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Why and when the iPad is the best e-reader

Joel Mathis | April 5, 2013
There are many ways to read a book. Joel Mathis argues that you ought to cater your device choice to the kind of reading you're doing. And that, at the end of the day, there's a clear best choice.

For light reading, the basic e-ink Kindle is the way to go: It's the cheap dime-store paperback that's always with you. If you're not into deep note-taking, but merely want to enjoy a good story, the vanilla Kindle makes good sense. The push-button page-turning often rewards propulsive forward progress more than it does a deep dive, but you might not notice if you're reading the latest Harlan Coben mystery, say.

The e-ink Kindle is also great for "lack of light" reading: Studies show that backlit displays, like the kind you get on the iPad and other tablets, reduce melatonin production and can disrupt your sleep--making the iPad or any other screen a bad idea for bedtime reading. If you're curling up with a story at night, this is often the best way to go.

Of course, "light" also has another meaning--the Kindle often offers the most ergonomically friendly version of a book, as well. When Robert Caro's most recent volume about President Lyndon Johnson came out last year--weighing in at a hefty 736 pages--there was little temptation to buy that sucker in hardcover: My poor wrists would've rebelled, and my back was in no mood to carry it around in a bag everywhere. The iPad would've been a significant weight reduction, but I was also reading the book for pleasure instead of study. The even-lighter Kindle proved the ideal platform for such a monster.

Of course, the Kindle has lost some of its advantage on this front thanks to the advent of the iPad mini. On the other hand, the Kindle doesn't offer easy access to Facebook or Twitter, either--and when I'm in a reading mood, the lack of electronic distraction the Kindle affords is welcome.

Of course, paper books don't provide electronic distraction either. That's why they're often the best device, still, for old-fashioned immersive reading. The benefits here are admittedly less substantial, more theoretical and romantic, but I believe in them nonetheless. Paper books don't require batteries. They don't claim your attention with social media, games, or movies contained within. They simply are. And in the case of older books, those worn with time, one can feel oneself joining a lineage of readers. That's not quite the case with today's ebooks--though changes to the way used ebooks are traded and sold might someday endow those circuits and data with the romance of old-fashioned books. It hasn't happened yet. Sometimes you want to read, stare out the window, read, then stare out the window. Books are still the best tool for that approach.

But is there a best best?

At this point, yes: The iPad mini. It's got all the power of the iPad and its best reading apps; it features the ergonomic joy of the Kindle, and, well--if you want immersive reading free of distraction--you can always go ahead and turn your iPad to Airplane Mode to free yourself from distractions.

Otherwise, it's OK to accept some messiness in your reading life. Don't just download the next book on your reading list; consider how you want to experience it, and let that decision be your guide.


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