Some Thoughts on e-Reading

I recently read my first complete electronic book on an e-reader. (The reader was Amazon’s Kindle, which I did not purchase and nor do I own, though I do have regular access to.) The book was Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, and to make the experience a little more complex, it was a book that I was reading for a review.

I found the e-reading experience to be genuinely immersive, at least as immersive as I’ve experienced with similarly compelling printed books. (And I would imagine that The Literary Conference is hugely compelling in any format). I didn’t feel any temptation to leave the text and play around with the digital ephemera I added to the Kindle (more on that in a bit). And, in fact, after a very short period of being entirely cognizant of the fact I was reading electronically, I reached the point at which I felt that I’d completely forgotten that I was e-reading: in other words, the mental sensation was entirely akin to what I experience when reading a real book. I was genuinely surprised just how quickly I acclimated to reading on e-ink, and so I have to disagree with what Levi wrote (although have a look at the comments for an interesting discussion with contrasting views):

We don’t like them. We took a look, we tried a few devices, and we’ve agreed that none of them deliver what we want. Look at that strange quote at the top of this page. E-book sales went from 1.5% a year ago to 5% today. “We are expecting exponential growth”. When is this scheduled to begin? The Kindle was introduced, with a disappointing thud, in November 2007. Amazon’s aggressive initial publicity push tried to position the Kindle as the literary equivalent of the iPod, and the e-book as the literary equivalent of the MP3. But consumers loved the iPod and swarmed to the MP3 format. It doesn’t take consumers three years to catch on to a new fad. We’ve seen e-books and were not swarming.

Turning the pages–accomplished on the Kindle by clicking a button–didn’t pull me out of the experience, and, in fact, the ability to read with the use of only one hand (as opposed to the two required by virtually every printed book I’ve ever read) had its advantages. I tend to read quite a bit on public transit, an environment where one inevitably needs to be clinging to some fixed object–or at least prepared to cling at a moment’s notice–and the fact that the Kindle can be read with just one hand made a noticeable difference. The Kindle is also much lighter than most books, meaning that you can read it with one hand without your arm tiring, and there’s no need to jam your thumb down and break the book’s spine when you want to try and keep it open one-handed.

As this was a pre-publication copy of the book, I read it on PDF, as opposed to a format uniquely designed to work with the Kindle, and that made a significant difference. I’m told that the Kindle offers annotation features for books designed to be read on it, but with the PDF you get nothing (nor can you change the size of the text, which meant that I was squinting as I read). This was a bit of a change for me, as I’m used to writing all over review copies, both as a way to keep and organize notes and as a way to make it easier to locate key passages, names, etc. when writing a review. This meant that a notebook was a necessity, although I obviously wasn’t able to use it at all points (e.g. on public transit), so a lot of the information I normally would have recorded for later was lost. I’m not sure if (given fears about e-piracy) publishers will be inclined to offer galleys in Kindle-friendly formats in the future, but I hope they do, as they will make reviewers’ lives easier.

Then there was the matter of skimming and reading and flipping back through the book for review: this is the one point in the process where I can say that I find printed books unambiguously superior. The PDF format offers a search feature, which is nice if you’re looking for the first appearance of a name or something along those lines, but attempting to skim back through a PDF on a Kindle is quite clearly inferior to flipping through an actual book. There simply is no flipping back to speak of–you can only plod page by page through a book (and when trying to do this the load time does become an issue), whereas with a real book one can get quite nimble at bounding around a text. I suppose that after years of writing reviews I’ve developed a sort of muscle memory for how I like to browse back though a book while thinking about what I’m going to write, and this is something that just isn’t being reproduced on e-books. (It’s a little better browsing the PDF on a home computer, but still not the same.) I don’t really know if it can be reproduced, or even if you’d want to try and do it. I think it’s just a function native to the printed medium.

This, in fact, may be the Achilles heel of ebooks. For instance, see this report at Moby Lives:

At the University of Virginia, as many as 80 percent of MBA students who participated in Amazon’s pilot program said they would not recommend the Kindle DX as a classroom study aid (though more than 90 percent liked it for pleasure reading).

At Princeton University and Portland-based Reed College, a small liberal-arts institution, students praised the Kindle for its long battery life, paper savings and portability. They then complained they couldn’t scribble notes in the margins, easily highlight passages or fully appreciate color charts and graphics.

I will say in the Kindle’s favor that the difficulty with browsing back through the book meant that I more or less had to completely re-read entire sections of the book, which was actually a quite pleasant experience with The Literary Conference, given that it’s a remarkably tight and re-readable book (not to mention short), although I could imagine entirely different results with a different sort of novel. I don’t know that this would work with longer books (like the 500+-page book that I’m reading right now on the Kindle), but it did work with Aira’s slim book.

And lastly, the digital ephemera. It didn’t take me too long to start making much-too-in-depth searches through Google Book for free, downloadable digital texts. And then I began to accumulate all manner of book that I might one day read, but probably wouldn’t get to any time soon. (I also discovered Google Book’s “My Library” feature, where you can save books whose complete text is available online but not downloadable.) I tend to view this kind of digging through digital archives as a form of time-wasting, fun but ultimately more or less useless, so I was pleased to find that I haven’t been back to Google Book too much to try and further feather my digital nest with more hundreds of pages I probably won’t get to. However, I will say in Google Book’s favor that my interest in purchasing hard copies of non-translated out-of-copyright works (e.g. Dickens, which I plan to read over the summer) has almost completely evaporated, now that I know I can just get them in a Kindle format for free in seconds.

So overall, I was surprised to find that I’m pretty compatible with the e-book format. At this point I still prefer printed books, and given a choice with all things being equal I would always choose real books, but I can see some circumstances where e-books would have advantages. And in those situations I wouldn’t hesitate to use them.

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My experience has been quite the same. Great for passive-reading (I remember the guy who invented e-ink had the idea while at the beach and he wanted a new thriller instantly, so that seems coded in e-reading’s DNA), but the solution for active reading and all the marking, folding, scribbling, and highlighting that entails isn’t quite there yet. Seems solvable though, doesn’t it?

I’ve almost finished reading my first ebook (a 600+-page novel) and I’m loving the experience. I’m reading on a Sony touchscreen. I use the built-in dictionary feature regularly (whereas with print books I might make a mental note of a word but I rarely make the effort to look it up). It’s tremendously easy to highlight passages and “dogear” pages; writing actual notes is possible, and maybe I’ll develop the habit.

Biggest drawback is, as you mention, that it’s not easy to flip around — whether you need/want to could depend on the kind of book you’re reading (I’m reading a frame novel and losing track of which stories are embedded within each other.).

But it’s superb for reading in transit and in bed and it’ll go a long way to reclaiming precious wall space. I’m a convert.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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