e-reading: the pros and cons

this is my new favorite picture of geraldine
Welcome to 2012!

The past week has been full of reading and writing, much of which I'm planning to share with you eventually (a lot of the writing was in the form of reviews of the stuff I'd been reading -- it all gets a little circular). In the meantime, I thought I'd kick this year's worth of posts off with a few musings on that perennially-hot topic of e-books.

I want to preface this post with the disclaimer that while I prefer, on the whole, to read books analog, I am not into the doom-and-gloom prognostications of those who rend their clothes and gnash their teeth over the rise in popularity of digital reading. So while I'm presenting this in a pro/con format I remain agnostic on the general principle of e-books as a thing in the world. Basically, I'm the biblio equivalent of an omnivore: I'll read wherever, whenever, whatever, as long as it captures and holds my attention.

So: e-reading.

About six months ago, I downloaded Adobe Digital Editions in order to read advance review e-galleys of forthcoming books on my laptop. Using the interface is my first sustained interaction with "e-book" reading -- as opposed to reading online content which we're used to reading on the computer (i.e. this blog). More on that later. But reading books I'd normally read in actual physical paper-and-glue-and-ink form in digital form has given me a chance to think in a more concrete way about reading digital vs. analog texts, what I like and don't like about the experience, and where I'd love to go from here.

The Pros

  • Price. I already have a laptop, so downloading the software from Adobe incurred no additional expense. Since I'm reading e-galleys for the most part, those are also free. I have only actually purchased one e-book so far (a Laurie King's short story) but do notice that e-book versions of texts are often significantly less expensive than their analog counterparts. So, assuming one has the budget to purchase and maintain a laptop, tablet, or other e-reader device, I can see where the financial incentive to adopt e-book reading might come from. I'm also grateful for the way the low overhead of producing e-books and e-galleys has made publishers more open to providing advance review copies to bloggers and other reviewers who previously might not have been considered worth contacting.
  • Speed of Access. It's great to be able to download a galley or e-book and begin reading immediately, I have to say. If an e-version is going to get me an advance review copy of a book I'd otherwise have to wait six months to read, I'm totally down with all the other inconveniences entailed.
  • Compactness. So I don't really have any portable devices (I carry my netbook to work sometimes, but as Hanna and I walk daily the two miles to work and back and I have to carry lunch, etc., plus there might be errands to run on the way home, I usually think carefully about whether the additional 2-3 pounds of computer is worth it. But I can see the appeal of e-readers for people who want to pack 5-10 titles (or more) and have some options for their lunch-time reading. Similarly, I can see how e-readers appeal to minimalist folks who are looking to strip down their material possessions ... though I personally feel no living space is quite complete without the teetering stacks of library books and the overflowing bookcases stacked with $1 cart finds. 
  • Environmental considerations. I haven't actually looked for any sort of analysis of the "green" rating for various e-reader devices, or the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of electronic vs. analog books. However, if a compelling case could be made that e-reading was somehow less environmentally wasteful than traditional book production, it would be a point in favor of e-books.
  • Co-sleeping. The backlit screen of the laptop makes it a convenient choice for reading when Hanna wants to get to sleep before I do at night. I can cuddle up next to her and finish a chapter or read some fic without having a bedside light on. Obviously there are solutions to this problem for analog books as well, but it's a nice perk with digital reading.

The Cons

  • More time staring at a screen. I don't obsess about the number of hours a day or week I stare at a computer screen (it's 10pm and I'm blogging, for goodness sake), but during the weekdays especially when I spent 7-8 hours at work per day working heavily with computer interfaces, I resent coming home at night and remembering that the book I was in the middle of reading requires that I spend more time looking at a screen. I find I put off reading my electronic books until the weekend, and even then sometimes drag my feet.
  • Marginalia. God, I'm addicted to taking notes -- particularly in non-fiction books which I plan to review or otherwise interact with intellectually. And yes, ADE and other interfaces have highlight/comment/bookmark/sticky note functions. I AM NOT CONVINCED. I have yet to find an electronic interface that allows me to scribble notes, underline, annotate, argue with, and generally synthesize my reading experience to the same degree that a plain old pencil or ballpoint and a pack of post-it notes does. This is a serious downside (for me) with the e-reading experience. 
  • Accessing Endnotes. ADE, at least, doesn't have any sort of dynamic way to access references in a work. Again, this is largely a non-fiction problem, but I love being able to flip back and forth between end-notes and the body of the text (I love footnotes even better for ease of reference). The clumsiness of the interfaces I've encountered basically mean I avoid moving back and forth through the text in significant ways because it's difficult to get back to where you were. This leads to a thinner reading experience, since I'm interacting less with the various portions of the book and thinking less about how they're related.
  • Physical time/space experience. This is a very specific-to-me sort of complaint, but I read and relate to books in a very physical fashion. When I need to access a particular passage I remember it in a physical way -- I remember where it was located on the page, at what point in the text, etc. The book as object is an integral part to how I access the information contained within it. And I find that without that physical object, I digest and retain the information within the e-book with much more difficulty. I'm open to the possibility of re-training myself, but for now ... it's really an inadequate way for me to encounter important texts. 
  • Attention Span. I'm not into the moral panic over digital devices and how they're changing our brains in horrible ways OMG!! (I'm overdue to write a ranty post about that ...) But I do notice for myself that certain kinds of reading are much better done away from the computer and its associated distractions -- the constant compulsion to check email, check Google Reader, Twitter, etc. All of the internet reading I do is, I believe, important in its own right. But it requires a different sort of attention and interaction than book-length works of fiction and non-fiction. And reading in a digital interface cues the short-form attention span part of my brain to activate.

What I'd Love to See

So, overall, right now, I find e-reading to be a highly second-rate experience compared to analog books. I'm still more likely to tuck a print book into my bag for reading at lunch, or over coffee in a cafe, or to request a print advance review copy of a book if given the option. Even at reduced prices, I don't find e-books worth the cover price over an actual physical print book at this point -- even setting aside the worrying "who owns a book that isn't really a physical object" question such a purchase raises. Here are the improvements -- including a couple of fantastical ones -- I'd like to see when it comes to digital reading in the years to come:

  • Interactive references. Seriously. Wikipedia already does this, and I know other web interfaces as well, where the footnotes are hyperlinks or pop-out text bubbles, anything so that you can access a person's sources without scrolling to the end of the damn book and back. 
  • Better marginalia options. On the one hand, I love the speed of keypad typing but with marginalia I'm old-school and like that pencil in my hand so I can triple-underline and put in as many outraged exclamation points as I so desire. Also happy and sad faces. Any successful e-reader is going to have to allow me to doodle in the margins of my reading matter, and access said doodles at a later date in order to write those oh-so-serious reviews.
  • A screen that didn't tire my eyes. Computer screens are getting so much better, and I know the Kindle and other custom e-readers are way better at this than a simple netbook ... but as helpful as the light from the computer screen is in bed, the light from the computer screen is also a pain in the ass (or, more accurately, the eye). Half my wearyness for looking at the screen comes from the light. So obviously, the less overtly computer-like a reader screen can be, the better.
  • The ability to transform e-reading to print and back again. Obviously, there are times when e-reading is the most efficient option, and times when print is best for the situation at hand. I personally would love some sort of book-like Teselecta to come along allowing me to turn print books into e-book and digital reading matter into print depending on the most appropriate form for the occasion. I'd love, for example, to be able to turn my favorite fan fiction stories into anthologies to flip through on the T or cozy up with in bed. 
  • An object is an object is an object. There's something about books qua books that I find to be not only pleasurable on sensual level (ah! the smell and feel of a well-made book!) but also integral to the intellectual act of reading and integrating what I've read. I'm not sure how e-books are going to offer a workable alternative to my physical-object-as-intellectual-reference way of taking in and retaining knowledge, but in order for me to make the switch from primarily analog to a higher proportion of digital books, a solution will have to be presented.
Have any of you used digital readers? If so, what kinds and what have your experiences with them been? What do you love and/or hate about them? What do you find easy and/or difficult to read in digital form? Share away in comments.


  1. Great post, Anna. I don't use an e-reader for a few of the reasons you mentioned. Since I am either staring at a screen for class or work, I prefer not to stare at another in my downtime. Also, since I get migraines, my eyes tire very easily when looking at a screen for extended periods of time. I do think e-readers are nice for accessibly and convenient. I know that some librarians have strong opinions one way or another, but I've always been in the mindset of whatever gets people to read!

  2. @foureleven thanks for stopping by! I still have your last email in my inbox waiting until I make the time to respond. Anyway, yes, I totally second your point about the migraines. It's a small accessibility issue in some ways, but I do find that a lot of tech stuff overlooks that not everyone can physically interact with a screen to the same extent. 3-D movies are another case in point. Hanna and I basically have to write off any big-screen release that comes out in 3-D because it just isn't worth getting sick!

  3. I bought myself a kindle for Christmas and LOVE it. I'm a total convert. The standard kindle (and the nook, I think, though not the Kindle Fire) does not have a LED screen, they're not back lit, so I don't find it tires my eyes the way reading on a regular screen does. It feels, surprisingly, wonderfully, exactly like reading paper, and I can read outside or in the greenhouse in bright light which is impossible with a regular LED screen.
    I rarely, if ever, write marginalia, so I can't comment on that, but footnotes/end notes are very intuitive, and to me anyway, better than analog. Just tap where the footnote is indicated in the text, and I'm instantly at the note itself. When done, I just hit the back button, and I'm back to where I was reading.
    I got it originally to read digital files in a more comfortable way, but I've been surprised to discover I much prefer the reading experience on it to analog, to the point that I'm tempted to re-purchase some of my favorite titles in digital format.

  4. I have a Kobo (which I do NOT recommend), and I still definitely prefer physical books for several reasons

    1) I agree that I want better note-taking abilities in ebooks. I know some ereaders are better for that, and when I eventually replace mine, I'll look out for that.

    2) I find most ebooks that I'm sent to review are in PDF format, and although the Kobo is better at reading them than most ereaders (you can zoom in), it's still a pain to zoom in, scroll down to the bottom half of the page, then scroll to the side of the page to flip it. (As opposed to ePubs, where you just tap the side of the screen to flip, and it's already at a comfortable reading size.) eReaders have to get better at reading PDFs.

    3) I like seeing the physical process I'm making in a book. My eReader will tell me I'm 76% of the way through or whatever, but it's not the same as seeing how much of the book is left to read.

    4) eBooks are not as demanding as physical books. Physical books demand to be read. They remind you every time you look at them. eBooks get filed away on my eReader and are easily forgotten.

    5) Again, a problem with my eReader, but books don't suddenly cut out when the battery ran out without warning. (Damn you, Kobo!) What's more, they don't require charging at all. Also, if you drop them in a puddle, it's just that book, not your whole library (or, even if you have the ebooks backed up on your computer, still the expensive device).

    6) I find my bookshelves comforting. I love being surrounded by books, and able to browse my shelf (or other people's shelves).

    7) Physical books are still cheaper. I find lots of physical books for a dollar or two in various places. But what's more, even if I spend $7 on a used book (where an ebook would be about the same price), I can then sell back my book to the bookstore for $3 credit, making it a $4 book. I can't get anything back for the ebook, even if I hate it and delete it.

    I am definitely still pro-ebook as a concept, but nothing compares to a real book in my personal reading life. I am really looking forward to good etextbooks, though. (Good meaning that they are cheap and you are able to make notes in them.) That would be handy. Especially if they have a search function!

  5. There are many pros and cons about this subject, but personally, I love to read both ways. When I find an interesting eBook on All You Can Books I download and read it on my e-Reader. I love to read printed books as well, because the felling is not the same. It really doesn't matter the way we read, as long as we enjoy it!