Reading Books Electronically: Some Unexpected Implications

Among discussions of the rise of the e-book, I have found relatively little that considers how the very act of reading in this mode might change the way we read and think. Lev Grossman, writing for the New York Times, offers an intriguing perspective on this matter in his recent article, “From Scroll to Screen.” He begins:

Something very important and very weird is happening to the book right now: It’s shedding its papery corpus and transmigrating into a bodiless digital form, right before our eyes. We’re witnessing the bibliographical equivalent of the rapture. If anything we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all.

The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was circa 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. But if you go back further there’s a more helpful precedent for what’s going on. Starting in the first century A.D., Western readers discarded the scroll in favor of the codex — the bound book as we know it today.

A Hebrew scroll of the prophet Isaiah

Grossman goes on to discuss how the historic change from scroll to codex (book as we know it) transformed reading. In particular, it allowed the reader to move quickly through material, going back and forth, skipping ahead, etc. It’s the sort of thing we do all the time with paper books, something that is difficult to accomplish with e-books.

So here’s Grossman’s main point:

But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine. If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.

Grossman is right about this, as you know if you’ve ever tried to flip around in an e-book. Even with a strong search function, this just doesn’t work.

Grossman concludes:

God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience. And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving it up.

I agree with Grossman, to a point. Every change in media brings pluses and minuses. One of the big minuses of e-book reading is the inability to flip to passages one has read before, or to peek to see what is coming. This may not be a problem when one is reading a novel, in which case, presumably, you will read from beginning to end without much skipping around. But when it comes to non-fiction books, especially those from which one wants to derive the key content without reading the whole thing, the e-book format has its limitations. (On the positive side, it makes searching for a particular word or passage very easy, and it facilitates copying a passage from the book into a word processor.)

Scrolls are still used today, though rarely, and mostly for ceremonial purposes. Codices won the day when it comes to ordinary reading. I wonder if, years from now, e-books will have replaced paper books completely, or if there will be some sort of balance between the media that has to do with varied uses. It’s hard to imagine filling your coffee table with e-book readers.

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  • Scott Eppler

    I would actually have to disagree with even this one “minus” as it’s really more of a learning curve that a “missing feature”.  I use the Nook application a lot and find it very easy to jump back and forth using either the page scroll at the bottom (because Nook books still have page numbers like regular “codex” books) or going to the Table of Contents and clicking the link to jump directly to a specific chapter or section.  Also, if you see something in the middle of the chapter you think you may want to come back to you can highlight or bookmark it and then use that same function to jump right back to that exact spot.  So, I would actually say that it is easier than a traditional “codex” style book.

    Another ‘minus’ that some have brought up is that you can’t write notes in the margin.  But again, Nook (and I’m pretty sure most other e-reading software) have a notes feature that not only saves your notes with the page but with the specific word, phrase, paragraph, etc.

  • Anonymous

    It has been painful to give up my beloved scrolls and get used to writings that I can’t unroll.  Worse still, my local library is not interested receiving my donation of my used scrolls.  For thousands of years Holy Scrpture was written on scrolls.  Why should we change now?  I say Bring back the scrolls.

  • I agree that going from books to ebooks has advantages and disadvantages, but most disadvantages mentioned in the article are somewhat trivial and could be corrected by better reading software or better reading devices.  I think the main difficulty with the switch is that you’re going from a book which once had a significant cost and material to duplicate, to an ebook which can be duplicated indefinitely practically for free.  So there’s now this new odd and foreign economy to deal with (this also applies to any kind of digital media…think of the effects of the mp3 on the music industry, or of Netflix, Hulu, and RedBox on movies and television).  As we switch from physical publishing and physical storefronts to electronic publishing and electronic storefronts, how will this affect people’s livelihoods?  I would expect that bookstores would start to disappear, as would much of the industry of bookmaking (in the long term, at least).  Then there’s the problem that books are no longer physical property.  I can’t buy an ebook for myself and then give it to a friend once I’m done with it…or even resell it: should I be allowed to do such a thing?  Is this an ability that we lose?  Sorry to sound like a harbinger of doom…I really do like the ebook.  It’s nice to not have to shift to get the right amount of light on a page as I read (on a backlit reader, at least) and I LOVE how I can highlight a word and have the dictionary definition pop up (this is the main feature I miss when reading paper).

  • Scott Eppler

    Very much agree raydancer.  Although I’m not sure how much the economy thing will be a factor but it’s bound to have at least some effect.  However, you’ll notice that the MP3 industry dropped largely due to Albums now being allowed to be piecemealed so you can buy an individual song without getting the whole album but album prices themselves didn’t drop that much (something like $2-3).  Of course, in general, you wouldn’t piecemeal a book.  And for movies, it didn’t affect movie “purchases” so much as movie rentals (btw, RedBox would still be considered physical media) and it wasn’t just that they went digital it’s that they changed from a “per item” model to a “per month” model that radically changed the pricing.

    Your point about giving away or selling ebooks is spot on though.  Other than the “Lend Me” feature with Nook (which is somewhat limited) these options are completely taken away.  I didn’t do this much anyway but for those that did this is a big deal.  I know because while I don’t do this with books I do tend to sell back games.  Now that games are slowly heading to digital format I find my decision to even buy a game being affected.  Am I willing to pay the full $50-60 if I can’t recover any of that once I’m finished playing?  So I have to wonder if some people that buy a lot of books then sell them when they are finished are going to significantly slow down their reading when they can’t recover any costs by selling old books.

    Your other point about bookstores closing (Libraries would probably have to consolidate down as well) is well taken.  While it doesn’t effect the individual reader much it could be a minor-to-medium level economy issue.

  • I’m in the same boat as far as games are concerned.  I haven’t quite started buying big ticket games digitally yet, but I buy many smaller digital-only releases (and don’t get me started on $0.99 apps).  Still, once I buy, I’m stuck with them, and usually also stuck with the device that I purchased them on.  I chalk it up to paying a certain amount for a certain experience, like buying a movie ticket (which are too expensive for me nowadays).  Games are pretty much obsolete (except for nostalgic purposes) once the next system is out anyway.

    As for the RedBox vending physical items, this is true, but it may not always be that way (Netlfix is swiftly transitioning from physical to digital).  And, besides, my point is that if you have a RedBox on the corner, you no longer need to staff a video store.  What happens to all of the people who used to work the arcades, the video stores, the music stores, the book stores?  I can’t help but wonder if the current unemployment problems are caused, at least in part, by this phenomenon.  I wonder if we’ll get to the point where we have to pay George Jetson to press a button…and if we’ll have to give his job some kind of government protection to keep it from being automated.

    It’s funny that you mention libraries.  Anytime I’ve been in a library recently, there seems to be more people on computers than browsing or reading books.

    I doubt that this is a new problem.  I just wonder if all times feel so strange to those who live in them.

  • Sheila

    This post has me thinking “it wasn’t a fish who discovered water.” Born and raised on paper books, I’d never considered how revolutionary bound pages were and are.

    I just got my Kindle and I love it because my thumbs ain’t what they used to be–they don’t like to turn paper pages anymore. The tremendous irony, for me, is that the user’s manual for my Kindle, at 120 pages, frustrated me. I was reading it to learn how to navigate (I  instinctively was looking for how to “flip through” an eBook) and trying to read it on the screen and then follow the instructions.So I printed the whole 120 pages. On to paper. 

  • Avril

    If a book won’t get you involved that means is not a good book. I began selecting my lecture since I’ve had this problem but now thanks to all you can books I can find only interesting books on my taste.
    Having a preview of a book is very important because you can make an opinion about the subject and see if you’re interested in it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.