this little excursus on digital vs. print reading: not all digital reading devices are created equal. For books that I read from start to finish (from Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock to Christ and Culture Revisited), I do not prefer the computer screen or iPad. I don’t read for long periods on a device I can’t recline on the couch with. I have never, in fact, read an entire book on a laptop or desktop screen. I have read books on the iPad, and that can be nice. But what I really like is e-ink. I export Logos books and articles to my Kindle regularly. E-ink is built for reading. No pop-up ads or messages. It looks like paper, even (and especially) in direct sun. It’s light, so I can read with one hand. But it’s like the old adage for photographers: the best camera is the one you have with you. I find that the best reading technology (codex, Kindle, tablet, phone, even audiobook) is the one I have with me when I get a chance to read. Most frequently nowadays, that’s my trusty iPhone. Thankfully, my Logos app is there in an honored place on my home screen, like a faithful and highly trained dog, just waiting to do my literary bidding.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. (So said Groucho Marx.)

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49617We’ve put a good book by Bruce Riley Ashford, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians, on a special sale—both the print version and the digital are 30% off. Click the cover to buy.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward