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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