Archive for June 1st, 2009

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.