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To E-Read or not to E-Read

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

I have to admit that I’m on the fence when it comes to getting myself an e-book.

On the one hand, there is an enormous appeal in the convenience of reading a book review or having a friend recommend something and instantly downloading it—of having my entire personal library stored on a device the size of a trade paperback. Yet, while I’m an eager user of fun new technology, I’m rarely an early adopter because I’d rather wait for the developers to work out the bugs before frustrating me with them, and to develop more user-friendly features. Plus, in time these gadgets usually come down in price. Until then, I bide my time and read what those early adopters have to say about the products and their markets before making up my mind.

E-books are user-friendly to begin with, though from what I’ve been reading about them, that’s not what has fans and critics buzzing. Instead, there is much discussion about the impact of the e-book on books and the culture that surrounds them.

The most obvious and persistent criticism of the e-book that I've read concerns the loss of the sensory and tactile experience of paper books. It’s hard to argue with a reader’s preference for the smell of a book or the feel of a book in the hands. Laments over the decline of the paper book even extend to concerns that, as with vinyl albums,  the cover art may become a dying breed.

Fears that reading might be in decline seem unfounded; in fact, e-books and other electronic media may be giving reading an infusion of new energy among readers of the wired generation. Following this year’s Book Summit in Toronto, psychologist Raymond Mar of York University reminds readers of The Globe and Mail that “radio didn’t kill the book, television didn’t kill the book, movies didn’t kill the book and the Internet’s not going to kill the book [. . .] These things just create different sources of inspiration for one another.”

There’s still a lot of reading going on, as the Globe article further points out, evidenced by “an ever-greater number of cash transactions for paper books, exemplified [. . .] by the growing cohort of Western bloggers with lucrative book deals.”

Still, some folks turn their noses up at the type of reading e-consumers are doing, and at some of the subtler differences between the paper book and e-book experience.

University of New Hampshire professor Thomas Newkirk believes that our hyperlinked culture “often treats reading as fast food to be gobbled up as quickly as possible”—his students have told him that they’ve become so accustomed from flitting from page to page online that they have trouble concentrating while reading printed books. Does reading on an e-reader contribute to these problems? Hard to say, although I would imagine that someone using a dedicated device like an e-reader, instead of a multi-use device like a computer, would have less trouble concentrating. And there’s nothing to say you couldn’t slow down and pay attention to books read on your e-reader any less than you could on paper.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, in "Further Thoughts of a Novice e-reader," goes a bit further than the obvious criticisms of the e-readers or their effects on our reading brains, examining certain facets of the culture of reading. “Most of the books I’ve ever read,” he says, “have come from lending libraries."

By contrast, he says:

Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first—and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device. That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries.

There is something to his argument about the proprietary nature of the Kindle and iBook formats, which seem to adopt a relatively mercenary position in the book-reading culture—you can read it only if you buy it. But Klinkenborg shows his novice colors in this comment, and perhaps might have benefited from some further research before drawing the conclusion that electronic book-reading shuts the reader off from the collective reading experience.

For one, a little-known feature of the Kindle allows several readers—family members, for example—to share books between devices linked to one Kindle account. Even more generous is the Nook, which allows users to lend their e-books to friends for free, as well as to read for free (for a limited time) while in Barnes & Noble stores.

In addition, the Nook and a few other lesser-known readers (like the Kobo) support open-source e-book formats such as EPUB and PDF. This means that you can use them to read e-books from public libraries that have electronic “copies” available, as my local library system does.

As for the social value of reading, well, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. In many ways, electronic media have made it easier to share our reading experiences.

The fact is although I may not have an e-reader, I already share my reading with many people electronically. On Facebook, I keep track of each book I read using an application that allows me to post titles to my profile, rate them, and send recommendations to other users. There and elsewhere (Amazon, for example), I can read commentaries from friends and strangers about the books that people liked, and their reasons for liking them. A few years ago some members of the AP® English listserv held a summer “book club” entirely online, and it was an extremely rich exchange. Teachers use blogs and social networking tools to help students share their impressions of their summer, course, or independent reading.

None of these interactions stand to change if people read on paper or electronically. As the devices get more sophisticated, more sharing options will emerge. For example, the bookmark-sharing site Diigo allows users not only to annotate Web sites, but to view one another’s annotations and comment on them. Eventually, e-readers will have the same capability. Most of them now allow readers to highlight, annotate, consult integrated dictionaries, link to online reference sources, plug into social networks built around them, and enjoy an increasing array of tools designed to tailor their reading to their desired experiences, whether that be total immersion in the world of the story or a collaboration with other readers.

Ironically, without all this electronic media, I would be unable to share all these details of my reading life with a whole new audience, and I also wouldn’t be reading all these opinion pieces about the state of reading in the age of e-reading.

So, will I be using e-books in the classroom anytime soon? I guess if I could trust that my teenaged students won’t lose an entire library with one misplaced backpack, or return from a holiday at the beach complaining that sand got into the works of their Kindle, it’s a distinct possibility. Certainly, I can’t deny that electronic reading will have a place in the teaching of the future, and that it’s probably a waste of time to feel threatened by it.


Here is an interesting (though limited) study that concludes that people using e-readers actually read more slowly than those reading paper books.

Borders bookstores have joined the rapidly expanding e-book galaxy with their own app and e-book library that can be used on a few of the e-readers that accept their format.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

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