Reading with a Capital E

Can we talk about technology for a bit? I was late to the e-reading game, feeling convinced I did not prefer that particular reading experience. But then, a few winters ago, I got a kindle Paperwhite, and I loved it. I instantly preferred the ease of it all, and especially missed it when I was reading the monstrous Bonhoeffer bio this fall.

A few issues have surfaced recently that have me questioning e-reading in general and on my kindle more specifically. First, I regularly spout the research to my students regarding digital/online reading and how our brains have not caught up with the technology. I remind them of how we don't read as closely on a screen, and how our brains still engage more fully with the tangible, tactile reading experience of a physical book. I experienced this phenomena myself this fall as I tried teaching from my kindle version of The Odyssey. About a third of the way through, I realized that I was not teaching as effectively. I was not able to draw the text into discussion as easily because I couldn't find what I wanted quickly enough, even with a scan of all notes and highlighted passages. It just did not work. This passage (from the Scientific American passage linked to above) explains the problem well:
In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.
I am deeply appreciative of this metaphor and deeply uncomfortable with the space this puts me in.

This passage also brings up kindles and iPads as similar experiences, but for a long time, I would have adamantly defended the kindle as superior. For one, the distractions abounding on an iPad make it too easy to choose other interactions than a book; more importantly, I have championed the e-ink technology over the lcd screens for all the reasons like eye strain and backlighting and the attention issues cropping up in our brains (see other linked article). But today, I did something I thought I would never do: I put down the kindle in frustration and picked up the iPad mini. Why? Because for the umpteenth time (even after a restart), my touchscreen just would not respond appropriately, making it impossible to highlight and increasing my reading time because of miscues in page-turns. It just isn't working, and the iPad works beautifully. All of which brings me to the two-month free trial from Oyster I got in my BookRiot Quarterly box (so. much. fun.).

When I originally read about it, I was amped. Then, I looked more closely and realized it was just for tablet devices, making all our kindles unusable with the service. I was frustrated, but now, I'm intrigued. Perhaps I am willing to shift gears more substantially and read e-books on my iPad? Or am I wanting to give up e-reading again and go back to full-time paper reading? I'm just unsure, but I can tell you this: I will give Oyster a try and report back.

The other thing I'm trying right now is Next Issue, something that has made this magazine lover curious for months. Y'all, it is awesome. It's probably not a good idea since I wouldn't normally subscribe to enough magazines to make the $14.99 a month fee economical, but it is a tremendously enjoyable summer reading experience (thank you, 30-day free trial), and the interface and display are great on my iPad.

I will admit to being somewhat of a trend-follower with technology. I am, after all, currently typing this post on my new Chromebook, which I love. I am also a purger, ever-ready to get rid of the under-used, unsentimental and happily unattached from most of my objects. So, what will go and what will stay? And how do you deal with the shifting trends in technology? Feel free to jump into this murky conversation. In the meantime, I'm going to go back and finish that SciAm article that I inattentively jumped from to finish this post. Ah, technology.....


  1. This brings up interesting things about the place technology plays in the role of teacher. Is it easier to teach from a digital book because the passages are easier to find?

    Also, I wonder about e-readers because I find short stories and the like easy to read on them, but when it comes to full length books, it's harder for me to stay focused. I wonder if part of that is because they are hidden inside a device, rather than a stack on my coffee table or bedside table -- speaking to me in their silence that I must return to their pages.

  2. Oh, Serena. I'm sorry. I hate when my writing isn't clear. I meant to convey that teaching from a digital book was harder- the passage were definitely NOT easier to find. I had to buy the print copy and transfer my notes just to keep feeling like I was doing my job like I'm accustomed to. I like the idea of the books "speaking to me in their silence." That's good.

    1. Oh, so it is harder to find passages in an e-reader! because you have to search all the notes individually? I know that Kindle has the highlight feature and I can look up those pieces