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article imageOp-Ed: Reading in the age of electronic content

By Andrew Reeves     Nov 17, 2011 in Entertainment
Toronto - A plethora of e-readers and numerous applications to explore electronic reading content may revolutionize the way in which we think about that oldest source of knowledge - the book. But then again - it might not.
I never knew the downside to having an extensive library of paperbacks and hardcovers - actual, tangible books you can hold in your hand and turn pages made of paper - until I started moving frequently. I encountered older colleagues at previous jobs who told me that had disavowed any connection with paper books for that very reason: the act of having and holding (and storing) a paper book can become burdensome - in fact, too burdensome for many.
I haven't given up my vast library of paper books, and neither has my partner, although friends are less likely to help us move now that they know at least a third of the boxes stacked near the door are full of heavy, back-breaking books. We complimented our library with at least a dozen magazine subscriptions between us at one time, ensuring there was a stack of magazines and books on the go on either side of our bed, in addition to a stack of books and magazines on the short list for reading next. It got so out of hand, and the mounting pressure of feeling that if we failed to read each mag cover to cover that we had disappointed Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or The Walrus so acute, that not only have we scaled back, but have initiated a subtle and gradual shift away from paper reading content and towards its electronic equivalent.
Call it out of sight, out of mind.
It started with the magazines. I wasn't ready to make the push and stop purchasing books just yet, but magazines feel more transient and fleeting anyway, so I felt it was a good place to start. Gradually, we began accessing magazines through e-reading apps on our iPhones and iPad - these apps were not without their own problems (crashes, freezes, annoying daily e-mails that clog my inbox, etc.) but they suddenly put magazines I would never have paid full price for right at my fingertips, and often for half the price of a paper copy.
$9.99 for a year subscription to digital Popular Mechanics? Amazing! Only $11.99 for a year of digital Mother Jones? Are you kidding me? It would be fiscally irresponsible not to get that subscription!
I was not only saving trees, but saving money as well. It didn't make much sense to continue with paper copies in a lot of cases when the electronic alternative was so much cheaper. And gradually, the digital versions of some magazines became better than their paper counterpart.
As more magazines started getting on board with this, they began out-competing each other to add bonus material: special iPad only interviews and photo's, articles that didn't appear with the print edition, and even Maclean's recent effort at three dimensional "augmented reality" where your smart phone helps images in the magazine spring from the page in 3D.
I'm not making this up. The future was now! At least, last year when we started this shift. It accelerated this past September when my partner, after extensive soul-searching, product research, and deep contemplation, decided to buy me a Kobo eReader for my birthday.
"I knew you would never buy this for yourself," she said, "but that once you have it you will use it all the time."
I'll admit it: I was skeptical. But I'll also admit it: she was right.
I was skeptical for the same reason I am leery of embracing too whole-heartedly any new form of capturing music, or storing photographs. I am not convinced that the current form of listening to music in mp3 format or storing a copy of an important family photo in JPEG format will stand the test of time. Everything else we consume in our daily lives is built these days to be temporary, so should we anticipate that an ePub or PDF of our favourite book will be readable in 2051?
Think about it - for someone in their mid twenties like myself, can I really believe that my children will access music and images the same way that I do right now? I don't access these items the same way my parents do, and the technology is increasing at a much more rapid pace today than it was forty years ago.
And not all antiquated music formats elicit the same sentimental reaction as vinyl records do. Most, like cassette tapes, eight-track, and even CD's now clutter bargain bins at second hand shops. While someone might hold on to that vintage vinyl copy of Alvin and the Chipmunks from the 1960s, no will will cry when the cassette tape from 1982 makes its way out the door with the rest of your pooled eighties e-waste.
So what chance does ePub or PDF have of becoming the nostalgic equivalent of the vinyl record in 2051?
To a certain extent, I feel the same about about electronic books. ePub format is an amazing way for me to borrow a library book without leaving home and have it show up on my e-reader, or buy a book effortlessly through the air and be reading it moments later while I am miles away from a bookstore. But when the format changes, as we all know it eventually will, what then?
The first book I bought with my Kobo was Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, which I reviewed for Digital Journal. I took advantage of the two-week trial offer of several national magazines and newspapers in Canada and the U.S., and set about teaching myself how to engage with an old material in an entirely new way.
In an article for The Independent, Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media at De Montfort University, writes that many readers of print books felt the same way I did in their shift to ebooks.
“[Print book readers] feel they have control over them. You can look at page numbers or go to the last page, if you want, and navigate the book. That’s because you’ve learned how to do it. In the early days of books you wouldn’t have known where to start.”
But the manufacturers of e-readers and their apps have been able to build upon the inherent knowledge we have of how to read and enshrined that knowledge into any typical e-reader, allowing for as seamless a transition as possible. Turning pages are done with the flick of a finger, while saving passages for later reference is done in two clicks before I can highlight the text of value. I can also leave myself a note as to why it is important; and when I am done reading, it saves my notes and records my progress.
The screen has been a joy to read, although it can get cloudy from time to time. Collected imprints from the previous pages you have read can stay faintly in the background below the new words, but you simply have to wait a moment or save the page and it becomes crisp and clean again.
And the allure of holding a 200g device with 1 GB of memory, capable of holding upwards of 2.3 million books, is incredibly enticing, to be honest. My wrists have benefited from not having to hoist the 460 page book I just finished into position for the hours it took me to finish it like I would have if I had borrowed the print version from my local library, as opposed to downloading the ePub. A slim novella or a weighty tome will always weigh the same amount in digital form.
The Kobo, in an attempt to incorporate social media into the mix, has generated a system of awards that it bestows upon its readers for such things as burning the midnight oil, reading on your lunch break, or perusing over breakfast. There are 24 awards Kobo can award you which you are encouraged to share on Facebook, most of which revolve around the time in which you read most frequently. It's all done through Reading Life, a Kobo community of readers that can share awards milestones and book recommendations from home through their connected e-readers.
It's an interesting idea for people who crave that kind of network for their reading experience, as I am sure many do. But for those of us who view reading as more of a solitary pursuit, the craving to share our reading habits on Facebook holds less allure.
Yet some nagging issues remain. When I buy an ebook, what am I really buying? A $9.99 file that I cannot easily share with friends or family? Or is engaging with the material itself the only benefit of reading, and the medium you employ to do it irrelevant?
I am bothered by the fact that there is nothing tangible about an ebook, nothing that I can hold in my hand, and yet I do not, for the life of me, know why I am bothered. It is access to intellectual property, but not physical hardware, for what that's worth (and I don't know what that's worth!) I couldn't beat a man with an ebook, is one way of looking at it.
And that troubles me - not the beating part, but the lack of a physical object. What value does a digital bookshelf I can hold in my hand have against the bookshelf of paper books on the office wall beside me as I write this? Is this an unfair comparison? Are they apples and oranges?
I'm not convinced it is an unfair comparison, just as I am unconvinced that one is inherently better than another. Likely, I will continue to buy books and other electronic content in both formats, as I appreciate reading now in both manners far more than I thought I would. Some books will mean too much to me to suffice as digital downloads, and I will crave a hard cover, or at least a paper back. Others I will be content at receiving through wireless signals that run through my house.
And the book, like the way in which I obtained it, will ultimately remain rather invisible.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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