A Matter of Debate: On E-Books Or Real Books For Research and Writing

Kindle4 For a while now, I have struggled with actually getting myself to sit down and do the reading I need to do in order to move forward with my research and writing. It is a struggle many writers of nonfiction and research-laden fiction will understand. I find this part of the whole research/writing process to be rather tedious. I love the initial research stage, when I get to immerse myself in library catalogues and tumble down the rabbit hole of my topic, gathering and skimming interesting articles and relevant books. But when the time comes to actually sit down and systematically read through the enormous amount of material I’ve collected, write organized notes, and—well—remember the information in a coherent and useful manner, then I suddenly find myself thinking of all sorts of other things I could do, like vacuum, or laundry, or check my email. It takes some serious discipline for me to get started on the reading, but once I do, I generally find myself enjoying it quite a bit. So you would think I would learn to just get to it faster… but I haven’t yet.

1280px-Book_CollageRecently, I’ve encountered yet another stumbling block that has halted my research in its tracks. The problem is that I can’t figure out which version of a book to read. I know I need to read the book, and I’m actually quite excited about reading this one, but for the life of me I can’t figure out if I should read the electronic version or the paper version. I know I need to commit to one or the other, but every time I try to decide, I spin myself into a tizzy of pros and cons.

It’s a rather hefty book, so the electronic version is attractive from the perspective of convenience. My Kindle is tiny, and I take it everywhere. I would always have my “work book” with me, and so could conceivably get a lot more done while commuting. It’s kind of annoying to write notes using my Kindle, but not impossible. For me, the tediousness of using the Kindle for taking notes is much better than the annoyingness of lugging around a heavy book and pen all day. Also, my Kindle syncs with the Kindle App on my iPad and computer, so I can have my notes on all my devices. I find this really useful for traveling. It’s also great for when I’m quoting from a book. I can just open the Kindle app on my computer, do a keyword search for the paragraph I want, then simply copy and paste the quote into my manuscript. Done! And no human error! Keywords also make searching for specific passages very simple, as I don’t need to flip through the book a hundred times to find the page I’m looking for.

But…

My favorite times spent reading for research involve paper and a pen. I love spreading out on a table or curling up in a chair with a book or an article, a pen, and a notepad. I flip back and forth through the book and scour the Index and Bibliography. I underline and write marginalia profusely and feel strongly that my scribbling keeps my focus and helps my retention. It also helps me make connections between the pages I’m currently reading and other material I’ve read before. I have a visual memory, so I remember well what the page looks like when I’m done reading and scribbling, and that helps me recall the information later. I also like to write different sorts of notations for different things. For example, an exclamation point in the margin means something very different to me than a star, or an arrow. And a bracket around a paragraph means something different than underlining a selection. With the Kindle, you’re limited to “highlighting” and annotating the highlights.

Despite the usefulness of taking notes on the physical page, when I’m done with the book or the paper, all that information remains on the page. Slowly, over time, my visual memory of the page fades and all I have left are marked-up papers and pages of notes that I have to organize in some way so I can find them again if I need to. Should I spend lots of time transcribing them, or keep them forever, collecting dust in folders and binders?

I feel like what I want is to read the book and write my notes using the paper version, but then have all those notes magically transferred to the electronic version so they’re ready to go and easily searchable for when I’m writing.

Is there an app for that yet?!

Have any of you encountered a similar conundrum, and how did you resolve it? I would love to hear your tips on reading, researching, and writing in the age of electronic books!