On reading eBooks

26 February 2010

I didn’t read enough books last year, and I planned to fix that this year.

My commute these days is a bit longer than it used to be, but involves a lot of standing, especially on cramped trains and tubes. That makes it hard to read a book, doubly so if it’s a hardback. So I decided to see what it was like to read a book off a screen.

I decided to read Cory Doctorow’s Makers, mainly because a few friends had recommended it, and it was free, and that seems a good price point for an experiment. I read it on Stanza, a free iPhone ebook reader that I’d used before.

As for the book: I liked it. I really liked the short tory it clearly sprang from; I wasn’t so keen with how the novel panned out, but that’s because I’m really not a theme park person, and Cory clearly is a theme park person. The “making” parts were great, though.

Anyhow, this isn’t a book report; it’s a report on eBooks.

I enjoyed the experience, overall. I liked being able to pick up and put down the book far more easily than a paper one. I’d read it for 2, 3 minutes at most sometimes – when waiting for a sandwich, on a short bus ride to the station, and when I was on the way home from a late night out – just because it was always with me. I didn’t even need a bag: if I had my phone – which I always do – then I had my book. I really, really liked that – that was easily the best part of the experience for me.

I was worried that this stop-start approach to reading would lead to a more fragmentary experience of the book, but I was surprised by how well I always picked up the thread of the book when I returned to it.

It helped to get the page length and font size right. Making the text big enough to read, but not so big that I’m always tapping to move to the next page, dramatically improved the experience of using Stanza. (To begin with, I’d had all my type far too big, and I was “turning the page” way too often). Also: although Stanza will let you flick pages left and right, tapping on the left or right side of the screen is a much better bet.

To begin with, I missed having obvious progress indicators; I only noticed the horizontal bar at the bottom of the Stanza screen that fills to indicate progress quite late. Also, the “page X/Y, % of the way through” indicator was quite confusing: the latter represents progress through the whole book, but the former, this “chapter” or section. Sections weren’t always clearly defined – they were dependent on the book in question. defined. That said: once I understood the blue progress bar, it felt more like a real book again to me: a book that I was making progress through. And in the end, I was pleased with my pace of reading: not bolting, but not too slow. The only problem was that once the bar was clearly very close to the end, I sprinted for the finish line, bombing through pages to fill the bar and complete the book.

There weren’t many downsides to the experience. The big one was the same problem I have with all touchscreen devices: it’s very hard to commmunicate what you’re doing to people sitting opposite you. Unlike a push-button phone, where the difference between reading, fiddling, texting, scrolling through a contacts book, playing a game, are all reasonably easy to ascertain from the way a user taps buttons… on an iPhone, they all look the same. It was difficult to communicate “I’m not fiddling with my phone, I’m reading a book.” Perhaps I’m just over-sensitive to external judgments, but I certainly was less likely to read in certain company – especially less technologically-savvy company.

The other surprising thing was the effect of the screen. Reading is a private experience, and I was surprised just how legible big text on a backlit screen is – not just for me, but for other people around me. This came to a most noticeable head (so to speak) during a reasonably, erm, detailed sex scene within Makers (the literary merits of which this is not the place to discuss).

I’m not a prude, but all of a sudden, I felt very exposed: the screen was so bright and clear that I was sure anyone else could see what was on my screen as if it was in their face. Given I was reading it at 8am on a crowded train, I felt awkward; I’m not sure I’d want other people to see that, or think that all I was doing was reading, you know, smut. “It’s a fun book about technology and themeparks! Not smut!

By contrast, books and newsprint are much harder to read at a distance, and more easily kept to yourself through careful bending or angling. Also, I think people are more nosy about screens. Screens light up, they beg to be looked at, and that feels more ostentatious than print. This is one of the advantages of eInk: because it’s not backlit, it has similar privacy to print, and reading it seems more intimate.

I’m glad I read a book on a screen though, because I know that with only a little effort, it’s perfectly easy to read a full novel off a screen. I’m certainly less sceptical of ebooks as an application for portable devices, dedicated readers or otherwise, and I’m likely to read more books in this format. Although, right now, I’m unlikely to start buying eBooks. I’ve already paid for enough books in print, and most of them were secondhand (and I’m a big fan of secondhand books). I don’t think I’ll ever get the feeling of a well-loved, secondhand paperback from my iPhone – but it’s still got a lot to recommend it.