The Humble Book Reimagined

David Cleden, an avid book lover, discuss the benefits of ebooks and paper books and whether it matters which version we chose to read. Check out his story, “Where the Buffalo Cars Roam” in our [July/August issue, on sale now]  

I’ve always loved books. Always have and most likely always will. Since you’re an Analog reader, I’m pretty sure you do too.

I’m also a book-lover. I get pleasure from the heft of a physical book: the feel of the paper, sometimes the smell of it, the suppleness of the spine when it’s opened, all the visual glories of the cover art, even the choice of typeface and the quality of the printing—all of it brings genuine pleasure. But I’m not a technophobe, one of those who would cast all e-readers into the fires of doom whilst arguing that there can be only One True Book and yea, verily it shalt be made from a tree. I actually own—ho hum, let me count… yes that’s right—three e-readers and have e-reading applications on at least another three devices. (Does anyone need to own three e-readers? Probably not).

So I have a foot in both camps—well, I have maybe a big toe and a pinky in the e-reader camp but a whole foot, ankle and most of a tibia on the side of physical books. And it’s not just me. Sales in physical books remain strong. The meteoric rise in e-book sales has plateaued in recent years, although both formats look set to be around for a long while yet, and that’s a good thing. But given a choice, rather than buying electrons, I’ll plump for that doorstop paperback (or even the occasional hardback if I’m feeling flush and just can’t wait). And let’s not forget the role of bookshops and libraries. Is there anything quite so pleasurable as browsing physical books for hours on end? (Even at the risk of causing great annoyance to my family).

Not everyone feels the same way about physical books, and that’s fine. It’s all reading at the end of the day. I’m not here to fan the flames of the which-is-better? debate. There’s plenty of room for both formats. I’d be the first to admit e-readers have some killer features. For me, the biggest benefit is not having to make hard book choices when travelling. I’ve been known to agonise for hours in front of an open suitcase, uttering that familiar mantra: One book. I’ll only have time to read one book, so that’s all I need to take. I choose a paperback and tuck it in next to the shirts. But then the little brain weasels get to work. Hey! What if you’re not in the mood for that particular book? What if you get a couple of chapters in and the book stinks? Whatcha gonna do then, eh? So I add a backup choice. But wait! Those are fiction books. Maybe you’ll be in a non-fiction kind of mood. You need to pack some of those too. And so it goes.

If I pack an e-reader though, I get to take them all! (I’ll still smuggle a couple of paperbacks in when my wife isn’t looking).

There’s also something dangerously appealing in the immediacy of being able to buy pretty much any e-book and start reading it in seconds. It can be subtly addictive. I’m not proud to admit it but I’m reasonable sure I now have more unread books downloaded than it will be physically possible to read in my lifetime. But it won’t stop me trying.

There are even e-readers you can drop in the bath and they’ll take it on the chin, most likely programmed to do the front crawl until they come within range of your grasping fingers. Best of all, my e-reader makes it easy for me to keep reading great magazines like Analog, IASFM and F&SF. True, print issues are available in the UK but the distribution is slow and relatively expensive. A few years ago I switched to reading Analog and a bunch of other magazines via e-reader subscriptions and it’s wonderfully convenient. (I do still shed a tear for those lovely paper copies. I’ve kept my unbroken run of Isaac Asimov’s SF magazine right from issue one until I switched to a digital subscription.)

So: e-readers good; physical books (in the right circumstances) better, for me. Like so many, I’ve spent much of the last two years sitting in virtual meetings, staring at bookshelf backgrounds that reveal so much about colleagues’ reading habits—and perhaps more pertinently, whether they have a reading habit. Ignoring those who artfully curate their shelves to project a suitably erudite image (you can usually tell, everything is so neat!), my non-scientific research suggests lots of people still love their books. There’s even a quaint corner of the internet where obsessives can pore over photographs of other people’s bookshelves just for fun. (Ahem. So I’ve been told.)

But what does the future hold? Can we improve on the humble book and how will our e-readers evolve?

In case you’re not familiar with it, let me summarize [Asimov’s] argument. The reading device of the future would obviously need to be portable, able to slip into one’s pocket or bag. It would need a way to move quickly through the text to locate specific information and support notetaking. It should be capable of working in a variety of light conditions and ideally switch on instantly with no tiresome boot-up delays. It should also have a power source capable of running the device for extended periods of time—days or weeks at least, if not longer. It would also need to be affordably priced.

I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov growing up. That’s hardly surprising given my general love of science fiction, first encountered at a tender age in our town library. I soon discovered Asimov’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. I particularly liked those where he spoke directly to the reader via his chatty essays and story introductions and I, as his Gentle Reader, suddenly felt welcomed into a community I very much wanted to be part of. 

One of the many things that stuck with me was a piece Isaac wrote imagining how books might evolve and what kind of devices could one day supplant them. (This was decades before e-readers became a thing). In case you’re not familiar with it, let me summarise his argument. The reading device of the future would obviously need to be portable, able to slip into one’s pocket or bag. It would need a way to move quickly through the text to locate specific information and support notetaking. It should be capable of working in a variety of light conditions and ideally switch on instantly with no tiresome boot-up delays. It should also have a power source capable of running the device for extended periods of time—days or weeks at least, if not longer. It would also need to be affordably priced.

Isaac concluded that the pace of technological development would eventually deliver these capabilities but such a device was unnecessary because it already existed and was called—yes, you guessed it—a book! How could technology improve upon something so simple and effective as the humble paperback that was (a) highly portable, (b) instantly accessible, (c) worked under most conditions and (d) had no need of power sources, indefinite or otherwise?

Times change. Arguably, the current iteration of e-readers comes very close to meeting Isaac’s ideal specification—and of course, far exceeds it in terms of storage. A book is just one book. An e-reader can contain an entire library. So why isn’t the book dead already?

Lots of reasons. One of them may have something to do with humans being a tactile species. Our brains have evolved to constantly process physical, spatial and tactile sensations. When I read a paperback, the words are identical to what I see on a Nook or a Kindle but during the act of reading, my brain is also absorbing extra contextual information—the play of light on the page, the feel of the paper, how far through the book I am—and plenty more. 

Do any of those things matter? Not as much as the words on the page or screen. That’s why we’re here, after all. The dialectical exchange between writer and reader is still taking place in both reading formats. But the contextual information might matter more than we realise.

Various studies have compared reading comprehension between paper and digital formats. The results typically show a broadly similar grasp of the main ideas but those reading from digital text tend to miss subtle details, particularly relating to temporal or chronological matters.

This may be due in part to what’s been termed the “shallowing hypothesis.” Since we’re all bombarded with so much digital information—websites, social media, emails, texts, etc.—we’ve had to develop defensive reading techniques allowing us to skim these vast amounts of digital text, extracting only what seems important. When deeper comprehension is required, it may be harder to turn off this default skim setting in our brains. Consequently, we may have trained ourselves to unconsciously associate paper-based text with higher quality information, more worthy of closer reading and deeper attention. It might mean that digital natives—by which I mean those young enough to have grown up reading from screens and for whom paper-based reading is the exception—have a wholly different reading mindset when it comes to paper materials.

Positional recall is one rather bizarre side-effect for those who prefer to read from page not screen. Strangely I can often recall where a vivid idea or dramatic line of dialogue appears on the page (e.g. third paragraph down, right hand page) long after I’ve finished reading. It’s not a particularly useful ability and I’ve always assumed it’s just the weird way my brain works. However, studies have shown this is fairly common. Positional recall largely disappears if we read from a scrolled page because those contextual clues are missing. It’s just one long block of text to move through. But oddly, I find positional recall is also suppressed when using an e-reader displaying two pages side by side, imitating the layout of a physical book. What’s going on there?

 Researchers have examined how sensorimotor cues enhance cognitive processing. These cues are important because our brains are wired to process multiple senses to help us understand and navigate our environment. Even little things such as the weight of a book, the texture and smell of the paper, the tactile reminder of progress as we turn a page—all may help strengthen neural connections formed during reading comprehension. 

This is the same kind of sensory association that leaves us able to recall contextual details (like smells, sounds, weather, details of our surroundings) when we receive important news. (The classic, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard Kennedy had been shot.”) 

Why does this happen? Clearly our brains didn’t evolve to be optimised for the reading experience. Thanks to its extraordinary adaptability, several specialised processing regions in the brain have been co-opted to take on the job of reading and comprehension. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that other sensory circuits are contributing to the general task of reading comprehension.

Which leaves the tantalising prospect that the evolution of the e-reader is not quite done yet. Perhaps we’ll see devices with advanced haptics replicating the feel of real paper under our fingers when we turn the page. Or devices that emit that delicious new (or old) book smell when turned on. Perhaps there will be some clever analogue of being able to flip the pages or rifle through a book, jumping to a particular place without laborious page turns. High-end readers might have wrap-around displays of the cover and back pages of the book currently being read. And now that foldable screens are a reality, perhaps we’ll even see twin-page readers that feel like a thin paperback forever opened at the middle.

I’m sure there will always be some people who cling to their paper while others extol the virtue of a transformed reading experience ushered in by the next generation of e-readers.

Actually, I’m fine with either. How we choose to read doesn’t matter that much.

But choosing to read, that matters enormously—and long may it continue.

David Cleden has wanted to write science fiction all his life and now he does. His fiction has won the James White, Aeon, and Writers of the Future awards and has appeared in Interzone and Galaxy’s Edge amongst others. “Where the Buffalo Cars Roam” is his first story for Analog.

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