Reading On the Screen

On my last trip, I did something unthinkable. I didn’t take any books. Print books, that is. I did have a number of ebooks on my tablet, including two that I acquired especially to read on this trip. One I borrowed from the library’s ebook catalog; the other I purchased.

My conversion to ebooks has been gradual. Except in cases when it’s the only way I can obtain a book I’m interested in, I seldom read ebooks except when traveling. Then the convenience is hard to beat. A slim, lightweight tablet versus pounds of books. The ability to enlarge the print when the lighting is poor, and to read without using those horrible glaring lights they have on airplanes. By syncing my tablet with my phone, I can continue to read on it during the twenty minutes of takeoff and immediately after when laptops and tablets must be stowed away.

Another advantage to ebooks is obvious. It cost me $13.99 to buy an ebook copy of the literary bestseller I took on the trip. If I’d sprung for print it would have cost me seven dollars more. And unless I wanted to take a chance that I could find a copy in an airport bookstore, I would have had order the book a few days ahead of my trip so it could be shipped to me.

On the downside, you are dependent on electricity to charge your device, while print is always there. Which why it’s good to have a back-up print book for emergencies, like when you leave your charging cord in the hotel and don’t have time to shop for a new one right away.

And there are other disadvantages. Reading an ebook is more tiring, since even though the print on the screen appears crisp and sharp, in fact your brain is smoothing out the uneven edges of the pixelated letters to make them appear that way. Also, for reading at night, the bright light of the device decreases the production of melatonin in the brain, so reading an ebook before bed is more likely to cause insomnia.

And even though the device shows you on every page what percentage of the book you’ve already read, going back to re-read a few pages in an ebook is much more cumbersome and tedious than flipping through the pages in a print book. If you’re reading a complex story with lots of characters, that can be frustrating. It’s like everything you’ve already read falls off into a void and disappears, and the only part of the book that is real is the page in front of you.

As a writer, I find this aspect of ebooks troubling. Many of my books are no longer available in print, unless you can find a yellowed copy in a used bookstore. Which means from now on, almost everyone who reads my books will be doing so in the digital format. It makes my stories that I spent hours and hours of my life creating seem like any other consumer product—a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee—to be consumed and then forgotten. My story, my words, are just ephemera.

Although from another perspective, exactly the opposite is true. My print books will eventually crumble to dust, while my ebooks could potentially live on and on forever in the digital realm.

But this potential advantage is canceled out by another aspect of ebooks. According to studies, they don’t have quite the same impact and influence that print books do. This is because print is tactile, which helps our brains create a stronger memory of what we’ve read. The physical act of turning pages, the sensation of the number of pages held in your left hand versus those in your right, the location of the words on the page—all those things help your brain store the information you’ve read more effectively. My digital stories will last longer, but they have less meaning to the people who read them.

And finally, the ease of producing ebooks means that my stories are no longer competing for readers’ attention with thousands of other books, but with literally millions. My story and vision is drowned in an endless sea of ebooks.

Ebooks are like so many things in this rapidly-changing, breathlessly expanding technological world. All these innovations have made the exchange of information easier and faster, but now the sheer volume of what we’re exposed to threatens to render the actual content meaningless.

I leave you with a quote from Jim Morrison’s Lords and New Creatures: “We have metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on the hillside to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.” He was referring to people living through TV and film instead of experiencing life. Now we live through the reality of our handheld devices.

Mary Gillgannon
Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

7 thoughts on “Reading On the Screen

  1. Clearly you’re talking about a Kindle. My Nook shows page numbers, not % read, and it’s very easy to pop back and forth. You can bookmark pages, highlight words, or search for a word/phrase you want to revisit. My tablet has a “jump to page” feature, and the required TOC lets you move back through chapters if you need to.

    I can dim my screen to next to nothing with a black background (the ONLY time I read light text on dark background) so it doesn’t wake Hubster when I wake at 2 AM with my mind whirling and need something to turn it off. I have the font set to HUGE so I don’t need my glasses.

    Also, I can read curled on my side and only need 1 hand to turn pages …another plus for other reading, when using an ereader leaves one hand free for a nearby libation.

    That being said, I still read print as well. Each has its pros and cons–the biggest con for me with print being publishers are running the text into the gutters so it’s an act of physical strength to hold the book open. And if you’re reading Diane Gabaldon, it’s just plain HEAVY.


    • Actually I read on an Android tablet or iphone. It’s probably the platform I was reading on (Bibliotecha Cloud Library) that limits me in terms of searching out a passage or a page number, etc. But even if I did have page numbers or could search out words, I would still find it harder to to go back and re-read passages and keep my focus on a book. What I’m talking about is not so much the pros and cons of e-reading but the potential implications for our future world. I think that is something we have to consider with all technology. Not that it will change anything but it might help us understand who we are and what we are becoming.

  2. EXCELLENT post. I agree with everything you said. I keep buying paperbacks because I like having something to read no matter if I remembered my tablet (and when I use my phone I have to have the font so large I get, like, ten words on a screen!). I have a huge library of hard cover and paperbacks, and I DO re-read them & lend them (but require them back!). I use my tablet for travel and to store audio books (which I love for driving), but that’s about it. The self publishing industry is one of those disruptive things – it’s great, and it sucks at the same time. I doubt we’ll know the true cost vs. benefit for another couple of decades, and it will be interesting to see.

  3. I still love to read books in print more than ebook, but would take an ebook or tablet when traveling. The big exception is when I want to read something right away but don’t want to buy it, and there’s a long list of holds on the print version at the library. Then I sometimes choose to read the digital version on my tablet through Overdrive. I don’t care about page numbers or % finished as long as I have an active Bookmark to keep me on the right page.

  4. The new Kindles do have a way to back track without losing your place. Also, the background light can be reduced. I buy both ebook and print, depending on the book. ebook for travel and waiting rooms, print for keepers. The reason I bought my mother a Kindle – she would lose her book as she traveled and would have to repurchase it. It was getting expensive to keep up with her. Now, she’s addicted to some of the games.

  5. I only recently (days ago, in fact) bought a Kindle. Sure, it has some advantages: it can hold hundreds of books, and it will cut down the weight of my luggage when I travel. Some things now are available only as e-books (the only reason I bought the darn thing). But it will never be my preferred way to read for a plethora of reasons. It’s awkward to hold. As noted, you can’t easily go back and re-read a previous page (mental dialogue: “Dimitri? Who’s Dimitri? Do they mean the Duke of Rostov? Was that his first name? Wasn’t there a gardener’s boy whose name started with a D?”). If there is a way to backtrack, I haven’t found it yet. The e-book user’s manual is no help. Even finding my way to the several books in my “library” is complicated. A real book doesn’t require a user’s manual. You open the cover. Period. And I certainly can’t loll in a suds-filled bathtub with a glass of champagne, a box of chocolates and an e-book.

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