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Opening Arguments

Where in the book are you?

As someone who now consumes about half his reading material with dead-tree editions and half with e-readers, I found this interesting:

I don’t have the best of memories, but ever since I was young, I prided myself on a particular talent with respect to reading. Occasionally I’d be near the end of a book, and would recall a passage near the beginning that I wanted to revisit. I wouldn’t remember the page or chapter, but almost without fail, I would recall the location on the page where the passage in question was. I knew that that wondeful description of Mr. Pumblechook appeared on the bottom half of a right-hand page, perhaps 10 lines from the bottom, and a few lines after a paragraph break.

I never knew what to make of this talent–how common it was, or whether it indicated I read more closely than others–but one thing I do know: it doesn’t have an analog in e-reading. I recall the sense of dismay I felt upon learning that e-books didn’t have pages per se, but “locations.” There was no such thing anymore as the description near the top of the page, since the location of text varied depending on the size of the text. The Kindle has extinguished my talent.

Scientific American takes a look this week at the differences between reading on paper versus reading electronically, from a scientific standpoint. When we move from dead trees to ones and zeroes, do we retain the same amount of information? Does the text and its meaning penetrate as deeply? “The matter is by no means settled,” writes author Ferris Jabr. Nonetheless, there is evidence that indicates that e-reading fails to replicate the “intuitive and satisfying” ways of navigating through longer texts, and that “[i]n turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”

That's something I have also noticed as I've moved further into e-reading, if I'm correctly inferring his underlying complaint: A big part of reading is a sense of place -- simply where you are in the book --and that is the main thing lost with e-readers. The sheer physical experience of feeling the beginning part of a book get bigger and the ending part smaller as you turn page after page gives you an instinctive feeling for where you are in the story arc, and helps you savor the coming denouement as it gets closer and closer. It's rather like anticipating the coming together of a meal as you smell the odors of the food you been assembling and applying heat to (one of the great joys in life that noncooks are missing out on).

So, I find I like reading fiction -- or a memoir, anything with a story to tell -- in actual print. Once I get into the story to the point where I forget everything else, the format disappears of course, so it doesn't matter whether it's paper or pixels. Unti then, though, I like the feel of paper.

Anything involving research, though, the e-reader wins the contest hands-down. The paper products just can't compete with e-books when it comes to my being able to underline, leave notes in the margin, insert a bookmark. If there are mutiple passages you want to refer to later on, the cumbersome equivalent in a paper book (unless you're into defacement) is a clutter of Post-It notes.

The last word, however, is that whatever the limitations of e-reading, they cannot detract from the sheer convenience of being able to carry a small library (and with new ones, not that small) around with you in a dvice about the size and weight of a paperback book. That will never cease to astonish me.

This is amusing, in a way:

But I readily concede that the next generation may read protestations like mine bemusedly; I do feel like an old man in my insistence that something is lost with the death of the physical book. I do appreciate the care that researchers are taking to quantify the benefits some feel in a physical culture of reading, even if they be few. We should have a firmer sense of just what it is we’re giving up, when we welcome all the conveniences of e-reading.

The pioneers (and that's who we are) struggle with having to straddle two worlds and trying to fathom the strengths and weakness of both the old and new ways. Those who come after will truly not understand what all the fuss was about, when they think about it at all. They'll be too busy trying to weigh the pros and cons of e-reading and whatever comes along to replace it.


Mon, 04/15/2013 - 12:59pm

I have read one novel on my wife's Kindle and it was hard to do, it stayed the same size the entire time.  It threw me completely off.  I do, however, take the same delight in being able to carry all of that library around in that little device and also being able to borrow electronic books from the library in Florida, where we're also cardholders.

Harl Delos
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 6:17am

When they first were trying to get railroads to switch from steam to diesel-electric power, one of the manufacturers gave a new locomotive to a major rail line to evaluate.  They told the salesman that they weren'r interested, because thay had to replace the drive wheels after a very short time, maybe a third of the time tat wheels lasted on the steam jobs.

The salesman thanked them for trying out the engine, and asked for a little extra information.  How many miles were they able to get out of the wheels?  They checked and found that because the diesel units kept runing and didn't have to spend a lot of idle time building up a head of stean, the diesel units actually wee getting more miles out of their wheels, and one diesel was doing as much work as a half-dozen steam engines. 

I've probably gotten the details wrong; it's been a long time since I read that little bit, but I thought about that story after I got my Kindle.  I love shuffling card, the sound of the riffle, the smell of te ink, the feel of the cambric lying on green baize.  But I play solitaire on the computer, not with paper cards, and I play three or four times as many games in a given period of time.

Most of my N ero Wolfe and Perry Mason novels cost me 35c.  The paper has yellowed, the ink has fased to gray, and the binding has crystallized and crumbled - but even if the books didn't fall apar as I turned the pages, my tired old eyes can't read that small type.  I goose the type size up one or two sizes on my Kindle, though, and Rex Stout and Ele Stankey Gardner are once again within my capabilities.

There's a bar at the bottom of the page showing progress, but like you, I don't notice it, whereas with a book, I'm forced to notice.  And the charts in books are terribly difficult to eead,

I'm using a Kindle app on my PLC more than my actual Kindle device, though.  Not only is it impossible to replace the battery (which has a limited number of recharges before it dies) but it seems like the screen in getting a little blurry in its old age, as well.

But I'm "buying" a lot of my e-books free from the Gutenberg Project.  I'm sure that there were a lot of crappy ooks written before 1928, but nobody bothers to digitize them.  (I recimmend Herndon's biography of Lincoln, as one of the best buigtaphies I've ever read.)