Reading books on a laptop

I have the habit of reading books on the screen. It’s something that started from the early 90s, when I got a copy of The MIT Guide to Lockpicking. Since I didn’t have access to a printer, I’d spent hours poring over the document on the screen. And then I discovered Project Gutenburg

I’ve heard many people ask if I have a problem with this. Personally, no. I’ve been staring at screens from the age of 12, and I’m quite used to it. My job requires me to stare at a screen for most of the day anyway. (I’m not saying there’s no a strain on the eye. My eyes are red at the end of the day. I don’t know if they would be less red if I’d been staring at paper instead of a screen. But my glasses have remained roughly the same power over ~15 years, so it’s probably not ruining my eyesight much.)

To me, the main advantage of a book is that a book is a lot easier to handle.

  • You can fit a book into your bag, sometimes into your pocket.
  • You can hold it in your hand comfortably — it’s easy to grip, and light.
  • You can open it instantly (no need to boot up).
  • You can bookmark it (or even just remember the last page number) and quickly flip to that

None of these is possible on a computer.

Or is it?

On a desktop, I agree — it’s impossible to read for long. Your back would kill you. I’ve done it for many years, and it’s not worth the pain. With a laptop, however, you can lie down on the bed or sofa and read. It’s a huge advantage. (For just this one reason alone, I’d suggest that everyone buy a laptop.)

As for carrying books, I carry my laptop to work every day, so there’s no incremental burden. But if you weren’t doing that, it’s probably not a great idea. When I travel on weekends, I’d much rather take a physical book than a laptop. This is probably the single biggest problem with a laptop — that it doesn’t travel as easy as a book.

That’s probably offset by the advantage that a laptop isn’t really a book — it’s a library. I don’t need to decide which book to read. I can bring them all along, pick what I like, and when I’m done, move on to the next. And I’m not restricted to books. I have a fairly good collection of movie scripts and comics. Depending on how long I have on the train, and my mood, I can pick between these.

One thing that makes a laptop a lot easier to use is to rotate it.

Laptop in landscape mode

Laptop in portrait mode (rotated)

If you hold the laptop this way, it’s surprisingly easy to handle. I find that I can read this way even when standing on a crowded train — which is as much as I can expect from any book. (Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to attract too much attention on the train either.)

If you have a decent graphics card, you can rotate your screen using the graphics properties. (I’m sure there are are hotkeys to do this. My two-year old daughter somehow knows them, and manages to turn the screen upside down in a fraction of a second, while I spend then next 5 minutes struggling to restore an upside-down screen.)

If not, you can just use a PDF reader (like FoxIt, which is better than Acrobat Reader) to rotate the page by 90°.

A laptop takes care of the problems of bookmarking and load time as well. I usually leave mine on hibernate, and it takes about 10 seconds to open up to where I left off. Sometimes I just leave the laptop on in the bag — for example if I’m changing trains.

The other solution, of course, is to try an ebook reader. Given my laptop, I haven’t tried one. But other than the ease of holding it, there’s no big I see.


The other question is, how do you find ebooks?. Other than buying them, I find that the easiest option is to search on Google. A surprisingly large number of them are indexed.

Here’s a custom search engine for ebooks.

  1. jake says:

    I agree with you. I have been reading books on the computer screen for many years now. A laptop has the advantage that is has better contrast and the screen doesnt flicker. A crt with a badly set screen refresh rate can be quite a pain. I have found that the refresh rate on a crt for example has to be as high as your monitor will allow (75hz and above) for a given resolution, for your eyes to be completely comfortable. I’d also recommend anti glare screen. The LCD screens on a laptop dont have all these issues. Also one has to make sure there isnt any light reflecting off your screen into your eyes, and that the contrast and luminosity of your screen holds up even in bright light conditions. For all these, a real book is the perfect thing. The contrast of clearly formed letters over a clear paper background is the let work for your eyes. Ofcourse one can enable anti-aliased fonts like clear type and try reading on a terminal. A favourite way for me to read is on a text browser in a terminal. I render the text in html and open it in lynx or such and its amazingly easy to read. Borrowing on this principle you’ll find the few ebook readers render their fonts as a clerar black on grey or white, and at high contrast settings. These might be worth a see if one is heavily into e-texts. Whew, that was a long ramble 🙂 But this is a topic close to my heart, as I have an entire library, books, comics, et al. as documents on the computer.

  2. Ashwin Prabhu says:

    Try http://www.wowio.com/index.asp . It allows upto 3 ebooks to be downloaded a day. For some strange reason, this site works only on non-Indian IPs.

  3. joseph says:

    Amazing that you are able to hold up a laptop to read on a train and not have eyebrows raised. Guess the English are rather blase about stuff on the tube.

  4. Chittaranjan says:

    I could never stick to the habit of reading on my Laptop. I get tired/cranky/irritable after the first few pages itself! I tried the ‘read aloud’ option in Adobe Reader but that is worse than self-reading.

  5. edgar dantas says:

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  6. Aman Patel says:

    Nice post. I like your post. Happy Posting…

  7. Hari K T says:

    Yes, this is a good idea . Back pain its one of the problems that all professionals facing ….. 🙂

  8. Kavitha says:

    Hi,
    Could you pls let me know if it is possible to rotate a website in the manner you have shown above? I read a lot of books online and it will be very helpful if you let me know the keys to do it; at work i have sometimes accidently done it but i’m not able to remember which key i had struck.
    Thanks!

  9. krishnan says:

    Yes..It is possible , there is a free tool called irotate…and another one called sakasa mouse tool…

    u\can tilt the screen and rotate the mouse in sync with this..as well!!!!

  10. Anirban Mukherjee says:

    In order to rotate the screen press CTRL+ALT+right arrow or CTRL+ALT+left arrow.

    Ref. http://getahead.rediff.com/slide-show/2010/mar/02/slide-show-1-specials-all-about-ebook-readers.htm#contentTop

  11. colin says:

    you should never turn your latop on it’s side like that, the hardware really doesn’t like that

  12. Andrew says:

    I’ve been doing this for years also. The Ipad is my ultimate goal but any laptop is great. I’ve had some hardcover books that were as heavy as laptops and that was just ONE book. A laptop can hold a thousand books/comics. Its a portable library that outweighs (no pun intended) all the negatives, if any.

  13. Lynn says:

    I am new at this. I just started looking around to see if I could get books on my laptop, so this is a good discussion. I still don’t know much, but will keep reading what you all write and see if I can figure it out. Thanks to all who participate in helping the “new kid.”

  14. Prashant says:

    Reading on netbook is better than laptop ,but the problem with these tools is that it hits one self’s personality as eyes go red(straining over an hour) with stoop, staggering walk at worse ,so ebooks may not be better at this point but the other face of the coin is that if this tool is used for the very purpose of learning it does not hamper us rather wasting time on internet, porn,news reading(can be done with news paper),surfing unnecessarily can be lethal at its counterpart, so i am neutral to this fact that reading on laptop is good for ourselves.

  15. BKD says:

    Amazing! I struggled for days before i came across this. The only change is that I change my desktop orientation altogether. This allows me to not only read, but to annotate my PDFs too (highlight, comment, notes and stuff) using my mouse. As keyboard is obviously difficult to use when laptop is lying like this, I use on screen keyboard for petty stuff. Using Ubuntu 12.04. Works like a charm! Thanks !