Dead trees make better books

My 4th generation Kindle device died a miserable death several weeks ago. I was annoyed because I was enjoying a good book when the screen froze and refused to let me read any further. To finish the book I resorted to using the Kindle app on our laptop and on my phone, neither of which is good for my eyesight or posture.

The device itself was about six years old, probably an acceptable lifespan for this sort of technology (though for the sake of the planet they should be built to last much longer). I quite liked the simplicity of that model of Kindle as it has no touch screen so the reading experience relies on physical buttons to move forward and back through the pages of a book. As Craig Mod points out, Kindle on iOS is a bit of a pig, the touch screen causes unnecessary confusion.

I’ve been using Kindles on and off ever since they launched. Our relationship has been contentious but I’ve always been seduced or re-seduced by their potential. At their best, they are beautiful devices. At their worst, infuriating. They are always so close to being better than they are. (Craig Mod)

A couple of the infuriations Craig mentions are accidental page turns and accidental bookmarks. I’d also add accidental highlighting and unintentional dictionary lookups. Maybe I’m odd, but I never lookup definitions of words on my Kindle, I have a much better dictionary app on my phone, or the good ole OED. Which brings me to the reading experience.

What I’ve noticed since my Kindle device died and I’ve returned to hardcopy books is that reading is so much easier in a paper book. Everything is where I expect it to be, I can refer to the table of contents while keeping a thumb at the place where I was reading from, flipping forward or back a few pages is effortless and intuitive. The rest of the time all the meta information of the book stays out of the way and I can read undistracted. Yet there remains a heap of information about what I’m reading on each page and in my hands that I process subconsciously and helps orient me to the context of what I’m currently reading. This occurs in ways that an electronic gadget does not replicate well.

What do I mean? Page numbers are an obvious thing, but they are given extra meaning by the weight of pages on each side – it’s easy to judge how far through the book I am without consciously looking. Print books don’t have 20 extra pages of filler crap at the end to pad out what is really just a pamphlet, that costs money in a physical object. Any additional pages at the beginning or end of a paper book are there for good reason.

More subtly, each page in a printed book gives information about context by the page layout, indentation, paragraph breaks, typesetting. Ebooks attempt to replicate these things, but aside from paragraph breaks, the fluid text flow of an ebook usually ruins the effect. Even paragraph breaks can become hard to spot in some ebooks.

It seems that what is being attempted with ebooks is to abstract the content of books away from the physicality of the book form. This is necessary to allow the text to reflow into the various container forms of differing devices. If we processed data in the same way as computers this might be effective for humans, but we are embodied beings with a long history of interacting with a physical world. Our senses and minds interpret information in context of a physical world of objects, people and the environment. Books may rely upon ideas, but I wonder if we maybe hunger to keep those ideas in a physical form, a specific book with a particular cover illustration underlined using my favourite pen while sitting on our blue sofa on an overcast day.

I’m glad that we have ebooks, they make books far more accessible to more people than ever, but I don’t think they are as good as physical books made of paper and cardboard. When I can afford it I will probably get myself a new Kindle device because I have hundreds of unread Kindle format books that I’ve previously purchased. The device is also great to have on hand if I may have time to read but don’t want to lug around five different books because I’m unsure which one I will want to read in a waiting room.

For convenience the Kindle is great, for a good reading experience paper is better.