Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Another round of What Kind of Books Should You Be Reading?

Posted by: Angela Korra'ti
If you hang out on social media, you’ve probably seen articles going around lately that assert that science has provided new reasons why you should be reading “real” (read: print) books instead of ebooks on a Kindle or some other device. This article on the BBC addresses the question of print books vs. backlit ereaders at night, while this one over here addresses questions of whether you can retain what you’re reading when you’re reading digitally vs. in print.

Caveat: I’m a primarily digitally published author here, I’ll say that flat out. As such, I bristle when I hear people referring to print books as the “real” books or the “actual” books—because it always seems to me as if this ignores the fact that an ebook takes every bit as much effort to write and prepare for publishing as a print book does, and that an ebook can provide entertainment every bit as real as the entertainment you get by reading a print book. Because of this, I make a very specific point of avoiding “real” or “actual” when referring to a print book vs. a digital one. I stick to “print” or “physical” for a physical book, and “digital” or “electronic” for an ebook. Or I just say “print book” and “ebook”.

Now, my bias as a primarily digitally published author aside, I’d like to call out what I think is problematic about these articles, and what isn’t. I’m a big fan of SCIENCE! But in this case, I think the science was ignoring important data.

First thing: I’m seeing an annoying lack of comprehension about what you can and cannot do with an ereader. For example, the mic.com article says:

While e-readers try to recreate the sensation of turning pages and pagination, the screen is limited to one ephemeral virtual page. Surveys about the use of e-readers suggest that this affects a reader's serendipity and sense of control. The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one's sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.
This presents only part of the picture. On smaller devices, yes, you can only read one page at once. But via other digital means of reading, you are not. Every single computer-based reading app I’ve played with (the Kindle, Kobo, and Nook desktop apps) allow you to see two pages at once. Ditto for the apps I’ve used on my iPad.

Likewise, every single reader or app I’ve played with is perfectly capable of returning to previous pages—either through gestures like tapping or swiping, by using a slider to return to a previous position in the book, or by using a numeric control to jump straight to a specified page number.

And while I haven’t personally played with the functionality, I know for a fact that the ability to leave highlights and notes on what you’re reading is functionality provided in several apps and on several devices. The loss of that data is one of the big reasons why people complained so loudly during the uproar a few years ago when Amazon yoinked copies of 1984 off of people’s Kindles—copies of the book that, granted, were not authorized to be published in the first place, but nonetheless, people had been leaving notes and highlights on them.

You can do all sorts of manipulation of text on various devices and in various apps, too. You can change font size. You can change the actual font. If you’re on a desktop app, a tablet, or a phone, you can often also change the color scheme of what you’re reading if you don’t like black-on-white.

Now, let me address some of the ideas here that strike me as more viable.

I do buy the idea of avoiding having a backlit device as your reading material if you’re inclined to read in bed. It seems plausible to me that interfering with your body’s circadian rhythms by having a strong light around when you’re supposed to be gearing down for sleep could be problematic. Not to mention that if your reading device of choice is a tablet or a phone, chances are high you’ve got it set up to do other things as well—email, social media, games, etc. So the chances are high that you’ll be more distracted by, say, the urge to check Facebook one more time, or answering one more email, or playing one more level on Gummy Drop. (This would be exactly why I keep my devices away from my bed. *^_^*;;)

The mic.com article also talks about the “F” pattern of people’s Internet reading, citing a study from 2006. I’ve heard of this via other sources, so this isn’t out of left field. However, I take some issue with the idea that this applies to reading digital novels.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I can testify that long before ebooks came along, I read so many books that oftentimes, if a book wasn’t holding my attention strongly enough, I skimmed over what I was reading until I found the next thing in the story that actively engaged my attention. Likewise, if it’s by an author I adore, I am perfectly capable of immersing myself in a digital novel, and remembering my favorite parts of it long after I’ve read the last few words. Jim Butcher, Mira Grant, C.E. Murphy, Julie Czerneda, and many other authors are all authors who trigger in me that all-important MUST KEEP READING CANNOT PUT BOOK DOWN reaction in me.

Whether I’m reading them in digital, or in print.

I don’t want to re-ignite the print vs. digital debate here—that’s not my overall point. As I’ve said before many times, on my own site and elsewhere, print has its advantages. So does digital. I like my ereader for its lack of weight and its ease of carrying on my commute. I like my print library for being available reading during a power outage (and if you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do, you know how often we lose power during the winter here). And I still appreciate the beauty of a well-constructed physical book, which for my money is still the best way to present illustrations. (For example, I adore my copy of Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin, which has amazing art in it. And even the font choices are beautiful.)

My overall point here being this: if you’re going to do a study of how readers of print vs. readers of digital interact with what they’re reading, show some awareness of how digital reading actually works. And include some studies of people who regularly use the functionality that digital reading provides, too.

Like, say, me. But I acknowledge I’m a bit of an outlier—in a good year I read upwards of 100 books, in both digital and print forms. What’s important to me is the story itself. To paraphrase John Scalzi, asking me if I like my favorite book in print or digital form is like asking me if I like my favorite soda in a bottle or a can. It’s still my favorite soda.

And while I grant that my reading habits were built by decades of slurping up every print book I could get my hands on, still, I’d like to see readers like me considered when studying the overall trend of print vs. digital reading. I know I’m not alone in the SF/F and romance genres, either.

Now if y’all will excuse me, I’ve got a Kat Richardson novel to finish!

Angela Korra’ti, a.k.a. Angela Highland, has a lifetime goal of reading All The Books. And when she’s not reading everybody else's books, she's writing her own! Her next book Bone Walker is due in February 2015, and Victory of the Hawk, Book 3 of the Rebels of Adalonia trilogy, drops in April 2015! Come say hi to her at angelahighland.com, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Great post, Angela! I'm actually shocked that the mic.com article cited the "F-pattern" phenomenon in relation to ebooks because (puts on her other hat as a web communications expert) as far as I know, that's applicable to websites and not digital books. It's related to how people process information when they're on a website looking to complete a task or gain knowledge. Rather than reading the entire screen — which can be difficult for a bunch of physiological reasons — they scan the text, looking for keywords and clues that if they read more thoroughly, they'll find what they're looking for. With digital books, reading the book IS the task. Particularly with tablets that have screens close in size to mass-market paperbacks, I don't really think there's an accurate correlation between website F-pattern scanning and reading ebooks.

    I'll add another benefit to ebooks and tablets beyond convenience: I discovered this summer that I can actually read a book on a tablet in a moving vehicle, something I can't do with a print book. I think it has something to do with having the text on one screen and not having to move my eyes from page to page as I would with a print book.

    Bottom line: books are books, and like you said, both print and electronic have advantages and disadvantages!

    1. Thanks Jenn!

      Yeah, this whole idea of trying to apply the F-pattern to people reading ebooks, and specifically the bit about people reading text with hyperlinks in it, struck me as weird. I know that enhanced ebooks are a thing that exist. But I have a whole helluva lot of ebooks, and offhand I can't think of a single example of a hyperlink popping up in the titles I've bought anywhere.

  2. What annoys me about those type of articles is that they make it sound as if one must make a strict choice print OR ebook only. Why can't I have both? The articles also seem oblivious to the fact that some books ONLY have an ebook edition.

    1. Exactly! I've got hundreds of both print AND digital books. Trying to boil it down to an either/or scenario is like trying to tell me I have to decide between cake and pie. I like cake AND pie!

  3. Thanks for this rant! These articles have been making me stabby. They use sensationalist clickbait titles, and ignore that backlit devices are used for many things besides reading books. And the word "SCIENCE" in the title was obnoxious. "SCIENCE" proved it! Ebooks are the next dangerous evil that will steal your soullllll!!!!!! LOL. A more accurate title would have been "Study suggests using lit screens in bed may disrupt your sleep." But who would have clicked, right? Sigh.

    That F pattern thing infuriated me, too. NOBODY reads a book that way. That's nonsense. The only thing I agreed with in that article was about lamenting the ability to see how far you've read and how much farther you have to go, not as an abstract, but as a physical measurement. I think this is something ereaders could find a way to do, more of an icon-based experience perhaps. Like the publishing industry, ereaders and devices are constantly evolving. I'm sure they'll find ways to continue to improve the experience.

    Either way, I love books. You can have my print books *and* my ereader when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands. ;)

    1. My pleasure, Jane! And yeah, clickbait indeed. Like I said, I _do_ buy the possible problem of having a backlit device _at all_ around when you're trying to go to bed. But there are a zillion other things you might possibly be doing on that device, not just reading ebooks.

      And I'm right there with you. I love ALL of my library, print AND digital!


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