E-Books, Change and the Reading Experience

Interesting conversation over at the NYT between Mohsin Hamid and Anna Holmes on How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience?

Hamid basically argues that in a world dominated by technology it is important to push back and find ways to generate solitude:

In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness. That is why I love them, and why I read printed books still.

I understand this sentiment, in fact, I share it. I too find it all too easy to be distracted by technology and lose the chance to dig deeper and find meaning and serenity.

But I find my Kindle solves that problem. Reading books on my iPad not only hurts my eyes but offers the kind of distractions Hamid is talking about.  Cell phones, tablets, computers all have that call to another app or quick check of the web.  The Kindle doesn’t. It is just a reader. (This applies to all stand along readers bu my experience is with the Kindle)

Sure, they are bringing more interactivity to the device with social sharing and built-in Goodreads updates, etc.  But this is not much different from taking notes or highlighting.

I find it very easy to get lost, to be immersed in the moment, with my Kindle because it is just me and the text.  When I read it in bed at night there is nothing but me and that faint glow; the rest of the world disappears.

Anna Holmes on the other hand offers a few complaints 1) you can’t browse an eBook like you can a physical book 2) the progress tracking on the Kindle annoys her 3) an eBook can’t be a social signal for the wider world.

Not much you can do about #1. If you like to flip through a book sampling pages there is no direct equivalent in the electronic version.  Although you can get a sample sent to you and you could browse the highlights of other readers online.

I find #2 actually enjoyable. I like to know how far I have to go in a book whether in terms of time reading or percentage of the book, etc.  And this seem rather silly as you can turn off the progress function so it is little more than some tiny dots on the bottom of the page. Not much different that glancing at how far you are in a book based on your bookmaker.

It is the third point that strikes me as rather bizarre.  Does Holmes really want to be able to see what everyone is reading in public so she can make judgments about what that says about the person?  She wants to be able to see what book you are reading so she can add that to the social status and personality clues given by your choices in clothes, hairstyle, etc.? Oh…Kay….

As I have noted before when discussing technology and books, there are plenty of books for which technology is not an equal substitute.  I love books that are well packaged and beautifully illustrated; books that are an aesthetic experience.

Art books, illustrated children’s books, chapter books and other books for young people all have elements that ereaders or tablets just can’t match (although the technology has improved greatly obviously).  I love these books and seek them out at the library and share them with my family (and buy them when I can).

But when the text is the primary focus (as it is for most of the books I read), I actually prefer my Kindle.  As Hamid notes, it is easier to read for those of us with tired eyes and spouses who don’t want bright lights at night.  It is thin and light and ultra-portable.  I can read for long periods of time and that is the best way to get lost in a book.

So the key for me is not technology but the tool you choose. I use a dedicated ereader so I can focus on reading. I love my iPad but it doesn’t replace my beloved Kindle.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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