The Saramago Effect
I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books, "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" by Jose Saramago, on my iLiad. After a longish reading session, I was struck by what seemed to be a worthwhile insight, and I'd like to test the idea by sharing it, and hearing whether it makes sense to you all.
First, I need to say a bit about Saramago's prose style. I initially found it very trying. He writes paragraphs that go on for pages. And some of these long paragraphs contain dialog, in which he changes speakers with nothing more than a comma.
When I try to read Saramago with the care and precision that I've been trained to apply to other texts (I was once a lawyer), I don't enjoy the novel much. I found that I needed to force myself to read faster. The great beauty of Saramago's novels emerge only if you read fast enough to catch the rhythm of the text. So I've learned that, at least when I'm reading Saramago, it's more important for me to find the flow of the narrative than it is for me to be sure exactly which character spoke which words. I don't know how common this approach is, but I do know at least one other person who reads Saramago this way.
Now, here's where the eBook experience comes in. I found, as I read, that it was easier for me to catch the flow of the book when I was reading it from the iLiad than when I was reading it in paper. There's something about the iLiad (and other eBooks I've tried, including the Kindle and the Sony Reader) that put me into a very linear mode of reading.
Perhaps it's because the page turns are a bit slow, so that I fall into the habit of hitting the page button a little bit before I finish the last line. Perhaps it's because I find turing pages on paper books a bit more distracting--I use both hands when I'm turning a page, and I have to move my eyes from the bottom of the recto to the top of the verso. Perhaps it's because the difficulty of flipping pages means that I'm not tempted to interrupt my reading to flip through to see how close to the end of the chapter I am. Or perhaps it's simply because I tend to read the iLiad faster than I do paper books.
But, for whatever reason, the habits I've formed reading my eBooks are conducive to a certain style of reading that works well with Saramago. Because I'm more linear in my reading style, I'm less tempted to stop and go--less tempted, with Saramago especially, to interrupt the flow of the text long enough for me to try to parse out exactly what's happening with the grammar. Less likely to go back and reconsider what I just read, and so more likely to forge ahead.
As a result, I find reading eBooks MORE immersive than reading paper books.
This seems to be contrary to the general wisdom. I was just reading "Print is Dead" by Jeff Gomez from my Sony, and he seems to agree with eBook critics that eBooks are not as good as paper books for long, linear texts like conventional novels, but suggests that there are new literary forms emerging that ARE suited to eBook presentation.
(I had to laugh when Gomez mentioned that one of the problems with eBooks was that you couldn't read them in the bathtub--I was in the bathtub with my Sony at the time.)
I think that Gomez has it exactly wrong on this point. For me, the eBook enforces a more strictly linear reading style than paper does, and so are particularly suited to long, linear texts like novels. In fact, I find myself doing only linear reading on my eBooks--for the sorts of texts that require browse access, or back-and-forth reference, or even meticulous study, I've found that eBooks are simply annoying. I particularly don't want to do any kind of legal research using eBooks--I've tried, and it's not pretty.
Now, some of this may be because I've read hundreds of eBooks. I've had every major dedicated reading device since the Softbook, and have read, I suppose, several hundred eBook from one device or another. Thus, I've gotten past the point where the novelty of reading from an eBook reader makes much impression on my mind. If you're still at the point where some part of your mind is marveling at (or quarreling with) the technology as you read, then I can see how eBook reading is less immersive. But, with enough experience, you get past that.
Does this track your experience? Do you find eBook reading more immersive than reading from paper? Does it make sense to you that the current crop of eBook readers seem to be optimized for reading things like novels?