Thoughts on e-reading

May 31, 2010 in Technology

As it happens, my primary use for my iPad is as an e-reader (eReader? iReader?). I've read more  books in the last few weeks than I had in recent months, mostly because of the convenience factor: I always have them (all of them!) available and I never have to hunt for my place. Just a few minutes during my daily commute and before bed add up to a lot of pages.

And it really is the convenience factor that does it for me. I've downloaded books from the eNYPL before, but who wants to sit in front of a computer monitor to read a book? Browsing the internet or reading many papers is one thing -- those are fundamentally interactive experiences -- but a book shouldn't require my attention and position to remain fixed in one place.

The NYT is running a brief piece examining the phenomenon. Though it is similarly appreciative of the iPad as an e-reader, it faults the state of digital reading. I think it's important to note that the author's problem is not with digital reading in general -- which to this point was the generally-held critique -- but rather with its current implementation:

All the e-books I’ve read have been ugly — books by Chang-rae Lee, Alvin Kernan, Stieg Larsson — though the texts have been wonderful. But I didn’t grow up reading texts. I grew up reading books. The difference is important.

Echoing John Gruber's thoughts, this ugliness is pervasive and distracting. The Kingdle editions of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan are riddled with spacing errors, most likely the casualties of a poor OCR job. Quotation marks are frequently misplaced, which caused significant confusion until I realized what was going on: [This is a narrative sentence." This is a quotation." This is the narrative again." Another quotation."]

The NYT also makes this interesting observation:

When I read a physical book, I don’t have to look anywhere else to find out how far I’ve gotten. The iPad e-reader, iBooks, tries to create the illusion of a physical book. The pages seem to turn, and I can see the edges of those that remain. But it’s fake. There are always exactly six unturned pages, no matter where I am in the book.

I've had a bit of internal debate over exactly this issue. When you call up the options in the Kindle app (or iBooks), it shows you a progress bar. I hate the progress bar. I wish there was a way to get rid of it. I find it so disheartening to know there is only 17% more of my book remaining; it also provides an omniscient clue that the climax and conclusion are rapidly approaching.

But every time I think that, I realize that it's no different than with a real book - the thickness of the remaining pages provide the exact same clue that the end is near. And external clues are nothing new; back-of-book teasers have been ruining surprises for me for years. If there were a way to turn off the progress bar, leaving me in total suspense as to where I am in the narrative (aside from the author's own indications, of course), it would greatly enhance my immersion.

In the meantime, I struggle happily with these drawbacks; I'll gladly deal with them in return for the convenience of e-reading. Now if only public library books were compatible with the iPad (the NYPL eBooks only support Sony e-readers?!), I'd be very happy indeed.

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