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Sunday, May 5

Thoughts on reading an ebook

Let me confess something. While it has been years since Pothi.com has been selling ebooks and it has been years since I have been talking and thinking about ebooks, it is only recently that I read a complete book on a dedicated reading device.

The book was Lean Analytics published by O'Reilly Media. But this is not a review of that book. This post is about what it felt like reading a fairly long book on an e-reader. I read part of it on Kindle and part of it on Nook touch.

The first thing I noticed was that e-readers these days are very good and you don't miss the paper version all that much. I have said this to many people who express doubts about e-readers - Try one out for 1-2 days and do some serious reading on it. I bet a lot of people would change their mind one they try out a device. The key is to not see it as a replacement of paper books - the only way they are represented in most media coverage. Instead take them up as a device on their own and see if you like them. Amazon Kindle is quite fantastic and Nook is not far behind. The text is sharp, controls very non intrusive. Once you get into the rhythm, you won't even notice the pressing of button or the tap on the screen. They are lightweight and you can curl into a chair with them just fine. Yes, there is no smell of new (or old) books but I am sure couple of trips to your bookshelf can take care of that.

The best part is the instant availability of almost any book. So you come to know about this lovely book at 12:00 AM from a friend and have an urge to try it immediately. Guess what! you can. And you will. Once you have that kind of power on hand, it is hard to not exercise it. And since you cannot see the books pile up, there is nothing to guilt you into not buying that book instantly.

However, there are also not so good things about the e-readers. Having to wake it up and unlock the screen again and again is certainly one of them. I don't like my books to go to sleep and I want them to open immediately. And more importantly, I want them to remain open while I close my eyes and ponder over what I just read. Part of your brain learns pretty fast that this book tends to go to sleep and it sets up an alarm in your subconscious that makes you check every 2 minutes to make sure the device has not gone to sleep. This gets annoying pretty quickly.

The other annoying thing is perhaps specific to the kind of book I was reading. Lean Analytics is a non-fiction book that requires good engagement on part of the reader. It is the kind of book that begs you to underline and take notes and go back and forth. It is also a book with content that can be skipped for reading later.

For such a book, navigation is very important. This is where I started to admire the amazing navigation capabilities of the humble paperback. Its physicality gives it a simple but powerful navigation mechanism. You instantly know how long it is, how much have you read and how much is left. Random access is effortless. You can skip ahead 10-20-30 pages almost instantly. You can flip the pages to glance through them.

In the e-reader, random access is not possible. Table of contents provides a poor substitute but even that is at least 2 actions/clicks away. You cannot flip through the book to glance at the contents. Clicking the buttons quickly or tapping rapidly makes the device squirm as it tries to render each page in quick succession. You get the delay but not a chance to look at what is there.

Referring to something you have already read in the book is also a chore. In part because you cannot use one finger to hold on to where you are currently reading and quickly come back. It has to be a complete trip through multiple page flips and back. The maneuver is also made difficult since there is no muscle memory to fall back on to guess where you need to go. I realized that while reading a paperback, you form a rough subconscious map of content to book pages since the object you are holding is constantly changing. In the e-reader, the physical artifact remains the same. So the map has to be drawn along the time axis - how long ago I read it. This does not work as well. Although e-readers do have a progress bar at the bottom of the page to help you anchor where you are in the book but that doesn't help much with the problem.

Through out reading Lean Analytics, I found myself quite comfortable at the act of actual reading or moving around in close neighborhood around the current page. What I struggled with was holding the bigger picture in my head which is very important while reading a book like this. I constantly found myself referring back to Table of Contents to get a grip on where I was, what I had read and what was left. Not in terms of number of pages but in terms of the conceptual flow of the book. I found it hard to easily go back and forth to reinforce what I was reading. In the end, I was left unsatisfied and feel that I would have to get a paperback version to really get on with this book.

As I said in the beginning, my experience is specific to the kind of book I was reading. I think e-readers are excellent for fiction/non-fiction where the primary mode of engagement with the book is a linear reading. I am yet to read a complete fiction on an e-reader but I have read significant part of The Invisible Man on my phone and found the experience just fine (save for the small screen size of the phone, a problem e-readers do not have).

What has been your experience with e-readers?