In praise of physical textbooks


Owen Peterson, Opinion Writer

I love textbooks. More specifically, I love physical textbooks.

This may be because opening up a textbook at my desk with a notebook and pen is a part of school that I have become nostalgic for, or it may be because I have a soft spot for all forms of physical media. Regardless, I have become a physical textbook purist.

This semester, I have seen more people than ever using online textbooks than ever before. This is no doubt because many professors have decided to use the websites provided by textbook publishers (such as McGraw-Hill Connect) for homework due to the shift to mostly online classes. Because of this change, it was simply more convenient for many to just purchase the online textbook in a bundle with an access code to the website.

Needless to say, this was a mildly upsetting revelation.

Despite their higher price tag, physical textbooks are worth it due to the benefits they provide, and here’s why:

Firstly, and most importantly, studies have shown that students retain more information from physical textbooks than they do from online textbooks.

A 2017 study by Lauren M. Singer and Patricia A. Alexander for The Journal of Experimental Education discovered that students reading informational passages in print retained more information than those reading the exact same text digitally.

So, seeing that most exams sometimes just love to test you on the most obscure little details (that of course always happen to be in those extra information boxes that nobody likes to read), reading from a physical textbook is beneficial.

Secondly, physical textbooks can be much less annoying and distracting.

I love that, with a physical textbook, you can easily distance yourself from distractions like your phone and allow you to be in a setting more conducive to learning. When you are reading an online textbook, however, this luxury is forfeited because you are always one click away from accidentally sinking hours of your life into Twitter.

On top of that, reading an online textbook obviously requires you to spend an extended period of time staring at a screen, which is harmful for your eyes. Not only that, but the light from the screen will suppress your melatonin production, meaning that you will not sleep as well, which is not good considering that you were probably only reading it because it is 1:45 a.m. and you are cramming for that exam you have in eight hours.

But possibly my biggest annoyance with online textbooks is when they buffer. Seeing that dreaded loading circle every time you turn the page absolutely crushes my soul every time. (I cannot think of a more gen Z problem than having to wait for the page of a book to load).

Thirdly, I believe physical textbooks have psychological benefits when it comes to learning. By this, I mean that there are a lot of little things about engaging with a physical textbook that have a subtle impact on how well you learn.

Simple things such as the act of turning a real page and seeing the amount of pages left get smaller can help instil a sense of progress that makes the experience less tedious, which is a feeling not quite replicable by the scrolling of online textbooks.

Also, The ability to scroll while reading an online textbook happens to make you more likely to start skimming through the text.

Another one of the neat benefits is that after reading a physical textbook, you are able to visualize the layout of the pages and where certain information is located within a certain page, which can help you recall that information when needed.

Lastly, there is the issue of cost. At first glance, you will see that online textbooks are almost always cheaper than the physical option, but this may be misleading. Even if you pay more up front for your textbook, with a physical textbook you have the option to sell it back to the bookstore or sell it to another student.

You also have the option of buying physical textbooks from many other websites for extremely cheap prices, so if you are willing to put the effort in and use a site like, you can get physical copies cheaper than the online version. It is even possible to turn a profit by buying these textbooks for super cheap and then selling them back to the university for more.

That being said, the issue of which version is cheaper usually comes down to a textbook-by-textbook basis, so I will not claim that one is a reliably cheaper option.

In the spirit of fairness, however, I must admit that there are some things that I do enjoy about online textbooks.

I enjoy that online textbooks do not have weight, as the lugging around of multiple textbooks at a time has resulted in a couple of torn backpacks in my life. I enjoy that I can highlight and annotate online textbooks without feeling like I am vandalising them. I enjoy that online textbooks are environmentally friendly. But that’s about it.

Next time you have to go textbook shopping, keep all of this in mind and remember all of the great benefits that come from physical textbooks.