Sunday, April 19, 2015

Enchanting ebooks

This appeared in Republica on April 4, 2015.

Enchanting e-books
For a book lover like me the debate on choosing paper book or e-book is a non-issue. Slowly the world is going digital and books are no exception. When people are embracing latest digital gadgets with glee, why should we hesitate in choosing e-books?

Champions for the paper book generally resort to olfactory images. 'I love the waft of smell fresh off the press,' claims a typical paper book reader. But a book is to be read not to be smelled. I have not come across any research claiming that the smell of the page helps better comprehension. (I confess that I too have a keen nose but that doesn't make me a good reader.) Some other readers talk about the tactile pleasure of flipping the pages. But modern tablets with touch screen simulate that experience with comfort.

E-books are easy to carry around. An e-book reader with an affordable price comes with at least 2 GB onboard data storage. That means you can store around 1,000 books in the device. Imagine lugging 1,000 paper books around! Let me tell you of my personal experience without sounding boastful. My family owns more than 5,000 paper books as my father has this obsession with hoarding books (he reads them too). Before the e-book explosion I too used to buy paper books in copious amounts. But safekeeping of those books was a major problem. I bought big bookshelves that occupied two rooms. Dust, termites, and shameless friends who don't bother to return books after reading them used to cause me anxiety. With e-books all these troubles have disappeared.

Let's see what people's objections toward e-books are. E-books are accused to be a strain on the eyes. That is not entirely true. I used to have a Kobo e-book reader. It had black and white graphic design and reading books in it was comfortable to the eyes. Yes, the light-emitting modern tablets are problematic. Gazing at them for a long time makes your eyes itch. After my Kobo reader broke down beyond repair, I bought an HCL ME Tablet that supported PDF files only. PDF files are real nuisances as they are largely incompatible with reading devices and I was forced to squint like a diamond cutter to understand the words. It gave me bouts of headache.

But one of my well-wishers had me install Moon Reader into the tablet. It supports Epub files, fully compatible with almost all devices, and has this great feature of warning you to take a break from reading after an hour. You'll take the advice if you love your eyes. Let me warn you, reading paper books for long stretches too can tax the eyes. With Moon Reader, interestingly, you can turn on the audio function if you don't feel like straining your eyes. Even if the robotic voice can be irritating, your eyes will get a break without any interruption to your reading pleasure. Speaking of myself, I wake up some nights and fail to get back to sleep. To while away the time, I read e-books in my tablet with auto-light and this doesn't disturb my wife and children. I have to switch on the room light if I have to read print books, or go to another room.

Some people have raised the issue of cognitive disadvantage of reading e-books. They argue that romantic and thriller genre of fictions, where you don't have to exert your thinking, is better suited to e-format. (E-books contributed to the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey.) But comprehension of hardcore non-fiction and philosophy is difficult in e-books. I believe this is a matter of perception. A good reader meticulously makes notes in the margins and highlights relevant passages of the book for reference. Generally, when you come across a difficult word you google it. Now, e-books have built-in hyperlink facilities which direct you to the information you require. This may distract an inattentive reader but those who search for references to broaden their knowledge certainly benefit.

Moreover, one research on e-book reading has found that reading on screen is slower than reading on paper. If it is true, it gives the reader more time to think what s/he has read, rather than rush through the book with little comprehension. Quoting Sara Margolin of State University of New York, Julian Baggini in his Financial Times article writes, "slowing down may actually allow us to spend more time consolidating what we have read into a more cohesive mental representation of the text"; furthermore, "not skipping around during reading" could be "a good thing in that it forces the reader to read the text in order, and preserves the organization the author intended". Can one read James Joyce's opaque novels in a rush? I believe e-books would be good medium to read these novels that call for much deliberation.

The biggest advantage of e-books (in our context) is that you can read books for free. The question of morality might be raised here. "You're causing harm to the author and the publishing industry by downloading a book for free," one may object. But what harm is there in downloading the stuff that is easily available? The publishers can make a formal complaint anytime and ask the authorities concerned to take down materials if they infringe copyright. But preventing the upload of books for free is easier said than done.

All this doesn't mean that I'm a total convert to e-books. I read paper books from time to time. But I'm not emotional about e-book replacing paper books like some of my fellow bibliophiles. I find the technology can very well satisfy my hunger for books.

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