Meditations on programming, startups, and technology

Do programmers still buy printed books?

Yesterday I published a post titled My latest order of programming books, which received a fair number of comments both here and elsewhere online.

Aside from a few good suggestions for other must-read books for programmers, there were several comments about how buying hard copies of books in this day and age is stupid. A few advocated piracy as an alternative to buying books, printed or not. Aren’t we supposed to be a group of professionals? Do we really believe that pirating books is the right answer to our profession’s need for knowledge?

The most sensible recommendations concerned the use of legally free, available material online, as well as suggestions that the $250 could be spent on services like Safari Books Online.

I love Safari Books Online. I used to have an extended trial account for a few months, and utilized it constantly. I have access to Books24×7, an alternative, less extensive service as well.

Safari Books is ideal when used as a reference. You have access to thousands of books from major publishers, so virtually any search will lead you to a few relevant volumes dealing with the subject you’re looking for. It’s also great for keeping up to date with technology, thanks to “Rough Cuts” which are books that haven’t been completed yet.

It’s an extremely valuable service and I would recommend it to anyone in a heart beat. However, there a few reasons why I still buy hard copies.

I spend long hours working and staring at the computer screen. A printed book is a chance to take a break at night, and let my eyes rest a little. I find it refreshing. And let’s face it, for extensive reading, paper is much easier to read from than the screen.

Likewise, when I’m holding a book or have it open on my desk, I’m in “book reading mode”, which makes it far easier to immerse myself in it. This means that I’m focused on the task and can proceed quickly. The only context switch that happens is between the book and the editor/shell, if it’s the kind of book that warrants typing along. If you are reading a book in a browser tab, it’s very easy to think, “I’ll just check my email for a second”, or introduce similar distractions. I’m sure I’m not alone in this respect.

When I buy a physical copy of a book, I feel psychologically more obliged to at least try to get through it. Online I experience a paradox of choice of sort. With hundreds of interesting books available there in front of me, I’m more inclined to excessively multitask, and end up checking out different books while I should still be reading the current one.

And let’s not forget that not all books are legally available online. I’ve found that many advanced computer science books are not yet available on Safari Books or Books24×7. For example, The Art of Computer Programming, Purely Functional Data Structures, Types and Programming Languages, Programming Pearls, and other worthy suggestions that were made in response to my first post, are all not available on Safari Books. As well, mathematical books that can be of use to the serious/discerning programmer are also not included (understandably).

Lastly, and I realize that this is a “vanity point” and perhaps the most irrational one on this list, I like to have a beautiful collection of books on my bookshelves. If I’m going to spend $xxx a year on books, I’d prefer to have something to show for, beside my newly acquired knowledge.

However, the sheer volume of free available content has slowed down the number of books I’ve purchased in the past few years. And I’m thinking about re-joining Safari Books Online nevertheless, as I see it as being complementary to printed books. The Safari Library option is somewhat expensive ($42.99 per month), but for the price of an extra printed book per month, I gain full access to a huge catalog of programming books and a growing list of “Rough Cuts”.

With the amount of free knowledge available, useful paid services, research papers, and relatively good deals on printed copies from Amazon, the real constraint remains time not money. But claiming that purchasing hard copies is obsolete or worse, stupid, is… well, asinine, in my opinion.

What’s your take? Do you think Safari Books Online is worth it? Do you still buy printed copies of your professional books? Do you even read programming books at all these days?

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37 Responses to “Do programmers still buy printed books?”

  1. Barney Noble says:

    For all their faults ( and they are many) printed books are still more readable than a computer screen, and more fun to mark up. DHS doesn’t even search them (yet).

    Finally, if Jeff Bezos wants to take a printed book back, instead of virtual book burning (How “Orwellian” … pun intended) he’d have to break down my door to do so, and I’m waiting, armed with a pie laser-designated for his face.

  2. andhapp says:

    Reading printed books does give me an opportunity to break away from the screen and I can carry it around whilst travelling on the train. Having said that, I do actually buy a lot of E-books from manning through their early access program. But I would prefer a printed book to an electronic one any day. It just feels so much better in your hand.

  3. Mike Moore says:

    I love books and I buy many each year (I just wish I read more of them). I also love blogs and the wealth of free online content, but there is something special about the longer form of a book that I prefer for learning or deepening my understanding.

    Having read books on the screen (both computer and iPhone) and then in their dead tree format, I have found that I my understanding is improved with a physical format.

  4. Eddie Welker says:

    I agree with the others that physical books are easier to read than digital books. I even have a spare monitor tilted 90 degrees to read digital books, but it doesn’t compare.

    As for the question of whether people read programming books these days, they had better. I read as many blog posts as anyone yet they usually pale in comparison to a printed book. Books have been thought out, edited, and proofed. Plus (good) books will go into far more depth than most online resources could ever dream of reaching.

    If programmers are not reading books on their profession, they are simply falling behind their profession.

  5. JL says:

    Nobody has published a website equivalent to a book yet.

  6. I agree with all of your points & would like to add one which I don’t think many people consider. You always hear arguments in favor of dead tree books talking about how tactile they are. For me the more interesting element is the smell. I love the way books smell & that smell helps me focus. I feel it helps me retain the information better & enhances recall. Each publisher’s books have a slightly different aroma, and there have been instance where I’ve been able to locate a particular bit of info based on the smell I associated with it.

    That being said, I do love having PDF copies of these books available & think anybody who buys a dead tree version should be entitled to a PDF copy. I also wish there was some way that I could trade or donate my dead tree books for PDF copies. I’m about to leave the country for an extended period & bringing my library along is just not an option but I don’t want to be without all that reference material.

  7. jp says:

    Nice post!

    I like reading technical books because programming world changes _daily_ and I need to stay up-to-date with it.

    While usually I find good info on the Net, in the end I prefer to read a (paper) book on a specific topic.

    Maybe I’m too “old-school” but I cannot really enjoy reading a whole book on a screen.

    I hope a Kindle-like device will make me change my mind, soon or later. In the meantime I’ll keep on buying (paper) books, maybe after downloading and checking its ToC and some free chapters (if available online, obviously).


  8. lemiffe says:

    I don’t know. I seem to have a different take on all of this.

    I don’t consider myself to be a programming expert, nonetheless, I consider myself to be fluent in the 3 basic computer language techniques (those similar to basic, those similar to C, and those similar to HTML) plus computer logic. So any other language is just a similar language to any of the 3 former ones.

    I just look for resources and tutorials online to teach me the basic syntax and any differences between languages. That generally works out just fine for me, so why buy printed books? Waste of money.

    Mind you, right now I am immersed into A.I. so I have bought a few physical books, because it is a rather ‘new’ topic for me, and I feel it necessary.

  9. JDP says:

    When it comes to reading any larger amount of text, books are fantastic.. I’m sure the point you made regarding it being more efficient at immersing yourself into is a valid part of that.

    It’s certainly easier on the eyes, especially after spending a week glued to a monitor, and it’s better for immersing yourself into the topics.. Varying on the author of course..

    I would also like to commend you on your choices, the news of a new Introduction to Algorithms was surprising. Wonder if it’s worth, updating.

  10. objbuilder says:

    Eight years ago I bought 10-15 technical books a year. Now, almost everything I read is digital, including PDF books. It’s just so much more convenient to find the information you need.

    Also don’t live near a Micro Center anymore – they have fabulous selections. What great pleasure I took from browsing all the new books, hauling off a collection back to a coffee table to enjoy a few hours learning anything and everything. Then to finally select one to own. A mere $50 is all it takes to increase your skills and value tremendously. I love books.

    They are still the best way to learn a brand new technology you know little about. The web can take over from there.

  11. James Schofield says:

    Safari is not worth $43 a month to me at all. $5 a month, maybe.

    I use printed books. Pay once, use forever.

  12. I agree printed books are much better…IF they can be used as a resource. There are some books like Juwal Lowy’s WCF book that I read 4 times already.

    Online content is great when you need access to a lot of books and sample various books. I don’t want to buy a $50.00 when I can just sample it for a fraction of the cost.

  13. Apparently they do, Stephen. :)

  14. noone says:

    They both have benefits, but I find myself remembering something from a book, then spending 15 minutes trying to thumb through indexes and pages to find it. Eventually I just give up and go back to the web.

    I have bought a few books that came with coupons to download the digital versions. Now it’ something I always look for before purchasing. You get the best of both worlds.

  15. Jim says:

    Personally, I read programming books constantly, and use the physical format almost exclusively. I can’t stand reading books on a screen, and I love the feel of having a physical book. I also love the feel of a physical book, as well as the ability to mark it up.

  16. Printed books are best. You can make your money go further by purchasing used books. Amazon let’s you do this. I love it.

  17. I prefer to read a printed book. I can take it anywhere and I’m less likely to get distracted. I’ve even bought a couple of books which are freely available online. :-)

  18. […] Cangiano recently wrote about how the wide availability of online content can lead computer programmers to avoid buying physical […]

  19. Kostas A, says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your points, Antonio.

    When I was a child, I had a high-school teacher, who used to open and smell all of his books.
    Since then, I do it always – especially with new books-. It’s a great feeling, turning a book to something really vivid, than can’t be compared to anything an e-book can offer.

  20. Al Chou says:

    I have access to Safari for free via my public library’s Web site. That makes it eminently worth the price! :)

  21. Nando says:

    Sì, assolutamente.
    Come te, reputo necessaria la distinzione fra la lettura e l’uso del PC.
    E comunque in genere cerco di farmeli mandare in conto visione… 😉
    A breve su DZone troverai qualche mia recensione.

    Ciao! :-)

  22. Sai says:

    Antonio, you hit the topic about reading printed books spot on. While I have a copy of Dobb’s books on Algorithms on my hard drive, I only use it as reference but cannot go through chapter by chapter. I bought the book and as you mentioned, can devote some book time, go and read outside or in a coffee shop. Even with Kindle or iphone, there is nothing that can replace a printed book. Thanks for the posting.

  23. Eric Moore says:

    I’ve never seriously considered Safari, I think its too expensive. I usually don’t need that many books a year, most of the information I want is available from other sources.

    I recently bought one book as a PDF from Manning plus PDFs of a couple that are still being written through the Manning Early Access Program (MEAP). They’re frequently on sale and they don’t have any DRM.

    Its much cheaper than buying a physical book but I found reading a whole book online too awkward. Reading a physical book is also a good break for my eyes. I’m going to go back to buying physical books except for stuff that I don’t want to wait until its published.

  24. David Ross says:

    For everyone noting the cost of Safari, you can get access to a pretty good amount of it with an ACM membership. You also get access to Books247, and the monthly Communications of the ACM magazine.

    God, I sound like such a shill..

    But, seriously, it’s only like $100 a year and it’s worth it.

  25. Allen says:

    Antonio: Great post and spot-on. I buy a few books a year, and I like you like to read to get away from the screen. I also love looking at the books on my bookshelves 😉

    If there’s a topic that I have to immerse myself in for an extended period of time, I like to have a book or two that I can use as a reference, mostly because I may have to go into a test lab where I don’t have my setup and the only thing I can have is a book; or when I’m travelling and don’t have internet access.

  26. Paul says:

    Print… I use online sources a bit. But, I also buy a few prints as well. I like flipping pages when coding. The O’Reilly Nutshell series for example.

    Also, you can’t read a monitor when you’re sitting on the porcelain throne where all great ideas emerge.

    Safari… I have free Safari from my employer. I like it. I use it a few times a week. But would never pay for it on my own. It just doesn’t provide the value-add to justify the cost.

  27. Freedev says:

    In the beginning there are only printed books. Wonderful taste of printed books where you can remember author’s names as friend’s names and even remember the exact position into the page where the phrase was into the book.
    After was the Internet, forums, newsgroups, posts and electronics books. Knoledgdge grows up but when I need to learn something from scratch I need an old, real and solid printed book. No way. The flapping pages are the only chance to swim and immerse myself into a new world. After I can look for some electronic alternatives to go in deep, but usually the first chance to learn is a printed book.
    I wrote this comment using my iPhone and, now I’m in vacation and looking at my baggage, I regret to left my books at home.

  28. Nelson says:

    Buying a book is the quickest and most efficient way to gather most of the information about a specific technology.
    That means between taking 10 min buying a book on Amazon and taking 1 month to gather the same information, choice is made.

  29. Brian says:

    Printed books are too heavy–I have a back problem and cannot carry around a typical book, let alone a library. On the other hand, I read easily from my iPhone and most of the Safari Books Online have a mobile optimized version. (I have the unlimited account.)

    I still buy printed books to complement Safari, but I find that reading offline is more a psychological reason than an eyestrain reason.

    Since subscribing to Safari, I find I spend less money and read more books than without Safari. The service also makes it easy for me to explore an area of interest that (at first) is not interesting enough for me to buy the book. This empowerment of exploration was a welcome surprise after subscribing to Safari.

    If you want to try Safari, you can subscribe for free for 10-15 days and then get 15% off your subscription fee (just websearch to find current discounts).

  30. Hilltop Al says:

    I find printed books and my Safari subscription to be the best information source in three cases:

    1. As a reference like Antonio says.

    2. When I want to understand the context and basics of a technology. Free online resources are good answering at specific questions but typically don’t set the context or explain the foundations. Even Wikipedia wastes my time if I’m looking for clear context.

    3. When I’m being a bonehead and missing an “obvious” solution. Free online resources like forums are great with answers to tough questions that foil most people and with workarounds for specific, hard problems, but what about before your coffee has kicked in, when you’re being thick headed? Then you need some text that will remind you of the more obvious solutions. Nobody writes up the “obvious” solutions unless someone pays them to write them up, and that material typically gets published in books only.

  31. Jörg Kreß says:

    Though I have access to Safari Library for years now, I still buy printed books. Not as many as before Safari Books Online, but the outstanding ones or those of immediate interest.

    I guess that I still buy about 20% of my book reading in paper form. The rest is consumed either on my computer (often via direct search) or (more and more often nowadays) on the iPhone while on commute.

    One reason for a Safari Library subscription is that it can save you money: I guess there are 3-4 books a year that you would not read if knew what you know after reading it. Maybe even 1-2 that don’t make it beyond chapter two. With Safari, your anger is limited because, at least, you didn’t spend money directly on those books.

  32. I do buy printed books (perhaps $1000/year on tech books alone), but they do have downsides.

    To me, the two biggest problems with the “dead tree” format:
    * they are not searchable (a good index is helpful, but a poor substitute)
    * they are not easily transported, and I don’t want to buy one copy for home and one for work, nor do I want to schlep around heavy books any more than necessary

    So “yes”, but with qualifications — I supplement my printed books with Safari, PDF versions, etc.

  33. Alex says:

    Reading on paper is the best of course, but the great downside of all technical books is their too short lifespan; most of them become wasted paper usually after ~1y or the next major version; information is becoming old to quickly and you get stuck with a thick piece bloating your shelf.

    IMO, the real issue here is purely technical; get the advantages of paper but w/o the waste. I found it good enough to read most (technical) books on an old Tablet PC. For the price it offers lot more flexibility than e-ink alternatives. I have now high mobility and no noticeable additional strain on my eyes.

  34. Juliano says:

    Specially because we need to read in the bathroom!

  35. Stanley says:

    I read a lot of books. I used to read printed books only. This year, I switched to ebooks exclusively. Took me a bit to get used to, but now I can read at home and at work (sort of under the radar).

    Plus, one other important thing, I have started to extracting the most relevant information (code samples, interesting quotes) and adding it to my wiki. Makes learning much more “sticky.” You can’t do that with printed books.

  36. Stanley, what do you use for your personal wiki?

  37. A couple of interesting blog posts……

    A couple of links to other people’s interesting posts I’ve come across in the last few days.

    Raymond Chen on “There is no law that says meetings can’t end early”. I wish more people would take this advice to heart, but that’s been on my Christ…

  38. TimothyAWiseman says:

    I have read entire books off screen, and while it has advantages (primarily the ability to do searches), I still prefer physical books for the moment. That may change with the next generation of dedicated e-book reader, but for now I will still be surrounded by paper-books.

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