In my early 30s, I don’t think of myself as old very often. Except sometimes when I’m on the train or at a park and I see everyone (everyone!) who looks to be about my age or younger, and sometimes people a bit older than me, too, texting like the wind. I’m a super slow texter. Even with my fancy new smart phone, I don’t see myself getting faster any time soon. I guess texting is okay, but I still like to actually talk to people most of the time Am I just not willing to work at it? Or has the time for learning that skill passed me by?
I wonder the same thing about ebooks. In my bourgeois household my husband and I share both a Kindle and an iPad. I’ve read a few dozen books on both devices so far, and it’s fine. The Kindle (an old-school, non-color version) is great for sunny places and you don’t have to worry about charging it often. It’s also fairly distraction-free, in that it’s difficult to get online or switch to reading the newspaper. The iPad is slick and beautiful. The pages in iBooks turn almost-sort-of-exactly-like real pages. I can zip through a novel happily on either. What I can’t do is go back and re-read easily.
This may seem like a picky gripe, but when you write book reviews, you do a lot of re-reading. I’m used to measuring where a particular passage or event in the narrative took place by the number of pages between my thumb and forefinger. For example, when does Lucy Gault reappear? About a 1/2 inch into the slim volume that tells her story. When does Patrick first meet Clara? If I pick up In the Skin of a Lion, I can find the place by riffling through the pages–the weight of the paper that passes through my fingers will stop me at about the right scene. Sure, I can bookmark pages in a ebook, but I’m the kind of person who, if given Post-Its when I read, will mark every third page in the first hundred of a great book, rendering so many insights useless in aggregate. I can’t seem to pay attention to the little marker at the bottom of the screen in my e-readers that tells me where I am in the book. I know only vaguely if I’m in the first or second half. I won’t buy anything I think I might love in digital form, because the irritation of trying to return to beautiful passages or find particular moments in the narrative is so annoying.
If I had grown up reading digitally, would this still be a problem? Am I just not trying hard enough (though “trying” for this previously effortless skill seems a lot to ask of a reader). Can I learn how to mark time on screen, or is it too late for this old dog? Has the sensual, paper-ness of the physical book ruined me for this aspect of the ebook?
- Other things we’ll miss in ebooks: marginalia, covers, author signatures on the flyleaf, and oh yeah, the smell of old books.