Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Found Art of Getting Lost in an e-Book

The pros and cons of e-books have been enumerated and discussed frequently enough in the press lately that anyone who thinks reading is on the decline in this country (former NEA chairman Dana Gioia among them) should think again. Unless it turns out that all we ever read are reviews of e-readers.

But here's one thing that I haven't seen anyone writing about when they talk about the relative merits or frustrations of an iPad, a Kindle, or a nook: the way that some of these devices let you truly lose yourself in a book. And I mean lose your place, lose where you are in the story.

Last night, I was reading Simon Mawer's 2002 novel The Fall, on an iPad, using the Kindle app. With the Kindle app, all you see are the words on the page, plus the title of the book at the top. If you tap on the screen, you'll get a variety of menu-type buttons to appear, including the mysterious Kindle-speak marker that tells you where you are in the book. No page numbers, just "Location 6417-6429", in my case, and "97%". Apparently, when I left off last night, I was close to finishing the book. But I'd been reading for a while, and hadn't tapped the screen so I could see these buttons. Which meant that, as I was reading, I had lost track of how much more there was to go in the story.

If I'd been reading a print book, I'd have seen and felt, constantly, the thickness of the remaining pages in my right hand. Holding and reading a physical book, the reader is always aware of where he or she sits in the overall arc of the story. That knowledge is, I'd argue, part of the reading process. As children, we learn the shapes of various stories, and as older readers, we have that sense of the narrative arc hard-wired into our brains. But I think we cheat. We look at how much more there is in the book and that tells us whether what we're experiencing is the denouement or some other preliminary resolution that may well be challenged again before the story's done. We do the same thing with television and movies. If it feels as though something is winding down, we might glance up at the face of the dvd player, or glance at our watch, to double check. (This works will all movies, except the final Lord of the Rings film, which came to an end three or four different times.)

With print books, we process the story itself in some sort of combination with the physical knowledge of the shape of the book. With an e-book system like the Kindle or its app, we can't do that. I'd suggest that it's this lack of page numbers, lack of pages altogether, lack of markers that makes reading on an e-book (some e-books) a radically different way of processing a narrative.

Could I have cheated with the iPad/Kindle? Sure. I could have tapped the screen at any time to see what my percentage was. And indeed, when I first began reading The Fall, I did that fairly frequently, out of excitement to see how quickly I was moving through the story. But here's the thing: as I became immersed in Mawer's book, I forgot to check. I just read, with no sense at all of where the book would take me and when we would get there. I was completely at sea in a way that I would never have been with a physical book.

[A note to iBooks users: Apple's e-book interface does its best to make the experience feel as though you're reading a real book (there are page numbers, the title, and a trompe l'oeil book cover), but it gets one thing wrong: the clock is always visible. You can never lose track of time when reading something from the iBooks store.]

My new policy? I'll try to resist the temptation to check my progress in an e-book. I want to see how well I can do in predicting when a book is ending, without being able to turn that last page.

Q: Do you cheat? Do you like to know where you are in an e-book?


  1. Once, when I was in high school, I was driving in a car with my family. I think we were looking at colleges for my older sister, so she was in the front seat scoping out the terrain. I was in the back seat reading. Car sickness not withstanding, I was lost in Sho-Gun. I have a habit of counting pages in a book, to prepare me for the end, just incase the author isn't adept at tying up all the loose ends in time.

    Human error is a terrible thing, though. Sho-Gun ended unexpectedly. In a huff, I threw the book to the floor of the car. My mom asked what was wrong, as she knew I was enjoying the book. Indignantly I snuffed "I had nine more pages!"

    Counting pages, looking at the % to end, in a really well written story I just get lost, and can guiltily read through the night (and suffer the next day because of it). It is not that I count pages to the end, or check that little % on the Kindle with every book. I count pages and check counters on books where I have fallen in love with the characters and cannot bear the thought of parting with them at the end of the story.

    One thing I miss when reading on the Kindle, however, is the heft of a really thick book. It is sort of like security blanket for me to have a thick book, I know I won't run out of pages to read for a good long time. I just read what I know is a thick book on my Kindle and when I did check the % to end I got that same thrill of knowing I wouldn't run out of pages any time soon. Though I will admitt it was a bit of a surreal feeling to be reading a hefty book in slim camouflage.

  2. Fascinating. One aspect of the ebooks I hadn't considered. There's definitely a speed up and psychological wind-down when the thin side of a book is in your right hand. Now I'm curious to test what would happen if there were no awareness of coming to the end.

  3. I agree with Anonymous on the experience of counting pages because you can't bear to think you only have so many left. There are books I feel that way about, even if I've read them over and over.

    And regarding the psychological wind-down that Nichole mentions, imagine my surprise when the 3% I thought I had left of The Fall turned out to be two pages! And a very key two pages, indeed. I actually cried out in shock when I flicked my finger over the screen and got. . . acknowledgments!