20 votes

What books are best experienced through a physical copy?

I am well aware of the ongoing ebooks vs. physical books debate, and I have no interest in kindling that fire here.

Instead, I am seeking recommendations for books that are arguably better in physical form due to their makeup. House of Leaves is a perfect example, with its textual trickery essentially requiring physical pages. Coffee table books also fit the bill, for example. Some textbooks and reference books technically do as well, though I'm not interested in recommendations in those areas unless you have something in mind that's an absolute standout.

40 comments

  1. [6]
    DesertGeo Link
    Fahrenheit 451 is symbolically better to read the physical book given the subject matter of the novel. Also that book by JJ Abrams, S., that has a bunch of loose notes and written conversations in...

    Fahrenheit 451 is symbolically better to read the physical book given the subject matter of the novel. Also that book by JJ Abrams, S., that has a bunch of loose notes and written conversations in the margins between the "previous readers" of the book.

    13 votes
    1. Greg Link Parent
      I love this answer, and I doubt it would have occurred to me how closely the symbolism is tied to the medium.

      Fahrenheit 451 is symbolically better to read the physical book given the subject matter of the novel.

      I love this answer, and I doubt it would have occurred to me how closely the symbolism is tied to the medium.

      7 votes
    2. kfwyre Link Parent
      S. looks very interesting. Thank you for putting it on my radar. Also, great point with Fahrenheit 451. It wasn't an example I would have thought of. Taking your idea and running with it, I almost...

      S. looks very interesting. Thank you for putting it on my radar.

      Also, great point with Fahrenheit 451. It wasn't an example I would have thought of. Taking your idea and running with it, I almost think you could argue that its message is actually shifted rather than diminished if you're reading the book on a screen (particularly a phone). Bradbury has discussed how the book comments on mass media deflating interest in reading, and there's probably something to be said about reading that critique on a device that is also one's connection to social media and the internet.

      2 votes
    3. [2]
      Atvelonis Link Parent
      I just finished S. myself. It's an interesting concept, and pretty well-executed all things considered, although at times the margin notes can be somewhat overwhelming. I really liked the...

      I just finished S. myself. It's an interesting concept, and pretty well-executed all things considered, although at times the margin notes can be somewhat overwhelming. I really liked the dual-story situation going on there, with both the novel itself and the margin notes offering different and compelling narratives. Would recommend!

      1 vote
      1. NaraVara Link Parent
        I’ve been meaning to read this for years and never bothered. I do most of my reading on the train during my commute, but for obvious reasons this just isn’t practical for reading anywhere but in a...

        I’ve been meaning to read this for years and never bothered. I do most of my reading on the train during my commute, but for obvious reasons this just isn’t practical for reading anywhere but in a reading room sitting at a table.

  2. [2]
    whispersilk (edited ) Link
    The Bartimaeus Sequence makes excellent and extensive use of footnotes to show the main character's inner dialogue and side thoughts, and the fact that ebooks lack a consistent alignment of text...

    The Bartimaeus Sequence makes excellent and extensive use of footnotes to show the main character's inner dialogue and side thoughts, and the fact that ebooks lack a consistent alignment of text onto pages makes the footnotes a lot more conversational confusing and less impactful than they are in a physical copy.

    House of Leaves would definitely have been my suggestion if you hadn't said it yourself, though! It really is a perfect example.

    12 votes
    1. mrbig (edited ) Link Parent
      The Kindle has a function called "x-ray", which is like a customized dictionary that an author can make for terms used in their book. I'm not certain, but I suppose it could be used for something...

      ebooks lack a consistent alignment of text onto pages makes the footnotes a lot more conversational confusing and less impactful than they are in a physical copy.

      The Kindle has a function called "x-ray", which is like a customized dictionary that an author can make for terms used in their book. I'm not certain, but I suppose it could be used for something like contextual footnotes (even though they wouldn’t be actually in the footer).

      1 vote
  3. [10]
    alphamule Link
    Two of my favorite books: Gödel, Escher, Bach would miss some stuff in free flowing e-text. <WARNING POTENTIAL SPOILERS> At least one of the dialogues is an acrostic, meaning there is a message in...

    Two of my favorite books:

    Gödel, Escher, Bach would miss some stuff in free flowing e-text.

    <WARNING POTENTIAL SPOILERS>

    At least one of the dialogues is an acrostic, meaning there is a message in the first characters of each row of text. This would be destroyed if reflowed.
    </SPOILERS>

    Infinite Jest makes extensive use of footnotes, and it has been suggested that this was meant to mirror the game of tennis, which features heavily in the book. In any case, it has footnotes on footnotes which would be (even more of) a pain in an e-reader.

    9 votes
    1. [4]
      poweruserplus (edited ) Link Parent
      infinite jest was infinitely easier to read on my phone. i could highlight a footnote or just click it and itll bring me there, then go right back, instead of flipping through hundreds of pages...

      infinite jest was infinitely easier to read on my phone. i could highlight a footnote or just click it and itll bring me there, then go right back, instead of flipping through hundreds of pages constantly.

      edit: another advantage is i can pull any section of the book up at any time if i have a minute to kill and will always find something entertaining as hell.

      4 votes
      1. [3]
        mbc Link Parent
        It must have gotten a lot better since I first read it on epub like a decade ago. I found that the software got confused about where I was in the book so I had trouble jumping back to the main...

        It must have gotten a lot better since I first read it on epub like a decade ago. I found that the software got confused about where I was in the book so I had trouble jumping back to the main text. I ended up just buying a paperback and using two bookmarks.

        1. Greg Link Parent
          In my limited experience it depends on the device (assuming the ePub itself has all the right markup). Reading Discworld on the first generation B&N nook a decade ago was pretty smooth, but the...

          In my limited experience it depends on the device (assuming the ePub itself has all the right markup). Reading Discworld on the first generation B&N nook a decade ago was pretty smooth, but the same files on my newish Kobo jump all over the place. If the old one hadn't eventually been stepped on I'd probably still be using it today...

        2. poweruserplus Link Parent
          i read the version on the google play store, using the play books app. worked perfectly.

          i read the version on the google play store, using the play books app. worked perfectly.

    2. [2]
      rkcr Link Parent
      I read Infinite Jest on a Kindle and it was indeed a bit weird. Still enjoyed it, though. Next time I read it I plan on using a physical copy.

      I read Infinite Jest on a Kindle and it was indeed a bit weird. Still enjoyed it, though. Next time I read it I plan on using a physical copy.

      2 votes
      1. stephen Link Parent
        How much longer do you plan to live?! 100 years?!

        Next time

        How much longer do you plan to live?! 100 years?!

    3. [2]
      kfwyre Link Parent
      I've seen both of these come up in discussions of great books, and I've also seen them come up in discussions of difficult books. Would you recommend reading either/both? Are they worth the challenge?

      I've seen both of these come up in discussions of great books, and I've also seen them come up in discussions of difficult books. Would you recommend reading either/both? Are they worth the challenge?

      1 vote
      1. alphamule Link Parent
        Like I said, they're amongst my favorites, so I'd say they're worth it. I can see why they get a lot of hate, but I love them. I've read them both multiple times at different points in my life and...

        Like I said, they're amongst my favorites, so I'd say they're worth it. I can see why they get a lot of hate, but I love them. I've read them both multiple times at different points in my life and gotten something different out each time.

        For GEB, if you don't want to make the time investment, Hofstadter wrote a later book, I am a Strange Loop that is basically a distillation of what he was trying to get across with GEB.

        For Infinite Jest, there is a readers' guide called Elegant Complexity that I highly recommend, even on a first read. It helps identify the themes and keep all the characters and plots straight.

        1 vote
    4. stephen Link Parent
      Infinite Jest - Because if I had to lug that thing around and physically flip to the footnotes (or forget that I was reading from my OTHER book mark when I start reading from the wrong spot) then...

      Infinite Jest - Because if I had to lug that thing around and physically flip to the footnotes (or forget that I was reading from my OTHER book mark when I start reading from the wrong spot) then god damn it so does everyone else!!!

  4. [4]
    superkp Link
    Lord of the Rings. The whole thing in a single volume. Every time that you cozy up to read some more, you have this 4-6 inch tome that you need to find a comfy spot with. It also gets the "Thud...

    Lord of the Rings.

    The whole thing in a single volume.

    Every time that you cozy up to read some more, you have this 4-6 inch tome that you need to find a comfy spot with. It also gets the "Thud Effect" and makes the whole story seem even more weighty than it already is.

    ALSO, it's how Tolkien wanted to publish it initially, but no publisher would take the risk like that on some fairy tale, especially as paper was at a premium when it was first published.

    6 votes
    1. masochist Link Parent
      I had a single volume edition (the 50th anniversary one-volume edition, in fact) and the binding just totally fell apart after some very light use. Now I have some tradebacks and it's a much...

      I had a single volume edition (the 50th anniversary one-volume edition, in fact) and the binding just totally fell apart after some very light use. Now I have some tradebacks and it's a much better experience.

    2. [2]
      NaraVara Link Parent
      I disagree with the author on this. This is meant to be read outside, on a pleasantly sunny day, underneath the canopy of the oldest and wisest tree you can find. A substantial volume doesn’t lend...

      I disagree with the author on this. This is meant to be read outside, on a pleasantly sunny day, underneath the canopy of the oldest and wisest tree you can find.

      A substantial volume doesn’t lend itself to that the way a well worn, dog-eared paperback does.

      Edit: Upon further consideration, within the walls of a dusty old library is also a fine place to read it. I suppose if you’re hanging out on the Oxford campus that would be your context for reading something, but most Americans don’t have quite as much ambiance in our built environments.

      1. superkp Link Parent
        I read it in my home, during the peaceful hours after my preschooler is sleeping and household chores are done. Considering the theme of adventure interrupted by peace, I think it's an appropriate...

        I read it in my home, during the peaceful hours after my preschooler is sleeping and household chores are done.

        Considering the theme of adventure interrupted by peace, I think it's an appropriate atmosphere.

  5. Victoria Link
    THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. Uses text, fonts, typography and kerning in a really intriguing way. Which reminds me I should reread the trilogy, as I recommend it to so many people...

    THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. Uses text, fonts, typography and kerning in a really intriguing way. Which reminds me I should reread the trilogy, as I recommend it to so many people...

    6 votes
  6. [4]
    mat Link
    I know you mentioned House of Leaves and that's probably the canonical example of a text which can't be meaningfully rendered electronically but that made me wonder firstly, could it be? Could the...

    I know you mentioned House of Leaves and that's probably the canonical example of a text which can't be meaningfully rendered electronically but that made me wonder firstly, could it be? Could the text be arranged differently, to suit ereaders rather than paper, and still work, albeit in a different form. Danielewski has attempted to write it as a screenplay (well worth a read if you have a chance) so maybe it morph onto another medium as well.

    Then I wondered whether there were examples the other way around - are there ebooks which couldn't be rendered in paper form? I can't think of any, but that doesn't mean they don't exist..

    5 votes
    1. [2]
      Greg Link Parent
      I haven't read House of Leaves, but if I'm understanding correctly and it's purely a question of page layout then that could be fixed in the choice of format: most ebooks use ePub/Mobi because...

      I haven't read House of Leaves, but if I'm understanding correctly and it's purely a question of page layout then that could be fixed in the choice of format: most ebooks use ePub/Mobi because reflowing is a benefit, but there's still the option of PDF when the formatting is part of the creative work.

      Then I wondered whether there were examples the other way around - are there ebooks which couldn't be rendered in paper form?

      I know Apple was pushing animations and other light interactivity as part of the iBooks platform when they released it. I've seen it done nicely in a few children's books, but not to the extent that any of them stick in my mind as great examples of the medium.

      1 vote
      1. mat Link Parent
        There are a few things with House of Leaves. There's the footnotes (and the footnotes to the footnotes) which I feel like would be much more confusing in electronic format but you are right, the...

        There are a few things with House of Leaves. There's the footnotes (and the footnotes to the footnotes) which I feel like would be much more confusing in electronic format but you are right, the main issue is the layout. The problem is that some places need the whole page, and my copy of House of Leaves is twice the size of my ereader (and I have a big reader!) so while a fixed page layout is technically possible, it's either going to leave you with text too small to read easily, or you'll have to pan and zoom to see it all. Which would probably break the experience of navigating the book too much, because it's kind of important to the story.

        2 votes
    2. whispersilk Link Parent
      I think Matthew Butterick's Practical Typography could be a decent example, as would other books like it where the book is treated as a program/wiki and interactivity is assumed and made heavy use...

      I think Matthew Butterick's Practical Typography could be a decent example, as would other books like it where the book is treated as a program/wiki and interactivity is assumed and made heavy use of. You could render the text to a physical book just fine, of course (ultimately you can do so for any book where the text doesn't change as it's being read), but you would lose a lot in the transition.

      1 vote
  7. masochist Link
    Anything typeset in TeX / LaTeX really needs to be read in print to be fully appreciated. Computer Modern can look good on a screen (particularly with good antialiasing / subpixel rendering!), but...

    Anything typeset in TeX / LaTeX really needs to be read in print to be fully appreciated. Computer Modern can look good on a screen (particularly with good antialiasing / subpixel rendering!), but to see it in print is an entirely different experience. TeX / LaTeX were specifically designed with print in mind, specifically to address the declining quality of printed technical matter. That PDFs they generate look great on screen is merely a by-product.

    5 votes
  8. [4]
    mftrhu Link
    It has actually been years since I last read a paper book, and I usually prefer to read them as ebooks, but there are some that really won't translate well. The Discworld series by Terry...

    It has actually been years since I last read a paper book, and I usually prefer to read them as ebooks, but there are some that really won't translate well.

    The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, for example, makes use of footnotes for humour purposes. They are not necessary to the story, but they are a nice addition, and they do not translate well to ebook format: they are usually just collected at the end of the book and linked to it, but - that breaks the flow of reading much, much more than scrolling to the bottom of the page, and I usually end up skipping over them.

    One other book comes to mind - it was a children's book (or, at least, a book that I read as a child) by Walter Moers, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, which, in its Italian edition, made extensive use of typography and of full-page figures, and which often used Moers' (?) drawings to frame the text itself. That wouldn't look good when reflowed, not without... maybe JS trickery to change the background and viewport based on the position within the chapter? But then you'd have JS in your books, and that's... not really to my liking.

    3 votes
    1. [3]
      cadadr Link Parent
      How do you make notes or mark certain parts of the book with e-books? I only read papers in PDF form on my computer, apart from that I almost exclusively read on paper. I make lots of marks and...

      How do you make notes or mark certain parts of the book with e-books? I only read papers in PDF form on my computer, apart from that I almost exclusively read on paper. I make lots of marks and margin notes and sometimes even notes on separate pieces of paper, and scan them all in the end. With e-books and PDFs, I don't know of a way as effective for making reading notes and marks. With PDFs, I keep them in Zotero and make notes in org mode, copying over text that I'd mark on paper via underlining or highlighting otherwise. But reading on a laptop is ergonomically cumbersome. And typing on touchscreens is a huge pain for me.

      2 votes
      1. mftrhu Link Parent
        Premise: I mostly read fiction, on my phone, and I don't take a lot of notes about what I read in any case. That said, when you have a ePub on hand, marking books up is very easy, if not in any...

        How do you make notes or mark certain parts of the book with e-books?

        Premise: I mostly read fiction, on my phone, and I don't take a lot of notes about what I read in any case.

        That said, when you have a ePub on hand, marking books up is very easy, if not in any cross-platform way. In MoonReader I just long press the text, widen the selection, and then select highlight. Notes are also possible, using the exact same process, but I don't write much on my phone.

        This is actually better than the equivalent on paper, because the marks are all gathered in one place, and can be easily exported and then searched through.

        With non-fiction, I don't usually take notes within the book itself - I will just open a new org-mode file (or make a new heading) and, without attaching or linking to the file, jot down my thoughts. If I have to refer to the book I'll either write down the page number or copy and paste the relevant snippets in my file, and comment them there.

        Maybe it's because I have never needed to seriously take notes about anything, but this workflow has been working for me so far.

        2 votes
      2. masochist Link Parent
        For the kind of workflow you're talking about, I really like a tablet (like an iPad or, if you must, a Surface) that supports a stylus and a keyboard. I find it gives me the flexibility to do...

        For the kind of workflow you're talking about, I really like a tablet (like an iPad or, if you must, a Surface) that supports a stylus and a keyboard. I find it gives me the flexibility to do everything I need. There are apps dedicated to marking things up on iOS (like LiquidText), but I find their reading experience to be quite subpar. I like PDF Expert. It's modern, supports iCloud, supports annotations with the pencil, etc. It's pricey for a mobile app, but absolutely worth it if you do a lot of work with PDFs.

        2 votes
  9. vakieh Link
    Puppetry of the Penis For... obvious reasons

    Puppetry of the Penis

    For... obvious reasons

    2 votes
  10. meristele Link
    I like to read poetry in physicality. I read novels on my phone. When I read poems on my phone and stop to ponder and the screen saver times out, I'm ready to flip a table. Formatting is only a...

    I like to read poetry in physicality. I read novels on my phone. When I read poems on my phone and stop to ponder and the screen saver times out, I'm ready to flip a table.

    Formatting is only a problem with longer poems. When I read things like this it doesn't mess with the line breaks. But then I'm back to ponderous interruptus and the fighting with my phone about appropriate intervals. :P

    2 votes
  11. telharmonium Link
    The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen has extensive marginalia on almost every page; diagrams, maps, biographical digressions, all giving the story a unique depth and texture, but also...

    The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen has extensive marginalia on almost every page; diagrams, maps, biographical digressions, all giving the story a unique depth and texture, but also requiring a very particular layout to make sense.

    I haven't read far enough yet to definitely recommend it, but I can say that the first third is very fun to read during a road trip through Montana.

    2 votes
  12. mrbig Link
    My father gave me the complete poetry of Fernando Pessoa in two beautiful volumes. Being able to open the book at random is for me the perfect reading experience, and something that my Kindle...

    My father gave me the complete poetry of Fernando Pessoa in two beautiful volumes. Being able to open the book at random is for me the perfect reading experience, and something that my Kindle cannot offer.

    Another example would be the bible.

    Also graphic novels. This might change but I still think printing looks better than screens in most cases.

    2 votes
  13. Micycle_the_Bichael Link
    I'd say a lot of Daniellewski's books apply to this. Another great example is "Only Revolutions". It would be a nightmare to read if you leave it in the same format as the printed text, and...

    I'd say a lot of Daniellewski's books apply to this. Another great example is "Only Revolutions". It would be a nightmare to read if you leave it in the same format as the printed text, and Daniellewski said he doesn't want to tell people the how they should read the book or how to experience it, so any formatting change to make it easier would be forcing the ebook creator's idea of how the book should be read on the reader. It has been a long time since I read it but I think some of the characters in The Familiar would have similar issues, but maybe I'm misremembering.

    1 vote
  14. aphoenix Link
    The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall has some elements of form as story. The Dodecahedron: Or a Frame for Frames is one that came to mind as well, but I'm not 100% sure that it would suffer from the...

    The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall has some elements of form as story.

    The Dodecahedron: Or a Frame for Frames is one that came to mind as well, but I'm not 100% sure that it would suffer from the same issues. The form as story elements may actually translate well into an e-book.

    The Pinball Effect also comes to mind - it has a bit of "the wikipedia effect" to it, where it encourages you to move around in the book. I think this is a treat within the book, but a bit humdrum if made electronic.

    Some obvious examples might be pop-up books; they simply do not function as e-books at all. I think Choose-your-own-adventure books similar do not function well as ebooks, as the medium is part of the joy of experience.

    1 vote
  15. NeonHippy Link
    All of them lol. I never got into the ebooks or audio books, for that matter. Guess I'm too old school.

    All of them lol. I never got into the ebooks or audio books, for that matter. Guess I'm too old school.

    2 votes
  16. [2]
    Comment deleted by author
    Link
    1. thisonemakesyouthink Link Parent
      Come on man

      I am well aware of the ongoing ebooks vs. physical books debate, and I have no interest in kindling that fire here.

      Instead, I am seeking recommendations for books that are arguably better in physical form due to their makeup.

      Come on man

      8 votes