Print or Electronic?

At Gadgetwise, a New York Times blog about technology, Jenn Wortham writes about her experience reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, The Marriage Plot, on her Kindle. She had “adored” his previous works, couldn’t wait for his latest to be shipped, so she downloaded it to her gadget.

But reading the novel was surprisingly disappointing. Of course, she wonders if it was due to the e-reading experience or to the novel itself, a question that is impossible for any single reader to answer. Nevertheless, she decides to borrow a friend’s printed copy and attempt to see if her experience was any different.

Wortham concludes by asking her readers if they like reading certain kinds of books on their e-readers or any work of fiction or non-fiction? As of 11/12/11, 79 individuals have responded. The fact that so many have done so speaks to the significance many readers attach to the transition from print to electronic books.

Setting aside the biased sample of New York Times blog readers, more than half, 45 (57%) said they either preferred reading on the Kindle or that there wasn’t any difference between a printed or electronic version of a book. “Reading is reading. The words are what matter. You can read writing on a wall, on a can of soup, in pages, or on an electronic screen.”

In response to my query, the author of the literary blog So Many Books wrote: “I get just as much pleasure reading on my Kindle as I do in reading a print book. You know when you are into a story and all your surroundings drop away and the world could explode and you wouldn't even know it and you don't even notice you are holding a book let alone turning pages? The same thing happens on the Kindle. When I am reading a good story, the world falls away and the Kindle in my hand disappears too. There is no difference in the experience of the story.”

Still another 16 (20%) said there was a notable difference and they preferred reading on the printed page. “I simply cannot find the same emotional connection to reading something on yet another piece of soon to be obsolete tech equipment.” They offered several additional reasons: they retained more of a printed book, missed its feel or tactile sensation, found it difficult to skip around on digital readers, or they didn’t handle footnotes and page numbers well.

Only two readers expressed my major concern about e-readers. Both said it was impossible to easily make notes in the margins, although one of them wondered if that was really such a loss.

Finally, 18 individuals (23%) didn’t answer the question. They weren’t sure, preferred audio books, noted either is a trade off, or mentioned a totally unrelated subject.

Perhaps the best summary of the matter was offered in this comment: “I've had a Kindle for about 3 years and would not be without it. The advantages are: 1. It's easier to cart around than a book, so it's always with me 2. Being able to change the type size really helps with my aging eyes. 3. It's easy to hold, sometimes large books hurt my arthritic hands. 4. It can be read in bright sun. 5. You don't need bookshelves to store the books you want to keep - a real plus in small apartments. But there are disadvantages too: 1. You can't loan your books to a friend or pass them along to a charity. 2. It's very hard to skip around in the pages 3. Diagrams and illustrations don't work at all. 4. The Kindle Fire may solve the color problem, but now they don't even bother selling the art books I love. 5. Not every book I'm likely to buy is available - not by a long shot.”

While I’ve been a long-time critic of e-readers largely because of the difficulty of note taking and marking up pages, I confess I returned to my iPad recently and found reading the New Yorker app a genuine pleasure.

I made notes on a separate pad of paper or computer and, unlike printed books, was able to listen to poets reading their poems or musical groups being discussed and view a video preview of a film or a dance group that was reviewed. These were not the least bit distracting. To the contrary they enhanced the reading experience for me, although it is still not possible to highlight passages or print articles with the app.

Reading books and long essays on an e-reader is another matter.