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eReaders: things they do and don’t do

I was given a Kobo Touch for my birthday. It seems like eReaders tend to cause quite a divide for literary types, so, after a few weeks of it, I thought I’d lay down some thoughts about them:

Things my eReader is good for:

  • Travelling and commuting. I used to have to take at least three books with me if I went anywhere, because I didn’t know what I was going to want to read and didn’t want to be left stranded. Now I just have to take my eReader! (and one paper book, in case something goes technically wrong.)
  • Reading in bed, reading while eating, generally reading in awkward positions. You can operate it one-handed and it’s really light — I wish I’d read Infinite Jest on it, because it would have been so much more comfortable! Plus, hyperlinked footnotes. This has been the biggest effect on my reading habits — I generally feel a lot more comfortable while I’m reading.
  • Free access to all public domain works. This is just brilliant; it’s widened my reading and my understanding of literature, and I’m really happy about that.
  • Looking up words I don’t know. Inbuilt dictionaries: wonderful.
  • Reading the news. Thanks to the wonderful open-source ebook manager Calibre, I now get the Guardian and the London Review of Books delivered free to my eReader. Reading a newspaper on an eReader combines the best of reading online news — freeness, ease of skipping, hyperlinking for context — with the best of reading paper news — linear reading provides deeper engagement, reading the whole paper brings up stories and reviews you’d miss otherwise. I’ve become a daily paper reader again, which I really like.
  • Annotations. I’m more likely to highlight and annotate an eBook. It’s about as easy, but more legible, and gets rid of any “spoiling the object” guilt.
  • Journals and articles. I can now read pdfs and some e-zines without my eyes hurting! This is really huge. It is vital that more poetry e-journals join >kill author and Nap and get e-book versions out

Things I my eReader isn’t good for:

  • Of course eReaders won’t replace print. They are a different medium. Some things won’t read on them. Eventually they’ll do poetry well (formatting is too unreliable and rigid currently); eventually they’ll even do high quality colour illustrations; but we’ll be in a Minority Report future before they can do everything a print book does. You can’t do large-scale artistic combinations of text and image. You can’t have big pictures full stop. You can’t make a beautiful physical object.
  • I can’t lend people books, only link to them. I’ll always want an in-house bookshelf.
  • I don’t trust eBooks yet. They do not seem to be as well proof-read or as reliably formatted as print. It’s a little like the early days of the mass printing press, when pirating was rife and you could never be totally sure if what you are reading is definitely the original. Publishers are rushing to get e-imprints out, and not necessarily doing them properly. This is a terrible shame.
  • The Kobo comes with this fucking absurd Reading Life app. I do not want my reading life to be social. I do not want to externalise the rewards of reading with something flashing on the screen to tell me I’ve achieved an arbitrary reading target. I do not want my stats to be tracked. I may occasionally want to post a quote on Facebook, but I do not want everything I do to be shared automatically. I fundamentally do not understand why people use apps like this. I do not see how they expand the world of reading. They contract it.

A little on the psychology

  • I’m part of the laptop demographic. We are hyperlinked. We stare at screens as many waking hours as we don’t. We struggle to maintain deep attention, but we’re very good at abstract thought and making rapid connections. We are cyborgs, broadly. It comforts our restless, depressed minds to be clicking things and watching screens change in response; we like those feedback loops; it gets the dopamine going. The best, the very best thing about my eReader, for me, is that it gives me enough of that cybernetic drug to hold my attention while at the same time being a form of deep attention: a book. More of the time I would have spent on a laptop, because I feel safe in cyberspace, is being spent reading books. Some writers are scared that eReaders will increase our cultural attention deficit. For me, the opposite is true.

So…

  • I don’t get on well with techno-utopians who think that Wired is Nostradamus and that new technologies have all the answers. I also have little time for luddites who think that new technologies are ruining our minds. My eReader has made my reading broader and more comfortable, and made different types of reading possible — but that’s an expansion of what print books can do, not a replacement for them.

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