Reading a e-books is just different. Not just the medium (electronic vs paper pages) but what the reader brings to the table. Some of the differences are obvious, others not. First, it’s the reader’s eyes, which are now focused on a screen with margins carefully selected to facilitate rapid sight-reading. Eyes speed over the sentences, which in most cases, are purposely short, almost staccato bullets. Subordinate phrases are avoided by the writer, the kind that the old readers of paper books loved to curl into and roll on their lips. Gone. No, e-book readers are in a hurry and they expect to move along.
I have written 9 novels, none specifically for digital publication. Had I intended to write for this medium from the get-go I would have constructed my sentences differently, used far fewer compound sentences and dependent clauses. Brief declarative sentences work best. I suspect that my e-readers are not as interested in beautifully constructed sentences as the narrative; keep the story moving because my reader doesn’t want to linger long. Besides on an I-Pad, with little more than a tap of the finger, he/she can slip away to unlimited on-line diversions. Check e-mail and subscribe to dozens of new experiences. Make it good and make it quick. I predict a fresh interest in Hemingway, or other minimalist stylists like him.
Reading a hard-cover book at the table has always been an ordeal. Ever been alone in a restaurant and wanted to keep yourself entertained by a good story? God didn’t provide us enough hands for this: you need at least one for the fork or spoon, and another for the knife. Even if you allocate your free hand to hold the book before your eyes, it’s no easy task to keep it open and your eyes focused on the right place as you glance away to spear a radish with your fork. But with an e-book, no problem. You can easily turn the pages by click “Next Page,” with one finger while you keep your mouth filled with the other. One would suspect that is also true with familiar places for reading, such as the bathroom or while clutching the hand of your child or spouse in the adjacent seat as an airplane shudders in turbulent air.
And then there’s the problem of back-reading, and by that I mean glancing back through a book to recover a name, fact or incident that you didn’t quite understand on the first reading. With a paper book you can shuffle back to a bent tab or underlined phrase, or just remember that what you’re looking for is in the second chapter. Not soeasy with an e-book. Of course, there’s the search software functionality, but searching an electronic document requires a specificity of memory that most of us don’t have. Things should get better in that department in the future.
In the past, publishers took much effort in fitting their paper books with the content. The “feel” of the book (presumably in one’s favorite reading chair or in bed) was important. The weight, print, paper, pagination all added to the total enjoyment of the reading. We’re in a transition period now in which older dedicated readers are committed to their beloved paper books and wouldn’t think of changing the experience for a digital version. Perhaps such readers will remain so dedicated to the old medium that print books will continue on for many years. But clearly, they will not be the majority.
Price matters, and the reduced cost of reading digital books creates increased sales. At $2.99 or less, many browsers may purchase e-books that they will never read, or will read only partially. And the idea of not putting a single new volume on my overcrowded bookshelf is appealing. Dust collectors should be reference books, and then many argue that even treasured reference books are now obsolete. Let the obscure factoid that may haunt me in the future be stored in the cloud or maintained by Wikipedia. Hey, freedom for storage of everything I might need in the future is liberating. It’s all there for me, but I don’t have to archive a thing.