Does the reading experience vary as a function of the format of the text? Does it matter, for example, if we read a printed book (paperback or hardcover) or the same text in an ebook or listen to it with an audiobook? Do we prefer, enjoy, or benefit as much from one format more than the others? A good deal of current discussion of the changing nature, to say nothing of the decline, in reading turns on these questions.
One would think it is a simply a matter of carrying out an experimental investigation(s) to gain some clarity on these issues. To my knowledge not such study has been published, although I strongly suspect (and hope) several are currently underway or in the works. Absent such a study, we have to fall back on the reports on individuals who have tried to compare the reading options that are currently available.
Ann Kirschner recently described such a comparison in her essay, Reading Dickens Four Ways: How Little Dorrit fares in multiple text formats in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In her study, which she refers to as an experiment, she chose to read Little Dorrit four ways: paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and iPhone.
Naturally she didn’t read all of this 1,000-page story in each format. Rather she skipped around in an alternating fashion between the four as she progressed through the tale. Kirschner says, “It was often maddening to keep finding and losing my pace as I switched from format to format. But as an experiment, it taught me a great deal about my reading habits, and about how a text reveals itself differently as the reading context changes.”
She started with the paperback version, observing along the way the notes she had made in her old Penguin edition. She wrote, “How dare we think that anything could replace it? Impossible to imagine that any of these newfangled devices could last nearly 40 years. The perfume of the old paper filled the air.” She could have stopped there, but she forged on, turning next to the audiobook version.
She found the narrator competent but uninspired and concluded after a while that the audiobook had might “win” since you could listen while walking, driving, “applying makeup makeup, cooking and in the dentist’s chair.”
She moved on to the iPhone version noting that its eReader application (free) included the original illustrations, the explanatory footnotes (impossible with an audiobook, with intuitive controls and that she “was soon able to bookmark pages, highlight the text and switch back and forth between novel and notes.” She declares, “The iPhone is a Kindle killer.”
Finally she reports she abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit “almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can’t do better.” She disliked Kindle’s clumsy way of turning pages and its momentary blackouts a constant annoyance, “especially compared with the delicate swipe or tap that changes instantaneously on the iPhone.”
To be sure, Kirschner acknowledges the relatively small screen of the iPhone which she suggests might be a problem for the middle-age and older readers, but not for the generation that spends house playing games and reading text messages on cellphones.
She concludes that it is reading per se that is critical. “It is the sustained and individual encounter with ideas and stories that is so bewitching. If new formats allow us to have more of those, let us welcome and learning from them.” And she is certain that even Dickens himself would be experimenting with new formats for his novel, “seeking ways to expand his impact on readers.”