Defending the E-book, Despite its Flaws

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But are these old habits essential? Mightn’t they actually be distracting us from the written word itself? Weren’t there perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without?

Tim Parks, “E-books Can’t Burn”, NYRB Blog

I have not read a lot of exciting essays defending the reading experience of an e-book. Most of the articles out there defend the e-book from the perspective of convenience or from some defense of technological progress. These approaches aren’t wrong; in fact, I agree that carrying a lot of books on one device, or promoting new technologies, are fine reasons to read e-books. I just don’t think that focusing on these aspects take the conversation about e-books far enough.

I’ve mentioned previously that authors and publishers are smart to promote e-books, but that there is one major flaw in the current approach: the e-book is still essentially text on a page, and there is not much thinking beyond this. Certainly attempts to use e-books creatively exist, but they exist on the fringes.

While I really want to see some creative innovation going on, I want to stress that I still love reading e-books. I find it to be an immersive experience, and I interact actively with e-books in ways I never have before. For example, I love to type notes in the margins on my kindle and send it out via Facebook or Twitter for friends to respond. I like that all of my notes from reading get saved on my kindle for later use, and I do go back to re-read them. I’ve rediscovered parts of old books as a result of these notes.

So the e-book has a lot of potential for rich reading experiences, even the way they are set up now. Many writers, however, are missing this point when they focus only on convenience or some new technology trend. Or, worse, some fetishistic obsession with paper pulp (“I miss the smell of a book!” or “e-books don’t sit on my bookshelf staring back at me!”).

In line with this idea, Tim Parks has defended the e-book reading experience in a piece for the New York Review of Books. First, Parks makes the argument that what is more important than the book itself are the words on the page. Joyce’s Ulysses (to use Parks’ example) is the same whether it’s read on a device, or in print. Ulyssesis the same “in Baskerville as in Times New Roman.” The words, the text, the way it works in the mind, provides the ultimate pleasure of reading. According to Parks, the e-book is a better medium to get lost in the words than a book because

by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

After reading on an e-reader for more than two years, I have to admit that the experience feels more engaging. I don’t think I can prove this, and there are many reading experiences better suited for print (for example, reading poetry on a kindle sucks, and doing real academic research with e-books is near impossible). The e-reader, if designed right, can remove the extemporaneous experiences and allow the reader to engage directly with text.

Many will not agree with this approach, but I see where Parks’ argument fits in with this debate.

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

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