How Does E-Reading Affect the Reader?

June 1, 2009 @ 8:00 pm | Filed under:

I continue to ponder the question of whether e-reading causes me to react to books differently than I would if I’d read them in a traditional paper format. Today I finished my first Kindle download. I don’t have a Kindle, but I do have an iPod Touch, and there’s an app now that allows you to download Kindle purchases to your iPhone or Touch. I’ve been wanting to try it, curious about how the Kindle format would compare to e-readers like Stanza or Classics. Jen Robinson’s review of The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams made me want to read the book (that’s a nod to a recurring theme at Jen’s excellent children’s literature blog), and since our library system doesn’t have a copy yet, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to give the Kindle app a try.

I’m afraid reading The Chosen One on my Touch may have affected my experience of the book. I know it affected my feelings about the book’s ending, because I was stunned when I realized I had reached the end. It didn’t feel finished. I kept flicking and flicking to get the page to turn, but there was nothing but a blank white screen.

I’ve had this happen with e-books before. I think our minds are trained to interpret the pacing and arc of a book in the context of how much book is left to read. Now and then, I’ve read a book which I thought had twenty or thirty pages left to go, and it was a mental jolt to discover an appendix or afterword occupying those pages, so that the story ended long before I was expecting it to. On an e-reader, that is always the experience, unless I remember to check the total page count and pay attention to how far along I am. That’s one of the features I appreciate in the Stanza reader: a tap on the center of the screen brings up a page meter. Page 40/244. 20.33% into book. It’s maybe a little more detail than I require, but very helpful indeed.

The Kindle app lacks a one-tap progress gauge.* You can check total page count and do the gauging yourself, but let’s face it: that’s a number I’m just not going to be able to keep in my head, not if I’m going to remember my kids’ birthdays and stuff.

So wham, there I was suddenly at the end of The Chosen One, with no warning whatsoever. And I was stunned. The story didn’t feel finished yet—I’d have guessed the climax was some thirty or forty pages away. So unprepared was I by the absence of the subtle information transmitted by the weight and heft of the traditional book-in-hand (just a sliver of pages left: you know it’s wrapping up) that it was a good five minutes before I actually believed I was at the last page. I thought I must have messed up the download or something. I even considered firing Jen an email to ask if my last page was THE last page. Finally, after rereading the final paragraphs seven or eight times, I grasped that no, that really was the end of the book. I felt the most curious combination of disappointment and guilt—disappointment that the story concluded before I was ready (I really wanted to see how certain events played out. Joshua? Patrick?) and guilt over the possibility that I’d shortchanged the author’s intent by reading in a format that deprived me of pacing clues. Maybe I’d have been prepared to accept the open-ended resolution (there’s an oxymoron, eh?) if I’d known it was coming.

I wrote a book with an open-ended resolution once, and it was a deliberate and carefully considered choice. Even so, and even with a dwindling page count to alert my readers that the tale was about to end, more than one young reader wrote me notes of mingled praise and reproach. “Please hurry up and write the next book FAST because I want to know what happens!” Readers like resolution. We like answers. We want, as my young fans so plainly put it, to know what happens.

So here I am in the aftermath of The Chosen One, frustrated because I want to know what happens to thirteen-year-old Kyra, the daughter of her father’s third wife, all of them members of a fundamentalist sect living in the desert behind a wire fence, restricted from books and medicine and outside influences of any kind. I didn’t love this book, I’m afraid. (I always feel terribly apologetic when that is the case, because I know how hard the author must have labored, and criticizing someone’s book feels very much like criticizing someone’s child.) I could point at specific things that bothered me, but I can’t shake the curiosity over how much influence format had on my reaction. I mean, I’m a huge Edith Wharton fan, but when I read Ethan Frome on my iPod, my first and only time reading the novel, I had great difficulty in losing myself in the story. The unfolding narrative seemed to be happening at a great distance. I never felt completely engaged with the characters. Was it the cold, sterile e-reader, robbing me of the sensory experience of the book? No rustle of paper, no smell of ink, no satisfying weight in my hands? Or was the distance an integral part of the novel itself: the frigidity a parallel of the bleak, snowlocked New England landscape of the setting and the bleak, frozen emotional states of the characters? If I were to read it again (as I will, someday) in proper ink-and-paper format, will I say, Ah, yes, this story means to keep me at a distance; Ethan and his wife are sealed so permanently inside their pain that there can be no warmth, no welcome for the reader. That’s part of the point.

If I’d read The Chosen One on paper, would I feel more accepting of its unanswered questions? Would I have felt more of an emotional connection with Kyra, a heroine who is certainly brave and complex, but whose narrative struck me as bare, rushed, not fully realized? One reviewer described the novel as “lyrical,” which perplexes me because I’d thought it distinctly not lyrical and kept wishing the prose had been more lush, more complex. I’m seeing a lot of spare, lean, bare prose in contemporary YA, most often in first-person present-tense narratives—which makes sense; a first-person novel can sound pretentious, flowery, or inauthentic if the narrator’s voice is poetic or linguistically eccentric. It takes great skill to tell a first-person story in rich and lovely language. (I’m seeing it happen right now in the opening chapter of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, which I downloaded as a free sample on the Kindle app. The narrator’s voice is first person, present tense, yet layered and idiosyncratic and, yes, absolutely, lyrical. So, okay, here’s a case where the richness of the language is not being stripped in any way by the format in which I’m reading it. Hmm.)

* A commenter pointed out that the Kindle for iPhone app does have a blue status bar that pops up at the bottom of the screen with a center tap. I’d seen it, but since the page numbers just above it read “page 80-81” or “page 752-753” for, say, a 1250-page book—tiny screen-sized pages, you understand—I’d mentally dismissed the status bar as inaccurate. So whoops there. However, the larger question stands. A book automatically conveys information about length and pacing to the reader. An e-reader requires the reader to seek out that information with an extra tap. I’m fascinated by the idea that a book’s physical presence participates in the communication of narrative tension. Of course, reading a story in a collection or anthology can deprive the reader of subtle pacing clues in the same way that an e-reader does; the reader must consciously seek out that information.

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19 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. nina says:

    I’ve been considering a Kindle so any thoughts about the experience are appreciated. I didn’t know about the itouch/Kindle app. I’m going to check that one. I haven’t found ereader easy to use. And I need to check Stanza again. (Thanks for reminding me.)

    Did you read the article in the NYT a few weeks ago about the Kindle. I’m certainly not willing to have a home devoid of books but the thought of having a 100 of my favoirte books resting on my nightstand is tempting. I wonder what sort of searching capablity the Kindle has. Imagine being able to search your collection for a quote or an idea you remember but don’t remember the exact book.

    Your experience of coming to the end of The Chosen reminded me of reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, one of my all time favorite books. I was a little let down when I discovered there was a short story tacked on to the end of the book.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  2. Kate says:

    I read Frances Burney’s Evelina last year on my Palm Pilot. The e-reader software I have has the percent and amount of pages read in the corner of the screen at all times, so I was always aware of how much I had read.

    I love real books, but the experience of reading an e-book isn’t really different. I have read more e-books since, and I really like having books (on my Palm) in my purse to read at all times. It’s also easy to read in the dark in bed with an electronic device.

  3. Mommelissa says:

    U own a Kindle an an iTouch, and the iTouch app is nothing compared to the Kindle. Kindle does show you on the bottom if every page how far you are in the book. The screen, bit being backlit, is easier to read especially for long periods if time. It us just a really different experience. As far as how you experience a book on a Kindle differently, I find I’m more apt to try new things with the sample feature so u can get into it before I decide to buy. If it’s a really great book (just finished Vast Fields if Ordinary by Nick Burd) I find I watch the % completed tick by with excitment and then an almost dread. 23% to go? This is going to be such a great ride! Wow, 1/2 done already. Only 78% left? Will the store wrap up in time? I guess I do a similar

  4. Mommelissa says:

    …(sorry my iTouch first like this comment box and it cut me off)
    A similar thing with a paper book, but it feels different with the eversion. I feel I get less reading fatigue with Kindle and when I do get tired I either put it on text-to-speech or adjust to a larger print and take my glasses off. Picking up Jon Savage’s Teenage yesterday I was put off by the small print and extra wide pages even thiugh the content interested me. That would not have happened if I has the Kindle version rather than print.

  5. Colleen says:

    What an interesting post! I’m very behind the times technologically (my phone doesn’t even flip!), but I’m curious about all the changes taking place with presentation of books, newspapers, etc. While I worry about the time I spend on the computer, I’m finding that various blogs (like yours)send me to the library and bookstore for books I never would have sought out otherwise. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give up in-the-hand paper books, but my, wouldn’t it free up some shelf space!

    Thanks also for the link to Jen Robinson’s page. I have an avid eleven-year-old reader, and am constantly on the look out for books that will challenge him yet be appropriate. While I comb Ambleside and other similar resources often, it’s nice to have your blog and other resources for contemporary as well as classic possibilities. I realized just in writing this that I’m often put off or concerned by the cover art of contemporary YA books, and therefore feel less confident browsing at the library. Thanks for providing personally and through your links other sources of book possibilities.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Very interesting! I never connected that, but it makes a lot of sense. I don’t even like reading knitting patterns or recipes online, so I don’t think it’s for me. But that is a really good point you made.

  7. Sue says:

    The iTouch app does let you see how much of the book you’ve read. If you tap the “page” once, it brings up a screen with a blue bar along the bottom of the page that shows you how much of the book is done and how much is left. (I’m a little more than a third of the way through the book I’m currently reading.) I love the application. I can and do, carry dozens of books in my back pocket now and actually prefer the app to a traditional book for it’s ease of use. I still like the look and feel of traditional books, but the Kindle app definitely has a place for me. I’m not sure I’d like a real Kindle as well because it’s bigger and wouldn’t be as easy to have with me all the time.

  8. Queen of Carrots says:

    One is reminded of the end of Northanger Abbey, something about how although the situation was painful and suspenseful to Henry and Catherine, the reader could conclude by the shortness of the pages that it would come to a speedy resolution. I suppose a ticker would substitute somewhat, but it would still be different from the tangible evidence of weight and thickness.

    I’ve been reading a book about the history of reading, though, and it’s interesting how the changing methods of mere delivery have changed the experience throughout the ages, whether it’s a monument, a scroll, a book with pages, words with spacing or without, how cheap and available books are. No doubt it will change again many times.

  9. Beck says:

    Interesting! I can’t afford a kindle, so it’s not something I have any personal experience with. I know that I won’t read books on the computer, though.

  10. MelanieB says:

    What a fascinating question. Not one I’d have thought of, though it makes sense. Especially from a writerly perspective. I don’t know though some books just have disappointing endings and I’m not sure the paper format makes it better or more satisfying. Although I can see your point about hitting the button and even thinking there was a technical malfunction. A paper book doesn’t allow you to wallow in denial as long, you just have to accept that it’s over.

    I just finished a novel, The Wandering People, that I felt had a let-down ending that didn’t seem to tie everything up and it’s still got me in a funk more than a week later. The thing is it could have reached a satisfying conclusion with the number of pages left, I fully expected it to and yet she just walked out and shut the door on the finally reunited characters right when it seemed like they might finally come to some resolution. Instead, she seemed satisfied that their merely meeting face to face was enough. I suppose if I’d been reading it on an iPod and not had the indicator of pages left I might have found myself in your boat, hitting a button and wondering where the next chapter was.

    Re: Ethan Frome, I recall not being able to enter the world of the book or care about the people, so I think you’re on the right track about the novel’s intending that closed-off New England wintry feel. (Incidentally, I can’t help but think of the great line in Grosse Point Blank when John Cusak asks the English teacher if she’s still inflicting that Ethan Frome damage on her students.)

  11. Jen Robinson says:

    Sorry to have helped steer you to a book that was ultimately disappointing, Melissa. My experience, reading the book in print, was obviously different. Perhaps because I did know at each point how much was left of the book. I was also so eager for ANY resolution that I was satisfied with what I did get.

    I have had the experience that you describe with audiobooks sometimes. Actually, I remember one book that I was sure was going to end but didn’t. It went off in another direction, and I found it difficult to readjust my expectations.

    Interesting discussion! Thanks for pointing to my “reviews that made me want the book” feature, too. I do love this sense of community, where we get book ideas from each other, and even get to learn how the recommendations turn out. Sorry this one didn’t turn out better, but you did give me a new perspective on eBooks.

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh gosh, don’t apologize, Jen. I’m glad to have read it, even if I had problems with it (and I do wish I knew to what degree my problems were caused by the shock of being done without warning). I do think this is a case of a book that suffers somewhat from its own narrative voice; I wanted deeper reflection than Kyra seemed able to give—probably because events were whirling along at such a fast pace that she, the character, had little TIME to pause and reflect, and so, as narrator, she whisked the reader along too. I wish the author had gone with a third-person narrative voice.

    I also felt like the book suffered a bit from (forgive me) weak editing. Very often, Kyra’s reactions run along the same pattern: something happens, she looks at someone, then she mentions a scent. It’s an easy sort of rhythm to fall into when you’re writing, and a sharp editor will call you on it. And then some regrettable turns of phrase, as when we’re told Uncle Hyram’s “tone was that of ice.” You know what the author meant, and it’s an easy kind of mistake that happens when you’re caught up in your narrative, and your editor catches it and marks it with a wry comment in the margin. 😉

  13. Ginny says:

    VERY fascinating article. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between reading something on a screen vs. reading something on paper.

    The following thought isn’t about Kindle, per se (which I have not used myself), but I do honestly feel like the Internet has changed the way I read. I now SKIM so much more than I actually, well, read. There are troubling implications there, I believe: is my ability to really sustain focus on a text slowly atrophying? I fear it may be.

    I much prefer reading the old-fashioned way (this in spite of the fact that I blog myself, and avidly read others’ blogs). It’s because I love the weight and texture of the paper, the feel of something tangible, etc. — plus the fact that I am better at focusing on the words when I am holding something in my hands vs. looking at it on a screen.

    Incidentally: I teach high school English, and have for the past twelve years. Recently, some of my colleagues and I were talking about how students in recent years seem [overall] less able to buckle down with and really digest a long and difficult text than students of old. The Luddite in me fears that technology is making them so used to brief, bite-sized bits of information that they don’t have the tools to stick with something longer.

    Anyhow. Great post. Made me think.

  14. Melissa Wiley says:

    “There are troubling implications there, I believe: is my ability to really sustain focus on a text slowly atrophying? I fear it may be.”

    Ginny, I was really struggling with this myself last year. (If you look at my 2008 TBR list you’ll see it’s much shorter than 2009’s first half alone.) I was complaining about it to Scott, even, mildly worried I’d somehow lost the ability to focus & immerse the way I used to…and then right around the time of my complaints, an article went round the blogosphere, from the Atlantic I think?, about that exact topic. Is Google Atrophying Our Brains or something like that. Addressed the skimming issue, the bite-size bits of info…and I realized (with relief) it wasn’t just me. So I made an effort to redevelop the habit of reading books. Seems like once I got over the hump (in late 2008—I think it was December when my reading really picked up) I was fine. I’m so happy to be back on the bookwagon.

  15. MelanieB says:

    To present the other side of the argument… My husband says that not knowing how many pages are left is something that he actually prefers. He likes the increased suspense, not being able to guess how things are going to tie together. He’s one of those guys who it’s sometimes annoying to watch movies and shows with because he always figures out who did it really early on and ruins my feeling of suspense. So in some ways the lack of clues can be to a canny reader’s advantage because it makes it harder to guess how a plot is going to resolve.

  16. Emm says:

    Oh, that is so interesting! I know I definitely pace TV shows and films by how much time is left and I am quite certain that I subconsciously do it with books. I might run the risk of developing a thumb injury by trying to reads books one-handed on the train but I think I’m going to stick to paper for now.

  17. Celeste says:

    Just saw this article in the NY Times and thought it related to the various comments you’ve made here on the blog about e-reading and all that goes with it. Interesting, indeed!