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E-books are terrible

Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost explains better than I could why I stopped using my Kindle a few years back:

A particular reader’s receptivity to ebooks...depends on the degree to which these objects conform to, or at least fail to flout, one’s idea of bookiness. But if you look back at the list of features that underlie that idea, ebooks embrace surprisingly few of them.

An ebook doesn’t have pages, for one. The Kindle-type book does have text, and that text might still be organized into sections and chapters and the like. But the basic unit of text in an ebook does not correspond with a page, because the text can be made to reflow at different sizes and in various fonts, as the user prefers. That’s why Amazon invented “locations” to track progress and orientation in a book. You’d think the matter displayed on an iPad screen would feel more familiar—it’s just pictures of actual pages—but oddly it often feels less like leaves of paper than its e-ink brethren does. The weird way you tap or push a whole image of a page to the side—it’s the uncanny valley of page turning, not a simulation or replacement of it.

Ebook devices are extremely compatible with an idea of bookiness that values holding and carrying a potentially large number of books at once; that prefers direct flow from start to finish over random access; that reads for the meaning and force of the words as text first, if not primarily; and that isn’t concerned with the use of books as stores of reader-added information or as memory palaces. Some of the reading that corresponds particularly well with this conception of bookiness includes fiction in general and genre fiction—such as mysteries, sci-fi, young-adult fiction, and romance—in particular.

I guess I have my answer, then: I hate ebooks because I don’t read much genre fiction, but I read a lot of scholarly and trade nonfiction. I also buy a lot of books on art, architecture, and design, whose subjects work best—or feel most bookish—when they are large-format, open-spread, and richly illustrated. As a somewhat haughty book person, I also can’t quite wrap my spleen around every book looking and feeling the same, like they do on an ebook reader. For me, bookiness partly entails the uniqueness of each volume—its cover, shape, typography, and layout.

If you like ebooks, great. Enjoy your dim, gray screen in peace. If you hate them, don’t worry about it. Who says everything must involve a computer? Maybe it’s better, even, to protect the print-book market by building a firewall against ebooks’ expansion beyond their rule over genre fiction. Just give up and read normal books, like humankind has done for 2,000 years.

I read dozens of books on Kindles while traveling for school and work, and I remember very little of them. Yet I can often recall the place on the page where I read a particular line in a book.

Comments (1) -

  • David Harper

    9/20/2021 7:19:14 AM +00:00 |

    As a life-long bibliophile, I agree with Bogost that nothing beats the tactile, sensory pleasure of reading a book made of paper and board and glue and ink.  But I'm not about to give up my ebooks, and for two reasons.  First, my wife and I live in a small house -- small even by British standards -- so there's simply no room for all the books I want to read.  Most of my pre-Kindle collection is in boxes under the stairs, and has been since we moved here almost 25 years ago.  My wife told me ten years ago that we had no room for new books, and she was right.
    Second, I'm approaching sixty, and my eyes are no longer as good as they were.  I find that I need very strong light to read printed books, and even in full sunlight, and with excellent varifocal glasses, I find it tiring to read printed text in 10-point and 12-point for long.  The Kindle app on my iPad provides much better contrast, as well as the option to increase the font size.  I'm thankful that the technology came along at just the right time.  Having no page numbers is a small price to pay for still being able to read new books.

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