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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Confessions from a Reluctant e-Reader Adopter

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How do you read? Photo by KDCosta, 2012.

I'm a bibliophile. And an avid bookworm. I bring books home the way some people do stray animals—I have a soft spot for books that have been thrown away, though I have been forced to learn some restraint in recent years as a result of space considerations. I'm always in need of more shelves. S is largely supportive of these tendencies—he has even "saved" a book or two left on the counter at work that was destined for the donation pile and brought it home to meet the rest of the strays. However, he has put a moratorium on the expansion of my collection until we're permanently settled in our new place, and truthfully, I understand: moving boxes of books is no easy task. (But it hasn't stemmed my growing impatience that my books are not on their shelves and are piled and boxed in helter skelter fashion.)

I have not been a fan of e-Readers. I did not own one. That changed on Christmas day.

S handed me a wrapped box a bit nervously. I thought it was unusual because he knows me well and typically hits the nail on its head when it comes to gifts. "Shake it," he said. "What do you think it is?" Amused, I complied, wondering what could have caused his hesitation. I felt the edges of the box running through the possibilities. "Too small to be shoes, I think." (I need a new pair of sneakers.) "And it doesn't feel like a book." (Last year he got me a new release that I had wanted badly but had put off buying because the hardcover edition was expensive.) "Should I open it?" He nodded.

I tore the wrapping off and laughed in surprise. I was holding a Kindle Fire. I know I looked puzzled. "I know you like your books," he began. "But you're also a tech person. Maybe it's time you gave this a shot."

He watched me anxiously. And truthfully, I was a little stunned. It was an expensive gamble. But he does know me well, and he knew that if presented with the opportunity, I wouldn't shut it out.

"I don't expect you to use it as a tablet, but it gives you a little more flexibility than the older e-Readers, so perhaps that will change your experience," he continued. "I really got this for you to read books. The other stuff it can do is a bonus. It sort of complements the other things you do online, like social media and blogging. It just provides another outlet ... if you can find WiFi."

I thanked him—enthusiastically—and went about setting it up. But I was still a little confused about how I felt about the device.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with other people who use e-Readers. I do have a problem when they insist that my method of reading is flawed. And such a discussion resulted in a heated debate with a colleague, which I am teased about to this day. I understand what some of the benefits might be, but I prefer physical books. I have a hard time with audio books, though that's the primary means by which a good friend of mine consumes literature. I like to print journal articles out and mark them with my own notes. But I'll admit that it's not always easy collecting and referencing those notes, or storing those journal articles (all that paper!), or carrying a few physical books around all day every day as I am wont to do.

I have started to do more of my journal reading online—cutting, pasting, and tagging have pretty much replaced by Post-Its and stickies. And one day in a desperate bid for reading material, I downloaded some free Classics to my iPhone and read them while I waited for my train. But having to focus on that small screen gave me a crick in my neck and that idea never really had any staying power for me anyway. It was a temporary thing—and I felt a bit like an addict scrambling for a fix and ready to take it in whatever form I could get it. And at the moment, I was grateful for a means of passing the time. Granted, reading on an iPhone is not the same as reading on a tablet or e-Reader, but e-reading seems a bit like having virtual sex: it fills a need without being satisfying. There's something to be said for turning a physical page—feeling the texture of the paper between your fingers and anticipating the coming words. e-Reading is just not quite the same thing.

Anyway, I've read five books on my new Fire and here's my take on it:

  • Instant book gratification. A book, any time, any where. As many as I could possibly want. And it goes in my bag. Except for one, but I'll happily buy that one in print to add it to the D'Costa Library.

  • Typos. Why are there so many typos? Seriously, in every book I read there were several typos, and it was distracting as hell. These weren't self-published books, but titles from best-selling authors whom I presume have access to copyeditors. A friend assured me that with his device he had not noticed this to be a problem. So is it a QA issue? And if it is, WHEN will it be fixed?

  • A portable news stand? One of the ways I thought I'd really be able to put the Fire to use was with my subscriptions. I thought that if I moved them over to the digital format, it would accomplish a few things: fewer paper copies hanging around the house, less chance of my subscriptions going missing in the mail (which has been a slight problem in the past), and more flexibility in terms of which ones I have access to at any given moment. I previewed a National Geographic and I was really disappointed. Where were the photos that go along with the articles? They lend so much to the experience of NatGeo. Wired was a better experience. I understand how media adds to the size of the file and transfer speeds, but if it's an integral part of the experience as it is in certain publications, it can be a major loss to the reader. It seems I might have to pick and choose in terms of transferring to digital subscriptions, which I can do—and maybe I'll prune my subscriptions along the way.

  • Close reading. I seem to be more inclined to skim in digital formats. This might be a habit I picked up from reading online overall. When holding a physical book or document, I read more closely. And I think this is a widespread phenomenon. Comment threads often reveal that there isn't a lot of close reading happening online. Too many angry diatribes are based on a misreading that could be avoided if the person had read the preceding or following sentence or had fully digested what was being discussed.

  • Distractions. The Fire is WiFi friendly. That means I can have my email sync-ed and I can browse online. That's great, but those things are also the reason it sometimes takes all morning for me to read a blog post. They're distractions. Fortunately, the slower browser and the frustratingly unintuitive keyboard create a bit of a barrier that I can use to my advantage—though it is nice to have the option. In many ways, I've just gotten used to doing many of those things on my smart phone, so it seems more likely that if I want to look something up quickly or Tweet something, I'll grab my phone rather than go online with the Fire, presuming it's connected to the Internet.

I've also noticed that I assess e-books differently than I do their physical counterparts. Online, I'm more inclined to read reviews. At the store, I can make these assessments myself—read a page or two, investigate artwork, etc. While I might go into a bookstore to find a specific book, when I'm browsing my impulse buys are based more on my own judgments. In the absence of those markers, I tend to rely on reviews.

The shape and feel have also taken some getting used to. It's not due to design because the Fire is light and sleek. It's just the nature of the thing: books will give a little in your hands. Devices in general don't do that. The real test will come this weekend for my e-Reader, however: I have a new ethnography to read and I'll likely want to take notes, so we'll see how it delivers on that, especially when it comes time for me to find and reference those notes. It may very well be that my Post-Its and stickies get retired for good, which might be sort of exciting.

As I was downloading my first book (thinking, "Hm, instant access to reading material might not be a bad thing."), S put a small envelope on the table next to me. It was a gift card. "You can still get physical books, too," he assured me. "This isn't meant to replace that."

And it won't. But it is handy. And anything that keeps reading material within the grasp of my fingers can't be all bad, can it?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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