Can an eReader Replace College Textbooks?

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Besides the portability of the e-reader, students can look forward to spending less time deciding which books to bring to class, or making runs back to the dorm to swap the books needed for morning classes to books needed for afternoon classes. If you have your e-reader with you, you have a bookshelf in your backpack.

The frantic, last-minute run to the college bookstore also becomes obsolete. If an online store offers the text you need, you can tap on the screen and download it just seconds after a professor hands out the required reading list. Or right before he scolds you for showing up without it. Done, you overachiever, you.

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If you’re the type of person who sees a crisp new textbook more as a blank canvas than a complete piece of work, you might want to think twice about going with an e-reader.

Although almost all e-readers include the option to annotate and highlight text, none of the examples we’ve tried come anywhere close to the ease of simply putting pen to paper, or swiping a highlighter across a few lines. In fact, some of them make it downright tedious. Unless you consider yourself extraordinarily patient and willing to invest extra time to record your thoughts and comments in the margins, a traditional book might make a better notepad.


Plato’s Republic doesn’t really benefit much from illustrations. But that color pie chart in your economics book? The photo of indigenous tribes from New Guinea in your anthropology book? The Rembrandt painting in your art history book?

Yea, they’re all going to be in black and white on a dedicated e-reader, like a Kindle or Nook. Of the e-readers available on the U.S. market today, only the iPad really offers full color, which will make the rest of your reading quite monotonous. Pun intended.


We pointed out when evaluating the cost of e-books above that you can’t sell them, which strikes a major blow against a form of media that most people would just assume convert directly to beer money once they have a grade in a book. Well here’s a left hook to follow that uppercut: You can’t lend e-books. Your plan of splitting a book with two friends in your class and sharing it? Fat chance.

Sure, some e-readers claim they allow you to lend books, but not really. On the Nook, you can “lend” a book, but only if the publisher greenlights it, only for a period of 14 days, and only once, ever, for the lifetime of the book. Yes, we’re serious.

Other companies don’t even allow that much. Once you buy an e-book, you might as well tattoo it to yourself, because nobody else is going to use it – simultaneously or after you.

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Comparing an e-reader with dead-tree books isn’t really fair unless you point out all the extra things an e-reader can do that books can never hope to touch. The Nook has games like chess. The Kindle can deliver blogs. The Alex can display Web pages. The iPad – if you group it with e-readers – is more like a full-blown computer that also displays books very nicely.

Depending on how much you’ll use any of these additional features – and which ones the reader you choose offers – they may tip scales in favor of the e-reader.


You will not be able to coast through college with an e-reader instead of a stack of pulp. Not yet, at least.

The scant textbook selection in e-book libraries will mean that your fancy new reader is more a supplement to your other textbooks than a replacement, and the tiny discount retailers offer for digital books will take years to justify the cost of the hardware. If you just want to get the books you need as cheaply as possible, buy as many of them used as possible, then sell them afterward.

That said, if you see yourself reading novels in your spare time outside class, playing chess before class starts and reading Digital Trends on your coffee breaks, an e-reader can easily make up its lack of educational prowess with fun factor to spare.

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