One of the hazards of personal geekiness is that I’m often sold on the idea of a thing (and immerse myself in its developmental history and public discussion) long before I gain hands-on experience with it.
One of the hazards of pecuniary strangulation is that there can be a significant gap between when I am sold on that idea and when I get to test out the implementation for myself. While my spirit wants to be an early adopter my wallet forces me to be a fast follower at best (and often a late adopter).
One of the hazards of intense engagement in a lifelong practice is an inherent resistance to any change in that practice even when you’re thoroughly sold on the idea of that change. Habit and well-reinforced expectation are hard to reset.
My first real experience with reading an eBook ran smack-on to all three of these hazards, with the effect that the intersection of idea and implementation was both more and less than I had hoped for.
A quick note—when I say eBook, I’m using a relatively strict definition of a book-format electronic file read on a handheld reading device. In my case, it was an iPad running the Kindle app to read a .mobi file.
I’ve been reading books on computer screens for about two decades, starting with book-length manuscripts in a word processor, moving to PDFs and hypertext books, and even using the Kindle app on my PC to read classics. I’ve read short stories and looked up articles in reference works on my iPod or iPad for most of the last decade.
But this was my first full eBook experience for a novel on a handheld reader. And it was more jarring than I expected.
First, I was reading a thriller where you tend to go back and see if the sudden revelation was set up properly earlier on in the story. I’ve become very accustomed to flipping pages and picking out scenes on the fly—a far more difficult task in an eBook that is great at single-page flips, but not so good at rapid page riffling. Likewise, the ability to stick your finger in and flip between sections to compare scenes requires quite a bit more overhead in an eBook (bookmarks saved me, but it still takes three taps per flip as opposed to one fluid twitch of the wrist, and finding the scene in the first place was more challenging).
Second, I found myself playing with the reader application more, which pulled my focus out of the story and onto the medium. This will go away with more practice, but as a first experience I found it a little more difficult to immerse in the text. My first odd moment was when I wanted to flip to the ToC and couldn’t, because there was no bookmark for it. So I went to see what page I was on and noted that there were no page numbers—presumably because an eBook’s pages depend on font and size settings. There was a “block” indicator (129 of 3884) that served the same function, but left me feeling vague disoriented.
Third, ambient conditions seem to have greater impact with the reader device. A true reader like a Kindle or Nook may not have such problems, but my iPad has a very shiny screen and lots of finger smudges that create odd viewing challenges, especially when reading in bright sun while sitting on the front step waiting to put my pre-schooler on the bus. There are lovely tools for inverting the image, adjusting font face and size, changing brightness, etc. But like section-flipping, these require relatively complex interactions with the device that a paper book does not require.
To be fair, the eBook device sometimes provided significant advantages that regularly improved my reading experience.
First, the ability to heavily tailor fonts, sizes, and brightness on a back-lit device radically improves the comfort of reading, especially at longer stretches. Flipping to white text on black background with reduced brightness allows me to read in bed at night after my wife has turned off the lights without disturbing her sleep.
Second, electronic bookmarks are both more extensive and less destructive when marking and annotating sections. That’s especially useful when doing critical reading or reading for review. Unfortunately, the tools available vary wildly with different reader apps.
Third, the ability to have many, many titles easily to hand actually made it easier to compare similar titles for readability, pacing, etc. Sure, I had to make sure such titles were on the device, but switching among titles was at least as easy as with hard copy, and the convenience of more than a hundred titles in my hand is hard to overstate.
All in all, reading a full novel on a handheld device for the first time was a distinctive experience that differed from my anticipated experience in a lot of ways.
I’ll offer the same warning here that I offer to food storage aficionados—work yourself into it and get used to the (often) significant differences before circumstances require sudden adoption. I can say from personal experience that living off your food storage can offer some troubling (if temporary) digestive and esthetic side effects if you switch quickly and haven’t accustomed yourself to the differences between food stored in bags and your normal fare. Same nutrition does not equal same experience.
Likewise, it’s to your advantage to work your way into eBooks on titles that you can afford to take your time with and where critical reading is less important. There are experiential quirks and behavioral differences that you can easily adjust to, but that will play (at least mild) havoc with your prior experience and expectation. Try it first on an easy read and work up to more challenging texts.
The biggest surprise for me is that reading on a computer screen is not at all the same as reading from a handheld device—even when you use the same application in both places. On my computer I have complex multitasking, bigger screen real estate (and a second monitor), a comfy chair, and instant access to supplementary material that I can view simultaneously with reading the eBook; not so an eReader device. Ambient environmental conditions tend not to change with my computer like they can with a handheld device, and that difference alone is significant.
I love both the idea and the implementation of eBooks and handheld devices for reading. They are not printed books and should not be mistaken for them; there are natural differences in how you read from different media. I am a book freak and own more than 5000 printed books. I have tended to mistrust eBooks precisely because of the sense that they are somehow too ephemeral, too temporary.
I think I was wrong in that. Different benefits, different values. Just as I own both iTunes tracks and CDs (as well as both tape and vinyl recordings), use both NetFlix streaming and DVDs (as well as more than a few VHS titles), and drive both a Prius and 3/4 ton long-bed pickup, I can’t imagine choosing only a single way of reading novels any more. The new medium provides similar benefits in a unique package optimized for different uses. I have no doubt that I will adjust with practice to those differences.
Different, sure. But each is useful, relevant, and charming in its own way, and I will happily continue to invest in titles across the board, even if I suspect I will buy more eBooks in the future.