E-book Readers: More Than Meets The Eye (Part I)

The convenience and utility of e-book readers is undisputed. A few years ago, resolution and readability were an issue; as of 2013, they are amazingly close to physical books. The first time one uses a virtual book is usually an amazing experience. Is there any reason at all to prefer physical books?

Rather, is there any reason to not choose e-books (or, e-book readers, to distinguish them from books on a computer screen)? We aren’t talking about the usual “look and feel,” the phenomenon of “curling up with a book,” or even about the familiarity of the paper medium. The differences run at a deeper level. 

Any new kind of action is subject to Unintended Consequences: Every aspect of the disruption — with all the connections it has to everything else — cannot be foreseen. There will always be consequences, desirable or undesirable, that become apparent only after the action is in progress.

Consider the act of making an unplanned visit to a restaurant for dinner. Possible unintended consequences include: You might get delayed in traffic and get to the restaurant a few minutes late, which could make a difference to your appetite. The people at a nearby table, and the topic of their conversation, might make a difference (positive or negative) to your enjoyment of the food.

With electronic readers, things appear almost the same as with a paper book. What could the unintended consequences be? 

The answer starts off with the word “physical book.” It is an object. Think about the difference between:

  • A rectangular hollow metal box with lines etched on its surface, and
  • A DVD player.

One treats the former as a “mere” object; the latter is treated as something beyond a mere object. We recognise potential in it. We know that it will transform in some way when it is plugged in, when a disc is inserted in it, or when the buttons are pressed. That makes us treat it differently in some way.

The difference in perception between a physical book — an object — and an electronic reader runs along the same lines. It has deep ramifications. Here are three aspects:

Accessibility. With physical books, accessibility is limited. While reading one, you cannot reach out for ten others in a few seconds. While reading a page, you cannot flip to a page that contains the word “limited” in a few seconds. Both these are possible with e-book readers, and that makes us see a certain disposability in the latter case. This affects attention span as well as degree of attention. 

(As a real-life example, one listens to music with more attention when at a concert than when a disc is playing.)

Distractibility: With e-book readers, the object that you hold carries the possibility of actions other than reading the page (or possibly flipping to and reading a different page). For example, you could press buttons and adjust the display or font; you might check which books are there in your library, etc. This is a characteristic of the object at the centre of attention. (By contrast, while reading a webpage, there is no one object at the centre of attention. The experience is an interplay between the monitor, keyboard, and the Internet.) In other words, distractibility is an integral part of the e-book reader. 

Permanence: When you pick up a book intending to read from where you left off, you pick up that book. With an e-book reader, you pick up the same object whichever book you are reading — which means you are picking up a reading medium.

This probably doesn’t make a difference in the case of very short books, but otherwise: Identifying, picking up, and interacting with a familiar object fixates the mind on one’s prior experience with it. For a book, the association means better recall and engagement. 

Real-life analogies would be: Going home after a tiring day as opposed to going to a hotel room; listening to the same melody or sound as a daily wake-up alarm; and reading the news (whether in print or online) in the same font every day.


In part II, we’ll take a look at what some linguists and scientists have to say about how the brain treats electronic readers differently, and at how the negative aspects might be balanced out.