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.