Smartphone Reading

The ebook will overtake the paperback and hardback as Britons' preferred format for reading their favourite novels by 2018, according to a report. The UK consumer ebook market – which excludes professional and educational books – is forecast to almost triple from £380m to £1bn over the next four years. The Guardian 6/3/14

The other night I took my iPhone with me to a restaurant in Honolulu. I normally take a book when I’m alone or simply enjoy the meal and the view out to the sea. As I deliberated about taking it, having never done so before, I recalled reading about a person who observed Philip Roth reading on his iPhone at a restaurant in New York. I thought: If it’s OK with Philip, it’s OK with me.

I was surprised by how much I liked it. The text was readable, not too small, the screen was bright and clear, as they are on Apple products. Really it wasn’t much different than reading on the larger iPad. I didn’t text anyone, read emails, or search the web. Of course, I didn’t get very far, as the meal was great and the sunset was dazzling.

I have a friend who listens to audiobooks on her iPhone, as she walks along the sunny avenues hereabouts. She says she likes it in a way I will never be able to. In my experience, most of the people who record audiobooks sound so bland and uninvolved in the tale. She assures me that isn’t true most of the time. I reply: Give me an author’s words on the page, not in my ears. I hear them better on the page anyway.

I confess it bothers me when most everyone I see in public places has their nose in a cell phone screen. Can’t they wait until they arrive wherever they’re going to see what’s up? What’s the urgency? Have we also lost the fine art of patience? We live in a beautiful place on this earth. Why not pay attention to it, think about it for a while? Surely we have plans and ideas to ponder. Why not reflect on them for a while? And stop bumping into me.

Serious reading is increasingly difficult in an age of so many distractions. You really have to concentrate for a dedicated period of time if you are to get much out of a book. I was raised long before the advent of cell phones, even before TV, to say nothing of the web and Internet those countless apps. How lucky I was. Sure, it was sometimes a struggle to find the time to read, but then the distractions were textbooks, essay assignments, class presentations, that kind of thing, all of which required concentrated reading.

As far as I can tell, none of these cell phone-users are reading a book. Perhaps I am wrong. Laura Miller writes on Salon (5/14/14):

Those who enjoy wringing their hands in Spenglerian despair whenever they see heads bent over glossy black rectangles in public might want to check their pessimism. For all you know, those smartphone devotees are reveling in the fruits of Western Civilization—rather than playing Floppy Bird while it crumbles around them.

It seems to me most of these people appear to be texting, thumbs typing away with jet-like speed. The younger, the faster. Or playing one of the mindless games that draw people to these gadgets. No doubt there are subway or bus readers, but I doubt those I see on the street wouldn’t be typing away if they were reading Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy.

I have to also admit that there is something about a smart phone and other digital reading devices that have a Kindle App that is somewhat of an advantage. Namely, you can highlight notable passages, save them on your Amazon’s highlighting page, and then copy them in a Word document. In my case, they are then added to my commonplace book. There I can review them, use them if I want in something I am writing, and pass them on to others who express some interest.

I say it is “somewhat of an advantage” because I’m not sure if it really is. Perhaps it is better if I copy each one from a record I keep when I read a printed book. I know I don’t review each of the passages I’ve saved when I copy the Amazon highlights in one fell swoop. But I do when I re-type each one of them in a Word document. I suspect that consolidates their meaning, clarifies why I saved them in the first place and enables me to recall them much more readily than is possible with a single action of copying highlights.

In the past few years, I’ve changed my views about reading digital versions of books. When they first made their appearance, I was an ardent opponent. And while I still prefer reading printed versions of books, I no longer feel reading one on a smart phone or tablet signals the demise of literate culture. It is reading that’s important, not the format you prefer. It is also about what you read and what you make of the experience, if anything.

It seems I am in good company. Margaret Drabble writes of her “deep attachment to my e-reader…It enables you to read, anywhere, anytime, almost anything. It enables you to purchase or acquire texts at midnight, in the small hours, on a train to Tauton, at a bus stop, in a bunk on a ferry in the Arctic Circle.” Now, there is a devoted e-reader.

She claims her device, one that I believe is the Kindle Paperwhite, is almost perfect and, like myself, she too began and still prefers reading printed books. She admits there are so many ways of reading now, it no longer makes sense to ignore the advantages or e-readers, among them highlighting, traveling, being in a town without a bookstore, etc. She concludes, “…but I can feel myself being tempted into colour. The future is bright.”