Reading books on a Kindle is over

Reading books on a Kindle is over.

I was an early Kindle convert. Bought generation one. I had been lucky enough to play with the first e-ink prototypes coming out of MIT in the mid 1990s, and got convinced early that e-ink would ‘change everything’.

When I could I transferred to the Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone, I moved my reading material onto the devices. No more physical books. I even undertook my fiction challenge (which involved 25 books, many as long as 700 physical pages) on the Kindle.

So with dozens of books, fiction, non-fiction, academic, fun and highly technical, what has changed?

The Kindle (and e-reading in general) is a trade off for physical books. What I realised was that the electronic reading experience was worse on all the dimensions I cared about, and better on a marginal attribute – convenience.

The physical book, with its materiality, seemed to provide a more encompassing experience. I seemed to better understand both fiction and non-fiction. I’m an avid back-flipper, reminding myself of details of plot or argument, dog-earing pages of import and marking up sections in the margin.

On the Kindle, all that seemed lost. The sense of where I was in the book was gone. Navigating to a critical passage by touch no more. Yes, precise indexing, a quick way to find the turn of phrase you exactly remembered but so much harder to find the thing you approximately remember.

What the kindle gave me was convenience. Hundreds of books in one place. In return, I lost the things that made reading valuable. (It is a metaphor for quite a lot of technology, a point I will return to in a future paper.)

Now the scientists weigh in

  • People who read paper books better retain plot elements and story lines than those who read ebooks, according to a Norwegian scientist.
  • And Maryane Wolf of Tufts University
    argues “[we] are becoming wonderfully engaged with the superficial levels of information but unaware of the need to probe and think for themselves” because of e-reading.

What I’ve learnt

I’ve been e-book free for about 6 months now, and I feel more engaged with the material I am reading. In fact it is hard to believe I would have followed “harder” books like Edward Frenkel’s “Love and Math” on e-paper.

As I make my way through Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, my arms might strain and the weight of the book, but my mind delights at the interplay of the physical and visual that takes me deeper into the prose.


Published by

Steven Monahan