I used to buy and read tons of paper books. I completely turned to digital ebooks. Eventually I’ve found a new balance.
When I try to work out something, I need to study, explore, exclude everything else of the same type in the meanwhile — then I can reach a conclusion. Only after that path is complete, I can get the balance (pretty much) right.
Books, in this case.
I had been a freelance editor, working for several publishers back in the days in Milan, so I know quite well what I’m talking about. I used to fill my house with books. They were literally everywhere, and there was a time in the late 1990s when I had to use a sleeping bag on my own king-sized bed, because the other half was completely covered by books, music sheets, manuals and printed tutorials.
When I moved to the UK, my former home contained so many books that I had to trash or give them away. It’s likely that half of them were unread, especially the crappy translated ones. I needed a change. In London I embraced the (not so) new wave of eBooks, buying my first Kobo e-reader. I found myself completely enthused: I loved the device, its software, the flexibility, the light weight, the sharp screen and a lot more. I started buying eBooks, enjoying the cheap prices and often the free ones.
Pros of the eBooks:
- I can carry my entire library, everywhere.
- Digital is cheaper.
- I can jump from one book to another one (a habit of mine) with ease.
- I don’t accumulate stuff.
- Books don’t get covered in dust.
- No piling effect.
- The house is cleaner, with a lot of free space on the shelves.
- I save paper, therefore trees.
- I can dig the dictionary on the fly.
With my new ideological zeal, after a year I bought a second e-reader: a Kindle Paperwhite, and a replacement for my first Kobo, the Glo version with the backlight. I could add another pro:
- I can read in a completely dark room.
THE COGNITIVE ISSUES
Months passed, maybe a year and a half, when all the small nuisances I’ve found in the meantime finally came up.
First of all: I never fell for the Kindle. At the beginning I enjoyed it very much, probably because the software running the Kobo (a custom Linux-based OS) has been proven unreliable and unstable most of the time. The Kindle-vs-Kobo seemed to emulate the Mac-vs-Windows dichotomy. The Kindle “just worked”, so in my mind it was the Mac-like e-reader. In fact it is closed, barely customisable, shipped with a custom eBook format developed by Amazon, different from the de facto standard adopted by Kobo and many other e-readers (including Apple’s iPad). While I enjoy the closed-uncustomisable-Apple-decided Mac OS X, on an e-reader that same attitude doesn’t work for me.
My “pros list” started to turn into a “cons list”:
- The I can carry all my library everywhere is really useful only if I have to move to a new house, since I don’t read more than 1/2 books at a time. Plus, I don’t move so often.
- Books are cheaper – not always.
- I can’t always find the book I want, in a digital format.
- Jumping from a book to another one isn’t easy anymore, probably because I’m growing old and my brain is not that flexible.
- Even if I don’t accumulate books, a vast number of eBooks are forgotten if I buy and don’t start to read them straight away.
- It’s impossible to read a PDF on any e-reader that I tried.
- I’ve always felt a strange and unpleasant feeling of being “lost” in the book, because of the lack of sense of “where I am”, particularly with the Kindle.
- I hate not being able to jump easily between chapters, or some random point that I recall with my eidetic memory. Also, the eidetic memory is totally annihilated by not having any references: space, amount of pages read/left, even and odd pairs, etcetera.
- The lack of typography diversity is unbearable, after a while: everything has the same style and presentation. Having books with the same style, no different headings or other editorial features, is dull as fuck.
- It’s frustrating to pay for your books and being unable to borrow them to your friends (or viceversa).
- Countless times in which I wanted to read my “entire library, everywhere” and I found the e-reader with no battery left. Or, in the case of my Kobo, in need of an hardware reset.
In the end I’ve found myself searching for a new method.
Instead of going backwards, I just found a new balance, based on the different media applied to different scenarios. Every digital media has its own feature, and the paperback books clearly lack in certain situations.
This is my current balance:
- If I read a technical manual, or something that’s needed for my daily work, I read it in the ePUB format, or in PDF, using iBooks (free with Mac OS X 10.9) on my Mac or my iPhone. Because I have the best feature of all: the SEARCH input (and its results). It’s for work, so the odds are that I don’t need to read the whole book or study it. Search > Find > Read. End of.
One huge advantage is that I can drag whatever book I have in those two formats into iBooks, and it takes care of syncing the library throughout all my devices using iCloud.
- If I read a book that’s too big I keep it in my Kobo e-reader. If I read a non-fiction book (i.e. a biography) it’s likely that I keep it in my Kobo as well (it depends though: the genre, the length, etcetera).
- If I read something related to history, or a novel, I buy the paperback. Because I need to know exactly where I am in the book, my eidetic memory get fucked by the current e-reader structure, therefore my reading suffers a lot. I’ve been annoyed by this too many times. Still, if I have to recall the timescale of the novels or history-related books I read on the Kobo/Kindle, I fail on a scale of 3 out of 5.
I don’t want to pile books anymore, so whenever I finish something that’s not really special, I’ll sell or exchange it.
- I’ll probably give up with the Kindle, the simple reasons being:
1) I’m not allowed to change the typography other than the 4/5 crappy preloaded fonts. Also, books are fully justified with no hyphenation whatsoever, and the results are often hard to read.
2) There is no decent way to know where I am in the book, there’s no reference other than the utterly nerdy reference of “Location”, a custom index developed by Amazon, useless to any human being more interested in reading the actual story rather than trying to understand a criptic system built by engineers for engineers. Of course, if you’re someone that finds normal to see “Loc 418 of 4361” instead of “Page 24 of 250”, and still happy about finding yourself at “Loc 425 of 4361” after one single page turning, well, go for it.
3) I don’t really like being unable to read my ebooks on another device, because of the custom proprietary Amazon format.
About the perks of the eBooks compared to paperbacks: probably the most useful one is the direct link to an embedded multiple-language dictionary. And that’s why I have the Dictionary.com and Forvo apps on my iPhone, for definitions and most of all: pronounces (which I heavily search for, because I want my english to improve in both directions).
Funny thing, during my discussions about this with my wife (which has had pretty much the same approach and problems), The Guardian published an article right on topic: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation – I was really surprised to find out that even the “digital natives” preferred to read on paper.
All in all, to me it’s like being at an event (gig, festival, new year’s eve, whatever) and spending most of the time taking pictures or crappy videos instead of enjoying the moment and make my memories richer. Of course, everyone is free to do that, I just don’t.
A comment to The Guardian’s article that I share the view with:
Researchers should also compare fixed-format epub digital texts with reflowable. Fixed format replicates a printed page to near perfection and always appears the same. With the latest revisions to Adobe’s InDesign, fixed layout is likely to become common on iPads and Nooks, particularly for textbooks. It won’t appear on Kindles any time soon though. There’s no inexpensive way to create fixed format for the Kindle’s proprietary KF8 format. It has to be hand-coded.
My own hunch is that a printed page, with its predictability, triggers parts of our brain designed to learn routes through a forest by remembering the appearance of this tree and that rock. Reflowable offers no such clues, so readers become less engaged. Reading reflowable is a bit like bobbing in the middle of an ocean.
This matters to me because I write, edit and publish books in print and digital, including textbooks. Now that fixed format is available, I’m thinking of adding more simple line-graphics to pages so a page will stand out in a reader’s mind as unique. That should aid in remembering.
But I’d love to see research that’d test if a fixed page format is the key to being memorable, along with what makes it memorable.