My friend Andy Ambraziejus reports that he’s been reading Alan Jacobs The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford 2011) on his iPad.
“I’m reading my first ebook with pleasure — bought through the Kindle app on my iPad. To my surprise, I am enjoying it immensely. Why do I say surprise? Because, while I was ready to embrace “e-reading” of newspapers and even some magazines, I’ve been resisting reading books electronically, telling myself there was something intrinsically warm and fuzzy about holding paper in my hands and deciphering the ink marks on it. However, I took the plunge last week, bought the book, and find myself immersed in the reading experience as always. What about those easily accessible hyperlinks to footnotes and websites that take me “out” of the reading experience? Aren’t they supposed to be distracting? I don’t find them distracting at all. I’ve looked at a few because I was interested in the information, and skipped others. I liked having the choice of when to link or when to continue reading. So with a little discipline, I think, one doesn’t need to be distracted by all the electronic bells and whistles if one doesn’t want to.”
“As far as page numbers are concerned, the Luddite part of my brain is still getting used to this new way of thinking. If you tap on the bottom of the screen there is a very handy notice that comes up, telling you what page you’re on and what percentage of the book you’ve finished. Very good, but when I wanted to look back at a certain page to find something, it wasn’t there. Or perhaps I got the page number wrong? Or perhaps the numbers changed depending on whether one was viewing the book in portrait or landscape. I am not sure. I do like knowing how far I’ve progressed in my reading efforts, so I’ll have to experiment with this function a little more in the next few days. I have a feeling, though, that this issue as others will sort itself out and I’ll give it my full thumbs up.”
“Not that there’s no room for paper at all and warm fuzziness that goes with it. But that’s another story and another post. In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear from other veterans of ink-on-wood reading on how they’re coping with the electronic transition.”
Christine Rosen in the journal The New Atlantis, referring to the Kindle’s ability to link to web sites, says “These features are remarkable — and remarkably distracting”. Jacobs, like Andy, disagrees — when he got a Kindle he found that he had recovered his youthful ability to immerse himself in reading, undistracted by other diversions. “. . . it kept me reading. Think how easy it is, and how tempting, when you’re reading a novel to look ahead to the end. Maybe you just want to see how many pages there are in the book, to know how much you have left to read — but, of course, you just might sneak a peek at the last paragraph while you’re at it. You can do this on the Kindle, but it’s difficult. Similarly, when reading many different kinds of book you might want to take a look at the table of contents, to check how many chapters there are, whether they have titles, what the titles might mean, and so on — and again, you can do that on a Kindle, but only by moving your hands in a different and less natural way than you employ to turn the pages and as you follow an argument or narrative. (Kindles have clocks, but when you’re reading you can’t see the time unless you click the Menu button, at which point it appears at the top of the screen. The absence of a clock on the reading screen makes it easier, I think, to escape into the book’s own time.)”
“In short, once you start reading a book on the Kindle — and this is equally true of the other e-readers I’ve tried — the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else. E-readers, unlike many other artifacts of the digital age, promote linearity — they create a forward momentum that you can reverse if you wish, but not without some effort. The first book I read onscreen was Anathem, a behemoth, and that encounter was delightful because there was no awkward manual management of a large heavy book, and limited temptation to repeatedly investigate the book’s apparatus. Anathem contains a glossary to help readers deal with Stephenson’s many neologisms, but my tendency when offered something like that is to wander around in it and forget to get back to the story. Reading the novel on my Kindle, I knew that I could get to the Glossary if I needed to, but it didn’t constantly tempt me. Instead, I became absorbed in the story itself.”
“I found that when I was seated (or reclining) in a comfortable position, I could hold the Kindle in one hand with my thumb poised over the ‘Next Page’ button, and then do nothing except kick the saccades into gear and click the button. I found my ability to concentrate, and concentrate for long periods of time, restored almost instantly. I am not sure why this happened, though I have some guesses: primarily, I think, an e-reader gives that Strangeloveian hand of mine something to do, and something similar to what it does when it checks email or Twitter on the iPhone. (Muscle memory is my friend.) And I am sure that I benefit from being able to reconnect with the habits of long-term attentiveness that I had built up for decades before going so thoroughly digital. Moreover, when I got an e-reader I immediately read the kind of book it’s best suited for, that is, narrative-driven fiction. Had I started with David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human UnderstandingI might never have persisted with the device.”
Of course if you’d started with Hume, you might never have persisted with reading paper and board books. I do like reading Dickens on my iPod Touch, but I’ve never read Oliver Twist or Tale of Two Cities (in any format) since I was “forced” to read them at school. Perhaps reading them as ebooks would be sufficiently “distanced” from my school trauma to make them enjoyable. I must try.
I guess everyone is used to powering up their cell phones and e-readers regularly, but of course the propensity of the battery to run down does present an obvious difference from the experience of reading a paper and board book. When I first got my iPod Touch I took it to Italy with a couple of books on it. A day or two after arriving it started demanding to be sync-ed. But I had no Mac with me, and didn’t want to risk plugging in to any old Italian Mac. Eventually when I got to England and plugged it in to my daughter’s Mac it became happy again. But in the interim I was in the position of the monk in the Medieval Helpdesk, unable to open my book.
In The Millions Mark O’Connell gives a thorough and touching review of the advantages of ebooks over the physical objects. Just the weight consideration is huge — I can’t now face reading a large hardback on the subway. The iPod Touch is just so much more convenient. His attitude of reluctant acceptance of the inevitable triumph of the ebook is summed up in the sentence “The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern”.
In his blog Black Plastic Glasses (now unfortunately discontinued — see Blogroll below) Evan Schnittman says that once you’ve changed to an e-reader you’ll never go back. I don’t see this in myself. But maybe that’s partly because I read lots of paper and board books which I “borrow” from the office (and from my wife’s). But my purchasing behavior may have changed — I still buy all the Library of America volumes (well, most of them) but I am very restrictive on my purchasing of other books. We have so many that still need to be read, that I really am forced to get rid of a book if I buy one. We haven’t got there yet but what happens to your iPod Touch when you have too many ebooks for its capacity? I suppose you just delete them, comfortable in the knowledge that you can always upload them again, should you want them, though having to pay for them again would be a serious brake on that plan. That really isn’t like jumping up an pulling a book off the shelves to check something — but then you never had all the books you might consult on your shelves, whereas one day we may have electronic access to every book ever published. Hurry up Judge Denny Chin.
Of course as almost all the books I’m reading cost me between zero and 99 cents, I can hardly be counted among the ranks of serious ebook buyers. But I did just read Peter Singer’s review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature in today’s (9 October 2011) New York Times Book Review. I own most of Steven Pinker’s books and certainly want to read this one: quite apart from anything else the review is a rave. However at 802 pages, there’s no way I’m going to read it on the subway — you’d have to get a seat, something with is getting less and less likely on the rush-hour A train these days. So I bought the Kindle edition (for half the cost of the book) and have already gotten far enough into the book for my iPod Touch to need its battery recharging!