The Digital Reader: E-books

Monday, November 8, 2010

I'm not going to get into a talmudic discussion of e-readers or the merits of e-books versus print. That's been done to death and there's not a lot I can add to it. But for the purposes of this series I will describe how I read books in a day when that doesn't necessarily mean hunkering down with a paperback.

I tried out many of the first attempts at e-books and like most people, found them pretty clunky, hard to use, and not worth the time. Even when the Kindle came out and demonstrated an obvious advance in the technology, I didn't buy one. I just didn't want to buy a separate device strictly for reading books, and I suppose I still had some loyalty to print. But as soon as Amazon made a Kindle app for the iPhone, which I already carried in my pocket every day, I was sold.

For me, it was about convenience. I'd long been in the habit of carrying whatever book I was reading in my bag, but if I wasn't going to work or setting out somewhere specifically to read or study, I usually didn't bring the bag and hence, no book. That meant less chances to read. What having e-books available on my phone all the time meant was more spontaneous opportunities to read: standing in lines, waiting for the train, in between meetings, watching my kids (ssshhhh). Instead of checking Twitter for the hundredth time that day or playing a game, I could knock out a few pages. I also walk to work a mile each way, and you'd be surprised at what a difference a few ounces out of my bag makes on my shoulder each day.

I haven't given up on print books completely. I simply can't find everything I want to read as an e-book, nor do I think I want to. I spend so much time staring at screens that opening up a book is a welcome relief, a way to unplug and force myself to ignore it all for a while. One of the standard complaints about reading e-books on iPhones or iPads is the temptation of the internet just one app away, and I definitely fall prey to that. But what it also tells me is whether I'm really into a book or not. The better the book, the less temptation to tweet. Everything else disappears just like if I was reading it in print.

The convenience of having a book with me wherever I go by default wins out over any worries about corraling my attention span. If I decide to buy a book, I'll look for an e-version first (and it doesn't hurt that they're generally cheaper). I've used Apple's iBooks app and I actually like its interface better than the Kindle app, but until the iBookstore's selection gets better I'll spend more money at Amazon.
I've been keeping count of how many books I read each year since 2006, and the number hasn't changed since I started reading a lot of e-books. I've heard claims that people who read e-books end up reading more. My experience with eking out a few extra pages here and there might back that up, but the medium really has nothing to do with my big constraint on reading books: time. Unless I win the lottery and quit my job, or if someone wants to come over and watch my kids, that's not going to change any time soon. But my digital reading routine has helped me increase the sheer amount of things I read in addition to books, all the news and magazine content that I've learned how to wrangle with these various tools. I suppose I could read more books if I dialed that stuff back, but it's a good mix of sources that tend to feed one another. The digital revolution hasn't killed reading. It's a bigger part of my life now more than ever.

This is the fifth and final post in the Digital Reader Series, about reading in the information age.