The experience of reading in the age of digital reproduction

I’m a bookish sort.  I’ve always liked to read and often lament that I don’t have more time for reading, now that I’m an adult with real responsibilities and such.  But I always have a paperback in my bag and I have, at present, four ebook applications on my iPod touch:  Classics, Kindle, Shakespeare, and Stanza.   

Until recently, I always preferred paper-bound books.  There is, after all, something nice about the feel of paper under one’s fingers.  The book-as-object has appeal as well, whether in your hands or staring down at you from the bookshelf.  Ever since my first PDA (a Palm IIIxe, followed by a Palm V), I’ve had an ebook reader around, but I was mostly for spare moments when I found myself stuck somewhere without a book and with time on my hands.  

But I think the stark contrast of the beautiful physicality of paper-bound books with the cold sterility of electronic ones has become a largely false one.  The reading experience on my Palm V certainly laked most of the luster of the real thing.  But the same can’t be said across the board for the experience on the iPod touch.

Case in point:  I’ve been reading Dracula of late, which is one of the more recent additions to Classics’ library.  It’s not the main thing I’m reading right now, but I’ve been enjoying it.  Saturday, I got my paperback copy down from the shelf.  I was happy to find I’d left the receipt in it.  From that I was reminded of a few things:  First, that I had bought this copy back in 1994 at the University of Arkansas bookstore.  Second, that it had been marked down to $3.50, but it rang up as $2.95.  Third, that, in 1994, credit card receipts had your full account number on them.  

Those were mostly fond memories.  But, what struck me when I opened up the text itself was how tiny the font was and how cheap the paper.  In fact, I had to squint to read it.  And, though I did enjoy the bit of the introduction that I read, I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading my paper-bound copy nearly as much as I had been enjoying my electronic version. 

As with books, the quality of the reading experience, and, for that matter, the features of the book, vary by publisher.  Classics offers the best reading experience on the iPod touch.  Each page is rendered with care.  The house font is easy on the eyes, as is the color scheme.  The features of the reader are minimal but well designed.  The Kindle app is also a contender, especially in that it opens up the iPod touch and iPhone crowd to the extensive Amazon library.  It lacks some of the elegance of Classics, but it does show some welcome attention to detail.    

I don’t doubt that reading on the iPod touch would suffer compared to reading a nice, hardback volume.  But, the truth is, my library is mostly paperbacks of varying quality, tending toward the cheap.  Affordability and portability have, in my own collection, generally trumped build quality.  

I’m not boxing up my library to send it off to Goodwill anytime soon.  For one thing, finding or buying ebook versions of what I already have would be time- and cost-prohibitive.  And, as Haden grows up, I want there to be lots of books around (his collection of children’s books is already pretty crazy).  But I can foresee a time when the bulk of my new purchases and the bulk of my reading will be mediated through some electronic device or other.

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