Reading e-books, The phenomenology of

By Anthony Haynes

August 30, 2012

Category: Reading

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As a reader, I like e-books. I like that:

  • you can acquire them at the very moment you want them;
  • you can personalise them (by adjusting the font size);
  • they tend to cost less than print books;
  • they’re highly portable.

I like to take my e-reader with me on train journeys, business stays, day visits to our beach hut, and holidays. 

I have bought three dedicated e-readers. The first was an Irex Digital Reader. I use it mostly for professional work – its large screen is well suited to reading reports, documents, and papers. The second reader was a Kindle, though I haven’t used it very much: it’s fine, but it is used mostly by one of our sons. And the third was a Kobo, which I like very much and use for a wide range of books. I’ve also read some e-books on my laptop, but don’t like doing so: its LCD screen is ill-suited to immersive reading.

Somehow, e-books have broadened the range of books that I buy and read. In particular, I have been reading much more in the areas of creative economy and intellectual property, innovation, sustainability, and technology. For example, Dyer & Gregersen, The innovator’s DNA.

Before I bought the e-readers I had almost stopped reading fiction, except for the occasional crime novel. Now I’ve started to read it again, at least a little. For example, Erika Dreifus’s Quiet Americans. This has in turn changed my print reading behaviour a little – I’ve bought some paperback fiction recently. For example, Sonia Taitz, In The King’s Arms.

Why have e-books broadened my scope? Perhaps the lower prices encourage me to experiment. But a stronger influence is the merchandising. Some of the online stores are good at bringing books to my attention, based on my purchasing and search history, and I make extensive use of widgets to decide whether the book is really for me.

In the early days of online bookselling, independent booksellers could claim to offer superior service in terms of providing recommendations and enabling browsing. I’m not sure they still have that advantage – though I also use good bookstores, especially the Ely branch of Topping and Co. to discover and buy books. 

I find e-books have one advantage that I hadn’t expected, which is that I am more likely to finish reading them that I am with print books. I guess that’s because of the use of widgets as a filter – and also because of their portability, which provides more opportunity for reading.

E-books also have on unexpected, which is I sometimes find them harder to recall. I recently read Writing with, through, and beyond the text: an ecology of writing by Rebecca Luce-Kapler, but find I don’t remember much about it. (I even had to look up the title and the author’s name again to write that sentence.)

I suspect the problem with memorability is related to font size. I have tended to adjust the font to a large size. This aids readability, with the result that I read more.  But I think it impairs memory. When there are few words on the page, I seem to skate over the material more, rather than dwelling on it.

Recently I have adjusted the font size down a little. I am certain it has helped me to retain content better. It is something to do with the larger number of words on the page helping to make the structure of the content clearer.

I did wonder whether memorability was affected by the texture of the screen. My Kobo has a smooth screen and I seem to skate over it a little: paper has a rougher texture and things seem to stick better in my mind.  I like that idea, but suspect it is fanciful.


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