To eBooks and Back Again


Like many, I was passionate about the promise of eBooks. Two things were offered that I valued - ease of purchase, and a tiny footprint. Not only could I read purchased books immediately after downloading them, but I could fit a whole library within a device the size of paperback books and toss it in my backpack. Yet, particularly this past year, I’ve found myself passionately drawn back to paper bookstand disenchanted with ebooks. Like most traditional readers I like paper books for all the romantic reasons - smell, a great cover, the way a book feels in my hand - but the tipping point came from my frustration with Amazon.

I realized that I wasn’t alone after coming across the essay As We May Read earlier this week by Craig Mod. Craig had made some comments about eBooks and focus that caught my attention on one of my now favorite podcasts called Hurry Slowly. In it, he discussed the problems of attention, and how electric devices so often interrupt our flow of thought with their constant alerts, chimes, and burps.

That experience of interruption is one that commonly occurs when I’m reading on my iPhone and iPad. That’s why I switched to the Kindle. It wasn’t online and it didn’t interrupt my reading by alerting me to my latest text, email, or news item. Yet, although I found the Kindle’s e-ink display a delight, I found the rest of the experience to be mediocre.

The Kindle’s interface is clumsy, and most egregiously my Kindles (I tried several) would restart on its own to install new software, even while I was reading, completely destroying the magic created while reading. The experience, while less common, was more disruptive than reading on my iOS devices. I’ll take interruptions from iMessages any day over a forced rebook. Who designs software to do that?

Perhaps the most embarrassing part for me is that people would ask me what I was reading and often I couldn’t remember. That’s because of the Kindle, which merely acts as a container, does a bad job of differentiating one book from another. So inside the Kindle, Leslie Marmon Silko is no different than James Baldwin (iBooks tries to solve this problem by showing you the cover when you open a book, but I still find that ineffective). One book blurred into the next. Not knowing what I was reading was plain humiliating.

With paper books I’m constantly reminded of the title because I’m always seeing the cover, and because each book is different, not just the cover, but in dimension, width, texture, deckled edge (or not), and weight. 

That means that the Kindle’s now essentially dead to me. I’m still using the Kindle app on my iPad to sample books before buying the paper version, and I’ll read a portion of a book on my iPhone when I don’t have a paper book with me, but I’m no longer passionately interested in digital books, even those that are free. I’ve been spending months duplicating my best Kindle books with paper books, and while the space taken by bookcases is significantly more, and paper books aren’t as easy to transport, the payoff for switching back is undeniable.