I haven’t been reading much lately. Like, for the last decade. Or two. I read the Harry Potter series; Snow Crash; perhaps one or two others. But I haven’t been reading anywhere as much as I used to. I used to love reading. A LOT. I probably still do and would likely realize that if I made the time to find out. Shortly after it came out about a year ago I got the iPad. Along with everything else that is wonderful about it, it touted itself as a "Kindle Killer." Everyone was supposed to start reading books and whatnot on the iPad. Well, it didn’t kill the Kindle. Or the Nook. There are lots of eReaders out there. And lots of people love them.
I’m not sure I’m one of them.
I’m a follower of the Rands In Repose blog. The author, Michael Lopp, has authored a couple of books based on his blog. His latest is "Being Geek," which intrigued me. So off to amazon.com I went to order up. But wait! There’s a digital version and it’s only $9.99! I have an Amazon account and, therefore a Kindle account and I have the Kindle app on both my iPhone and my iPad. So I got the digital version. Why not?
Well, HEY! This is COOL! I can read a book no matter where I am! At lunch, in line, at a long red light, in the car (if someone else is driving), on the toilet, in bed…wherever! And it WAS cool. Not having to remember to bookmark or remember which page you are on is cool. Highlighting favorite passages is cool. Seeing other people’s highlighted pages and passages is cool. Having the Kindle app synchronize your place between devices is cool. (i.e., stop on page 43 on the iPad, read 20 more pages on the iPhone, then go back to the iPad and it knows you are now on page 63.) In fact, there was nothing "not cool" about the experience.
Except it’s not a book.
There is no cover to open in anticipation. There are no notes about the author in the jacket cover. There are still all those annoying pages that have no information you care about at the very beginning, but are robbed of the aggravation of having to flip past them in order to get to the real book because the table of contents lets you "flip" straight to page 1. When I finished the book I had the same sense of content absorption. I had, in fact, read a book. No problem there. But I was…annoyed. And I didn’t know why. I have thought a lot about it. What else was different? That was so cool, but why do I feel so robbed? What’s missing? What was so different in a bad way?
I’ve zeroed in on two things. First, there is no real sense of progress when reading an eBook. "Real" isn’t a good word. It’s there, but it’s different. The concept of a "page" is subjective on an eReader. Your screen is a fixed size, but your ability to change the size of the text means that you could flip through 500 pages or 700 pages for the same book, depending on your settings. At any time you can tap the screen and see where in the book you are, relative to its beginning and end. But it’s not. the. same. When you’re holding a real book, you know how far you have gone. More importantly, you know how far you have to go. Before you even start you flip to the end to see how many pages it is. As you turn each page, you are subconsciously fist-pumping: "YES! One more down." If you’re any good at math, you’re also calculating how many pages left. (I don’t do this, but I imagine some people do.) You can feel how far you have to go. The number of pages under your left thumb gets steadily bigger while the pile of pages under your right thumb gets steadily smaller.
Then it happens. You’re DONE! How do you know you’re done? I mean aside from the obvious running out of pages to read? You do the second thing I missed: You CLOSE THE BOOK. I’m talking about closure in both the literal and figurative sense. I couldn’t close the damn book! I could quit the app. Yay. I could go back to my virtual Library. Whoopee. I have no sense of satisfaction. I don’t feel like I actually read the book.
I don’t feel this same sense of loss about tweets or Facebook posts or blogs. They’re different. They set different expectations in the reader. But a book is something else. It’s a relationship, not a one-night stand. You get to know it. You even get attached to it. You love it. Sometimes you dump it. And at the end, you have to leave it. Closure. I can’t mentally "leave" my eBook. And that sucks.
In fact, I think I may very well buy the real-world version. I DO want to read it again. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. But when I do, I want to be able to close it and be finally done with it. I love my gadgets. I really do. They’re more than mere toys; they’re tools. And like any tool, you have to use the right one for the job at hand. I will try this again, but I think that the "right" tool for reading–for me–is a real, old-fashioned, BOOK.