When It Comes to E-Readers, I’m Happy to Be Nature’s Guinea Pig

It’s a new year, and it’s time to do the looking back and the looking forward. First, an admission: Most of the books I read in the last year were on a Kindle. What’s more, I read more books in in the last year on a Kindle than I did in the year prior. But, here’s the interesting bit: I also read more books, period. I believe these two facts are related.

So now, a new year prediction: I will read more books this year than I did in both the last years combined, and I will read them all on a Kindle.

I suspect something evolutionary is happening here. I think it’s happening to all of us (whether we like it or not), and it is happening not on a typical evolutionary timeline, one measured in centuries or millennia, but on a much more condensed scale, measured in weeks, or days. Maybe even hours.

We are nature’s guinea pigs for a future with less paper and less patience for throat-clearing and circumlocution. We are the reluctant forebears of what Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University calls a bi-literate brain.

From a cultural or anthropological perspective, I’m intrigued by all of this, but it’s not the reason I’m writing this piece. The evolutionary inevitability of (and justifications for) our movement away from paper media as a primary delivery of text seems like a lot to bite off. It’s also liable to spark dissent and denial from analog-book-loving folks. And it goes without saying that this would take the form of 140-character rebuttals, delivered via digital media, which would be a pretty fun irony.

Reading is about words and words happen whether they are in print or on a screen and, to be clear, I’m in favor of either. And it’s very likely both will continue for as long as all of us reading this are still alive. I’m definitely not anti-analog book. I still get a rush out of going to a bookstore. I still have a bookcase full of books and I still take them off my bookshelf to reference and I still find a certain satisfaction and joy in doing that.

But here’s the simple fact: In my own personal reading life, I have begun to find that I read better on my Kindle than I do when I’m reading a physical book. This is important, you guys. I’m not saying the medium itself is empirically better. I’m not even saying I necessarily ‘prefer’ it. I’m saying that I have started to seek out digital books over print because I find that I read them better. And by “better” I mean this: 1.) I am physically more comfortable as I read, 2.) I’m able to finish more books and, therefore, read more things, and 3.) My reading is done more efficiently and, because of reference tools built into the device, I am able to comprehend more than I might otherwise.

What has happened is the paper book and the ebook have been put before me in my little guinea-pig glass cage, and I have started choosing the ebook. I’ve come to appreciate the things an ebook offers me that a paper book does not. I’ve come to gravitate toward those things. And I’ve even reached a point where I would pay more for those things than I would for a paper book. The ebook is actually becoming more valuable to me. The reward stimulus is higher.

Here are some of the reasons why I think this is the case:

1) Reading Comfort.
Listen, I’m not going to deny it: I am a particularly high-maintenance reader. Maybe this is the absolute pinnacle of modern-world bellyaching, but reading has always been a tremendous pain in the ass to me. Literally. I hate the physical act of reading. I just find it puts a heavy strain on my body. (Not the least of which, my ass.) Having to hold a book (especially big books) open in a particular way is distracting and just … not fun. Like in a very non-trivial way.

This is no joke. And this is definitely no Infinite Jest. I’m all for books being mentally challenging, but I don’t want them to be physically challenging at the same time. I can do three-minute planks at the gym, but I’m not about to hold that goddamned book up in front of my face for more than a minute, no matter how much I happen to appreciate the author.

Ever since I was a teenager, one of the primary obstacles for me in finishing a large text has been my physical discomfort while reading. I’ve always had back problems: a back surgery in my early 20s, and then an inflammatory back condition exacerbated by sitting still. But it goes beyond that. There’s also the eye-strain component. I like light to fall directly on a page. I mean, doesn’t everybody? At the same time, I don’t particularly enjoy sitting in brightly lit rooms. Aye, there’s the rub.

Consider this: All the books on my Kindle, no matter how many pages long, are the same size and the same weight. I don’t have to think about how to crack one of them open so that it is sufficiently in a light source because all of them are backlit (on newer Kindle models). Moreover, I can adjust the backlight brighter or dimmer for whatever room and lighting I’m in. I don’t have to tilt pages or adjust my position at all to better accommodate the flow of words into my brain.

Which has pretty much always been my dream.

2) Constant availability.
One of the reasons I’ve not finished books over the years is because I do not always have them with me when it would be ideal to read them. Then time goes by and I’ve forgotten the plot of a book, and I don’t feel like starting over.

This past year turned out to be a pretty heavy travel year for me. When you travel for long periods, the decision of which book to bring to suit your mood can be just as difficult to make as which shoes or shirts to bring to suit the weather. Of course, I’m using the example of long trips, but this decision process takes place on a smaller scale every day for anybody commuting via bus or subway. For somebody who reads a lot, it sucks finding yourself with the wrong book or, worse, with no book during your commute.

The decision goes away with an e-reader. Just bring every book with you. Everywhere. There is no such thing as bringing the wrong book. There is also no such thing as carrying too many books.

3) Reference Tools.
I recently finished reading Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. I really liked it, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed the act of reading it as much if I had read it as an analog book. For one thing, Amis tends to use words that just aren’t in my everyday vocabulary. This is why he is Martin Amis, and I’m a guy who spends all day with two dogs. So I’ve come to understand that reading Amis means having a dictionary (or Internet-connected device) on hand. Unless I’m using an e-reader. Then all I have to do is highlight the word. That’s it. There is no more interruption to my reading than that. I don’t have to go to my phone or computer and look the word up. I certainly don’t have to crack open a big, heavy dictionary. (I’m somebody who actually pays a subscription for a good, ad-free online dictionary.)

Secondly, Zone of Interest, while fiction, was about the Holocaust, and referenced a lot of real events and people and things. On my Kindle, when I came to a person or event that I was curious about, I could highlight the name, place, or event and look it up on Wikipedia. More importantly, I could do all that without leaving the device.

The bottom line is that I was able to read Zone of Interest more efficiently because I read it on a Kindle. Also, I probably got more out of the book than I would have otherwise. Because let’s face it: while I’d like to think I would have looked up all the things I was curious about while reading the book, I probably would have just thought about doing it (maybe marking the spot to go back to later), but I would not have gotten around to it. And for those times when I was traveling or reading it in a hotel room (or just about anywhere in the 21st century, which is mostly where I happen to read), I definitely wouldn’t have pulled out a print encyclopedia or dictionary.

4) Search.
I have a terrible memory. And while I’m sometimes able to write sentences in ways that disguise this fact and still come across sounding somewhat intelligent, I’m almost never able to talk pretty, at least not on demand. (I need at least a few hours’ notice.) When I write sentences, I can take my time. I can look things up. But if I’m just talking to you, at a bar, let’s say (just to use a completely hypothetical situation), I will forget details and use words like “thing” and “other thing” to reference nouns I can’t call to mind right then.

I am also prone to using a lot of hand gestures.

I sometimes spill my beer for emphasis.

At some point, I will likely grunt.

Or burp.

The point is this: my memory parts ain’t so good when it comes to people and places and dates or just about anything requiring a proper noun.

If I’m reading a book and a character is referenced on page ten and that character suddenly appears again on page eighty-nine, chances are I will be at a loss to remember what significance that character had in the story. It might even be like I’m seeing that name for the first time. With an analog book, I might have to flip through pages and pages to find mention of the character again and jog my memory. But on an e-reader, I can just search for the name and all the instances will come up.

You dig? I can use this thing here to find that other thing and then I’m like, “Hmm.” And I’m like, “Ah.” And then I’m like, burp under breath. Smile.

5) Highlights and Note-taking.
I like to make a lot of notes in a book when I read. So a pen is a mandatory reading tool for me, even if I’m reading something ‘genre’ and, oh-em-gee, ‘non-literary.’ Sometimes I think I won’t need a pen or sometimes I just find myself without one for whatever reason, and it’s either impractical to go get one or I’m too lazy (Finding something impractical and being too lazy are often the same conditions.) And then, I’ll find this great sentence or passage and have no way to mark it.

The funny thing about notes within books is that you have to be in the goddamned book again ever to see them. Right? And maybe you will lend the book to somebody and never get it back. Or maybe you’ll move, and it’ll get lost.

On an e-reader, first of all, I’m never without a pen. But more importantly, I can take my notes out of the book. I can export them. I can send quotes to other media without retyping the words. This would have been absolutely amazing to my English-major self of 1994, who kept spiralbound notebooks filled with page numbers and hand-scrawled, barely-legible jottings. And I guess I do wonder if I had had an e-reader back then, would I have missed out on something by not taking those physical notes with pen and paper? Perhaps. A missed opportunity to tell, “In my day …” stories, I reckon. But I tend to think having an e-reader would have enabled me to read (and understand) faster and more efficiently.

Look, the truth is some guinea pigs will use new tools to do more, and some guinea pigs will use new tools to do less. It has always been this way, and it will continue to be so. I’d like to think I would have done more.


A few weeks ago, I went into a bookstore to look for some Christmas gifts for people. While I was there, I walked the aisles. I picked up some books from authors I like. I thumbed through them, breathed in that heady chemical mixture of adhesive and ink and paper treatment. I felt that pull of wanting to buy the artifact and bring it home. A book still generates that sense of possibility to me. It’s still something I like to hold in my hands and see on a bookshelf, and yes, smell. But that’s the extent of it. Outside of that, I find I’m having less and less need for the object. When it comes to reading what’s inside it, I prefer the text be digital.

We are (and have always been) writing fugitive words, filling spaces in temporary places and times. In reality, the words on our e-readers are no more or less permanent than the words that came before them. We guinea pigs build systems of permanence into the things we create no matter what they are, in an effort to stop the inevitable. But permanence is an illusion. We know this, despite all our efforts to forget: On a long enough timeline, nothing is permanent. It always has been that way, and it will continue to be, whether you’re talking about words on a screen or on a piece of paper or a long sheet of papyrus or two massive stone tablets or spoken from my lips to yours. Technology has always driven the way we read and write … and think. And it is doing that now. And I’m glad to be around and to be able to be a part of that. I’m glad to be nature’s guinea pig as long as I can be.

So one more trip around this wheel. What d’ya say?

And then we’ll see where the new year takes us.


Post originally published on 1/13/15