Screen Reading

Every time--it seems--that someone suggests or comments on the future of the digital text (ebooks), someone always says one of the two following things:

1. People don't like to read words off of screens, the quality/experience is bad and in truth people would prefer to read words off of paper.

2. The codex is--by design and use--an important carrier of information that can't be replaced by digital technology.

Despite the apparent similarity, I think one of these things (and only one) is true: the second. Lets explore.

For starters, if you really think about it, we all read hundreds of thousands of words off of screens every year (and in some cases, every month or every week). We don't mind reading off of screens, and particularly with anti-aliasing and flat screens, in many cases it's easier to read off of screens because readers have more control over the display of text, and yet people don't really read books off of screens.

The standing argument as to why monographs and novels have never found success, is that there are two many distracting things you can be doing on the computer. Why read a book when you can check your email for the 20th time this hour? This is, I think, why the codex is probably here to stay. And because giving books a physicality is commercially worthwhile, and because we respond to the form.

Having said that, I read a book off of my laptop screen this past weekend, and I have to say that I rather enjoyed the experience. So here are some thoughts on the experience:

The book came to me in PDF format, from a publisher. So the "pages" looked like conventional book pages. There were page numbers and so I was able to locate the text in space on a page, very much like I would a "regular book." This spatial experience is often forgotten in digital texts, and I think that layer of information helps our minds make sense of longer texts. Also, because I knew the page numbers of the individual pages, and the total number of pages in the document, I was able to calculate my progress, again, helpful in assimilating the data in the text file.

I could read the words comfortably on the screen while viewing the entire page on the screen. Being able to see a snapshot of a page helps me in locating the text in space, which makes reading easier. More importantly, it allowed me to only scroll when I needed to change the page. This is really important to a successful reading experience, in my view.

The final piece of the puzzle is probably approaching an ebook like you would any other text on a computer screen, rather than approaching an ebook like you would a pbook. I read paper books, for the most part, in bed at night. I read things on the computer sitting at my desk. I read the ebook, mostly sitting at my desk. I also tend to read pbooks in longer stretches, reading several thousand words at a time, where as I probably never read more than 1,000 words at a time on a screen without taking a break. You might have a very different method for reading, and that's fine, but by cycling a novel in with my regular livejournal-blog-email-twitter reading cycle I was able to read a novel in a weekend; whereas it almost always takes me several weeks (if I'm lucky) to finish a novel.

The end result? I've started reading another ebook, because it seems worthwhile.

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