Reflections: reading through a doorway, reading through a hole

FilerI have an on-off relationship with my ereader. I’m not particularly averse to electronic reading; it’s just that I rarely think to pick the ereader up when all the shelves of print books are so much more visible. I still prefer paper books at heart; indeed, very few of the ebooks I own are titles that I could also have bought as a print copy.

One of those few is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I’ve been re-reading for my book group. I’d forgotten how much I liked it – the way it creeps up on you, gradually revealing that its form and narrator are not as they first appeared to be. I had put that forgetting down to not having read Shock until after it became a Big Name Book and somehow subconsciously (erroneously) assuming that meant it couldn’t be good, even though I remembered otherwise. But I also wonder if the experience of reading the book electronically didn’t have something to do with it.

“A book…is a doorway,” wrote Eleanor Catton recently. Her metaphor was more general, and made in a different context; but let’s run with the specifics of it for a while. When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me.

Catton goes on: “A screen is all surface. How many adults can sit at a computer terminal and read diligently and immersively, for hours?” It’s worth pointing out that, these days, such electronic reading is less likely to be done on a terminal than on something like a tablet or phone. But I think she does have a point here, because I find that, when I try to read on a multifunction device, I don’t have the same level of focus. After all, in those circumstances, reading is just one function among many.

I would distinguish, though, between multifunction devices and dedicated ereaders. With an ereader, it is still just me and the book, but the experience is different. If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

The effect of this is that, with ebooks, I find myself focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context. It may be no coincidence that the only book read electronically that I’ve reviewed on this blog at any length is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a novel that demands – and rewards – attention to and engagement with its language, which is something that reading in the moment can encourage. On the other hand, The Shock of the Fall, which takes you through different texts and styles, rewards an appreciation of its cumulative effect. I appreciated Filer’s novel well enough on the electronic page, but perhaps I would have experienced it better on the printed one.



  1. Sorry, David, but as someone who reads a lot on Kindle – probably 40/60 Kindle/physical book – I have an issue with any piece written by someone who doesn’t use it as much. Yes, the physicality of it is different but do I retain less of a sense of the book’s context? I don’t think so. I would argue that the understanding of the context of the physical book often arrives late anyway. And no, it’s not as easy to flip backwards and forwards on an ereader but it’s possible and if you know where you want to move too, pretty straightforward.

  2. Really interesting post David. Your experience aligns pretty close with my own of e-reading vs hard copy, but more and more I think this is about my own learnt behaviour than it is about something essential in the screen/paper dichotomy. I have had access to a Kindle for a while – I got the first keyboard model pretty much as soon as it was released in the UK. I got on with it ok, but for ages only read short stories and bits of ARCs on it. I found it very difficult to engage with long form fiction on it, and felt like several books failed for me because I was trying to read them on my e-reader. I had that same feeling as you, of reading in the moment and not being able to set those moments in the context of the whole.

    But then my parents bought me a Paperwhite last Christmas and I’ve had a lot more impetus to read on it for various reasons, and I find myself adapting. I think the lack of a keyboard helps. The more I use it, the more I find myself drawn in. There are still some books that I would only want to read in paper, for the haptic pleasure of it, but I think I will be happily reading on my Kindle for general fiction and certainly for those books I probably won’t revisit.

  3. I agree with Victoria (and you, David). My Kindle is one of the early primitive ones with awkward navigation buttons that cause me to resist trying to move from place to place in a text. Admittedly I don’t use it very often – almost exclusively when travelling, to reduce luggage weight/bulk – and I take into account Naomi’s comment on this. But I do find the physical heft of a book more congenial (had to look up ‘haptic’, btw – what a splendid adjective! Must start using it.) I too find it most amenable when reading short stories; I’ve worked through half of Chekhov’s collected works on planes, trains and sunny terraces abroad and find their brevity results in a more successful reading experience. Of course the more recent ereaders have better displays than my steam-powered version, and have much easier navigation tools, so perhaps I just need to upgrade and try using one more…

  4. I love my kindle but I mainly read real books I will always love real books much better. However I find that reading on my kindle to be very comfortable. It’s light to hold, fits in my bag easily and the screen and text is very easy on my poor old eyes. I suspect I will end up reading more and more on it as time goes on.

  5. I’ve only recently had access to e-reading on a tablet with ibooks. It’s fine, but I don’t engage with it in the same way as a book and I don’t feel drawn to it in the same way as I do a book. It’s a useful extra, but I can’t see if ever replacing *real* books!

  6. I’ve really tried to read on my e reader and have a number of books on it .I’ve reviewed a few more than you and maybe not as many as Naomi but for me it will always be paper first only time I don’t is when the kindle is cheaper than hardback by a good deal .I’m unable to source a paper copy quickly or via library last year three iffp books where my own purchase on kindle

  7. I have an ipad (my poor kobo is languishing somewhere in the flat) and have spent the last few years reading predominantly ebooks. These are mainly future lists – i have read few classics on my ereader, despite many being free and lurking around somewhere.

    This year I’m trying to read more paper books because yes, there’s loads sitting on the bookshelves glaring at me in their mutual ignored state, so I’m trying to bring myself into clearing some off the shelf.

    If I knew a book I wanted had been published as both a paperbook and an ebook, I would take it as a paperbook every time. Apart from the cost between the two are usually minimal (let’s not go there here, eh?) if I truly want it, I’ll take the paper copy, even the hardback. That’s because I want the physical item. If it’s just something to read, well really, it’s a toss up.

    Since I commute for several hours a day, I also find that the ereader recovers slightly better from sitting in the handbag than a paperback (so does my shoulders – I’m dreading the Ken Follet books sitting on my shelves right now!)

  8. I love my kindle (I’m on my third now!), and I can’t imagine life without it. I have no trouble immersing myself in a novel – the longest I’ve read is The Luminaries and I couldn’t put it down. I love the fact that when I’ve read too late into the night and can’t remember the last few pages, it’s so easy to jump back a chapter or search for a character’s name.
    I do agree however that backlit tablets and phones are much harder to read on, but that’s why I have a dedicated e-reader.
    Perhaps I’m just a geek, but long live the kindle! (Although I do always have a paper book on the go too – a girl’s got to have something to read in the bath!)

  9. Thanks for all your comments, folks.

    Victoria, Tredynas: good point that this may well just be a question of what we get used to. I can also well imagine that an ereader might be more amenable to short fiction than novels; brevity aside, it fits with my sense of short fiction as being like a moment. (Love ‘haptic’, also a new word for me!)

    It’s fascinating to see that people have such different experiences and preferences. Whatever works for each one of us, I guess.

  10. I only buy print books now when I can’t get them on kindle, or sometimes poetry which I think works less well on kindle. I would actually prefer Proust on kindle, but there were massive formatting issues when I bought it and I had to get a refund, so those are all hardcopy.

    There is clearly a huge difference, often lost (and I think Catton loses it here, though you don’t) between reading on a single purpose ereader such as a kindle, reading on a multi-purpose device such as an ipad and reading on a computer.

    Reading on a computer is plainly fairly disastrous. You can’t adjust the distance so easily, the posture isn’t particularly natural, and the screen will cause eyestrain, plus distractions.

    Ipads get rid of most of those issues, save the distractions issue which is huge, and the eyestrain issue as it’s still a backlit screen.

    Kindles though, and presumably kobos and other ereaders, these issues don’t arise. It’s a fundamentally different technology, and yet it’s surprisingly common in discussions to see no distinctions drawn between kindles and ipads or even kindles and PC screens.

    I’m currently on a Kindle Voyage. Like Victoria I found the more I read ebooks the easier and more natural it got, and that process didn’t take very long. There are still of course advantages to a paper book, I don’t remotely deny that, not least that lots of people simply prefer them which is fair enough. I don’t though find the kindle less immersive or really a fundamentally different experience any more. I read both Cattons on kindle, Don Quixote, Enard’s Zone, and if anything the kindle helped. With The Luminaries I bookmarked the page saying who everyone was, and in the first 150 pages referred to it often. The x-ray feature lets you quickly check who a character is, which is handy in Nora Webster where sometimes they could be a little more clearly delineated from each other (good prose, but maybe too quiet a book for its own good).

    But of course we all read in different ways, rely on different cues, so the problem in this debate tends to be a mistake you didn’t make which is to extrapolate from one’s own preferences to some universal truth, when the reality is there isn’t any such animal.

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