more thoughts on reading e-books

As I’ve spent more time reading on my iPad, I’ve come to more realizations about how I read. The most surprising thing is how much I miss sharing books. This is more complicated than it sounds. I knew, of course, that you can’t really share e-books, but I have never really been someone who likes to share books. I’m happy to borrow books, but I get nervous loaning mine out. They come back beat up, or they don’t come back at all and then I resent the person who has my book, or I can’t remember who I loaned it to and it’s gone forever. So I’m not a big book sharer. And since my family shares a single Kindle account, my spouse and my son and I can all share books across our devices–even better, we can read that book simultaneously on our separate devices. But what I failed to account for is the fact that I do actually loan out my books. Not often, and not with very many people. But there are a couple of friends I would like to be able to loan a book to, and sharing books with my sister was one of the important ways that we stayed connected with each other. I hadn’t even realized how much it mattered to me to be able to exchange books with her until my Kindle reading got in the way. We’re currently exploring sharing an account, since she and I have more similar tastes in reading than my husband and I do. (The fact that the Alpha Gadgeteer and I rarely enjoy the same books took me a long time to adjust to–it can be hard, when reading is so important to you, to not be able to share it with someone you love.) So sharing books with my sister makes a lot of sense, especially as it’s a way of sharing our bond with each other in a pleasurable way, when so many of our other points of connection require more difficult emotions.

So one of the thing that I’ve rediscovered through reading on my iPad is that reading can be strongly tied to social connections. We exchange books as a way of saying, “I love you” or “I’m thinking of you” or any of a host of other emotions that connect us to each other.

Another thing that I’ve rediscovered is that we each individually read different texts in different ways. I had some sense of this in my post about false endings, in which I commented that most of my e-book reading was of thrillers, stories that pull me forward into their plot. But as I’ve spent more time with this contraption, and as I’ve let my book-buying habits expand, I’ve come to realize that there are some books I really would prefer to read in paper codex form. Some of this has to do with how I navigate the text: some works ask me to read them slowly, to revisit earlier passages, to refer back to past points in the narrative. Some works deserve to have a graphic presentation that reflects their content, a font that was chosen deliberately for them, a paper stock that makes up their heft, or their lack of it.

The iPad has worked fabulously well for me when I was reading Stieg Larsson’s trilogy or Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In fact, it worked ideally. I didn’t have to wait to make it to a bookstore to start reading the 2nd book after I finished the 1st (something, of course, that was true only because I didn’t start reading them until the entire series was out). And I didn’t have to awkwardly hold the 700-plus pages of The Passage as I sped through it. (And I was less likely to throw my iPad against the wall in my annoyance at the ending than I would have been with the book itself. I know it’s the first part of a trilogy, but sheesh!) And given that I do a lot of my reading at night, in bed, with my glasses off and the font greatly enlarged, I do speed through these books–there’s not room for lots of words on the screen when you’re reading in a big font. You just read, click, read, click, read, click. Any sense of physical movement through the book is greatly diminished. And that’s fine. It worked with how I was experiencing those books anyway. I was reading them to find out what happened next. I cared about the characters and the language just enough to make me care about the plot.

But now I’m reading Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, and though I’m not very far into it, I’m finding that I really wish I was reading it in book form. I haven’t been able to quite put my finger on it (there’s an apt metaphor for you), but I need to be able to sink further into it, to take my time with it, and reading it on my iPad is somehow getting in the way of that.

It’s possible this is less about the iPad and more about The Finkler Question. After my father died, a few years ago, I lost the ability to read any serious fiction. I was in the middle of reading English, August and it was a great book, but I put it down and couldn’t pick it back up. Instead I picked up Tony Hillerman. And then I devoured a lot of P. D. James, and I discovered Laura Lippman, and a whole lot of not very good chick lit that I mostly don’t recall. This got better, slowly, and I discovered that I could read What is the What, even though Philip Roth was off limits. I loved The Imperfectionists. And I never lost the ability to read some of my old favorites, like Jane Eyre. But I still sometimes hit an unexpected wall when I’m reading. I know other people who have had similar experiences, and I know that some people get back to their old ways of reading, and I continue to hope that will be true for me too.

My point in sharing this is that we have different ways of reading different books. I was fine reading novels about death. But there was a category of books that felt like they asked too much of me: I needed to commit to them, to enter into their world, to let them take charge of me. And perhaps it was that I felt too unsettled in my own world to do that, but I simply couldn’t read those books. I needed to be able to stay on the surface of what I was reading.

So perhaps that’s what my problem is with The Finkler Question. It’s asking too much of me, and I’m still not ready to read that way. But I think, too, that the iPad has something to do with this. It’s very easy to race through reading on the iPad. All texts look the same in the Kindle app, and sometimes they start to blur together. Maybe I can retrain myself to read more slowly even on my iPad, to take my time with the feel of the language. I might still be able to rewire some of my perceptual habits.

But I don’t know that I will. I had an exchange with one of my children that made me think that as much as I do love reading on my iPad, I don’t love all types of reading on my iPad. I had bought Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass for my son, and have been really pleased that he’s been enjoying it. (He and I often do share similar tastes in reading, and to be able to share favorite books with your child is even more lovely than to share them with your spouse.) But I inadvertently ordered the mass market paperback for him, and the font is fairly small, especially compared to the books normally printed for kids to read. So although he’s enjoying the book, he was feeling a bit frustrated with the print, and it seemed to me it was making the book a bit harder than it needed to be. He’s enjoyed reading books on our Kindle before, so I bought the Kindle edition of The Golden Compass–less than $8 and then I can read it on my iPad along with him! But he soon decided that he preferred reading it as a book. Yes, the type was bigger on the Kindle, and yes, he’d enjoyed reading some Rick Riordan books on it. But this time it wasn’t working for him. It felt better as a book. I think he felt similar to how I feel about The Finkler Question. Some books you need to focus on, and you need to do that in book form.

3 thoughts on “more thoughts on reading e-books

  1. >The Golden Compass, what a wonderful idea. N and I are reading The Wind in the Door now, but it's slow going now that he gets home from school late and has so much homework.I haven't tried e-readers so I can't speak to the main point of your post. The idea does not appeal, but maybe if I tried it I'd get hooked. For the longest time I had no interest in Facebook and you see how that turned out.

  2. Sarah
    I loved reading this. I have been wondering if I want a kindle. It seems as if it would be useful in certain instances but I love books for the very reasons you state. i enjoyed the site as well but the technicalities are beyond my knowledge. I have a friend in Phily who restores old books. Looking at her work and the site in the old city was quite wonderful. Her name is Jude Robison.

Comments are closed.