Do We Have to Choose Between Print and Digital?

dead sea scroll segment of Isaiah

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:

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. 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. But I find that when I read in paper, I miss the mark-up tools I have in Logos—especially the ability to have all my highlights collected automatically for me.

Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is Senior Editor for Digital Content at Word by Word, the official Logos blog. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also a host for Logos Live and is an active YouTuber.

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Written by Mark Ward