Ebooks & physical books: reading processes & experiences

It may or may not surprise you, fair or foul reader (but where’s the difference?) to learn that I’m not exactly an early adopter when it comes to technology. You’re reading the words of someone who’s never owned an mp3 player, and isn’t likely to get a smartphone anytime soon, or a fancy tablet. Although I’ve been reading ebooks for years, I still don’t have an actual e-reader: all my electronic reading takes place on the screen of my laptop (and quite a nice screen it is too, even if I ought to get some of that cleaning stuff and clean it sooner or later).

But lately it’s come to my attention that I approach the process, and find the experience, of reading differently as I move between electronic and physical modes, and I thought I’d spend a little time considering the differences. Particularly, I’ve noticed it’s harder – in some cases, all but impossible – to read a book for review in electronic form, and this reasons behind this little quirk are something I’d like to explore.

Note, please, that I’m not denigrating ebooks or ereaders. There’s much to be said for ease of access, portability, and ease of storage, among other things. What follows is merely my exploration of my processes.

The experience of reading electronically

On my laptop is a folder called “ebooks” into which are bundled all DRM-free epubs, PDFs, and the occasional .rtf that’ve come my way from purchase, review, or rarely, shamefully, torrenting. DRM’d ebooks, which I object to on principle but in practice sometimes can’t avoid, show up in my Kobo desktop application. (Kobo is my preferred platform, so far. a)It’s not Amazon, and b)it believes me when I tell it lies about my location in order to access US/CAN books.)

These are difficult to arrange by read/unread, topic, subgenre, or indeed along any axis other than author and/or title. It’s impossible to take them all in at a glance. It thus becomes easy, unless you read the damn thing immediately, to forget you have a copy of a specific title.

So much for the organisation of files. What about the physical and mental experience of reading itself?

To be honest, it’s not always comfortable. For one thing, it can be hard to sit back and relax while reading on a screen. For another, without the physical guide of the shape in my hands, I find it easy to lose my place in a window of text. And without the shape and heft of the pages in my hand telling me Ooo, we’re getting to the middle, oo it;s nearly the end where’s the climax is this the climax wait there’re too many pages left WOW BOOM REVERSAL, I find it difficult to judge pacing. Leaving quite aside the fact that my laptop’s desktop is an environment replete with distractions…

And when I’m reading for review, it’s not as though I can mark up the pages of an epub with stickynotes and scribbling, can I? It’s not exactly intuitive to my process…

Experience is beginning to show that I read fluff as ebook much more readily that anything which requires thought. Romance. Tie-in fiction. (I recently mainlined the non-Romulan Star Trek novels of Diane Duane.) The odd short-story collection.

But epic fantasy, or science fiction more complex than SHIT BLOWS UP, or anything else that requires on my part some modicum of thought or emotional investment, fast becomes extremely hard to track.

The hardcopy experience

Paper, I’m native to. I can walk about the house with a book before my nose and hardly even trip on the cats. At least, as long as the typeface is decent – the UK paperback of Miéville’s Railsea seems to be grey type on shoddy paper, for example, and that’s not fun. It’s simplicity itself to mark a spot with a colourful bookmark for later reference, or take the volume down to the beach to read in full sunlight and blustery wind. And paper stacks, glaring at you accusingly from its mounting piles: impossible to forget about, easy to group by type and kind. And you can see what you have in a couple of glances – the rough outline of what you’ve stacked in any one room. You can underline, leave stickynotes, deface, spindle, and mutilate as the spirit moves you, including writing notes in the margin.

The physical experience of reading conditions my response to a text, apparently. At least in part. It’ll be interesting, in future, to keep track of this and see if, and how, it changes.

5 thoughts on “Ebooks & physical books: reading processes & experiences

  1. I was once resistant to e-readers. I lug a small laptop everywhere anyway, so felt I had no need whatsoever for another electronic device which did one small fraction of what the laptop already did. So I read my ebooks on the laptop, and…didn’t read many ebooks.

    Then I met an ereader, and now I read 90% of my books as ebooks.

    It’s simply a different experience, far more different than, say, the difference between reading a grainy old yellowed paperback or a fresh new hardback so heavy it hurts you to hold it in one hand. E-ink is the crispest and most wonderful text to read (and resizeable). You can read it in sunlight. You can get one which glows in the dark. You can make notes in the text and then “show all notes” and see them all neatly summarised like endnotes. You can hold an ereader in one hand. You can even (most importantly) read it in the bath so long as you’ve got a good quality ziplock bag.

    So, not to argue against paper books, which have their own advantages and disadvantages, but if you’re reading ebooks on a laptop, you’re not really experiencing ebooks.

  2. “To be honest, it’s not always comfortable. For one thing, it can be hard to sit back and relax while reading on a screen.”

    This. I held out against e-readers for ages, but then the nice folks at pornokitsch sent me an e-copy of one of their pandemonium titles, and the experience of trying to read -for fun- an extended piece sat at my computer convinced me to get an e-reader. Plus it was November and my wife was hassling me for present ideas. First World problems, I know.

    I’m doing a distance learning course right now, and the texts are a mixture of epub and hard copy, largely dictated by price. I’ve had similar experiences to you with making notes. It’s nice to be able to whack in post-it notes to the physical books, but also convenient being able to highlight stuff on the reader and have all the quotes stored in a single file. That said, both come a poor second to being able to print out journal articles and scribble all over them.

  3. I started reading e-books on my smartphone at work a couple of years ago; the job didn’t have a safe place to secure an expensive e-reader or laptop, and the smartphone rode around on my belt. (Only read during breaks and lunches, honest.) I tend to think of e-books as “not real” however, and have paid for very few. I use Overdrive to borrow from the local library system, and have downloaded a few free books from Project Gutenberg or from promotional offers (some duds, some gems). Still buy plenty of hardcopy books for home reading.

  4. I also didn’t jump on an eReader right away. I wasn’t about to spend $500 for one, at least not until I saw where it went. Now I am getting quite a few books, but I also have a mix of both. They’re great if you’re traveling because all you carry is one eReader full of books instead being weighed down by multiple books (I read fast, so I would have to take at least three, and probably end up buying one as well). They also don’t take up space.

    Where I find them not as effective are for books that I need to scan or mark up. Scanning like when I’m researching something doesn’t work that well. I may go through ten books, doing a quick scan to see if this is what I’m looking for. Just doesn’t work with an ereader. Likewise, though I can do some highlighting and notes in my eReader, it’s a difference experience to do it in the book, especially for someone who is Visual Spatial.

    All that being said, I still have worked into getting eBooks from the library. I still like going down there and exploring, seeing what I find. And I still like exploring the bookstore. An online website doesn’t replace that.

  5. “For one thing, it can be hard to sit back and relax while reading on a screen”

    YES. This is why I hate the trend to make ereaders tablets. No! I do not want a backlit screen! I love that my nook needs ambient light to be read. It’s much easier on the eyes.

    One way in which my ereader is more comfortable than a hardcopy though – the thick fat fantasy books are no longer so heavy that they hurt my hands after a while. :)


    “Scanning like when I’m researching something doesn’t work that well.”

    Yes, this. I can do it pretty easily when I’m reading them on a computer, because scrolling down works well for that, as long as it’s not too long. But then you come back to the issue of comfort.

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