On the experience of books

My mother recently bought herself a Kindle and has been urging me to get one. She says that the ability to resize the text makes it far more readable than print. It seems to have many of the benefits of print books, such as the ability to highlight passages and write notes. It’s also far more convenient to travel with than a backpack full of paperbacks.

A friend, who also keeps a book review blog, has recommended listening to audio books for the speed (he speeds up the audio, burning through books at an incredible pace). Another reason is the ability to listen while driving or, more relevant in my case, while standing because no seats where available on the bus. Since my son was born with an apparent aversion to spending even so much as a few seconds without being held, I thought I would give it a try, attracted to the hands-free nature of audio.

But despite all the points in favour of both e-readers and audio books, I just can’t get into them. With my ridiculously long introduction out of the way, here are my reasons for preferring to read it old school:

  1. Memory: I learn best when I’m reading – so much so that I developed the habit of transcribing my professors’ lectures in university and reading my notes after the class was over. I found that this significantly improved my retention rate. Combined with the mnemonic act of writing, I rarely needed to study for exams. So when I ‘read’ by audio book, I quickly forget what’s going on. Unless I write my review within a day or two, I won’t remember enough about the book to form a coherent commentary.
  2. Finding a passage quickly: I tend to associate what I’m reading with many other factors that are going on around the text. So if I think of a specific passage and I want to find it in a book, I can normally remember a) the weight of the book in each hand, telling me approximately what page the passage is on, and b) the location of the passage relative to the page (left page or right page, upper quadrant or lower). When I read via audio book or on a screen, these other experiences aren’t present, making it almost impossible for me to find a specific passage. This is something of a deal-breaker when I’m reading non-fiction.
  3. Other people’s notes: I enjoy buying second-hand books to read the notes that other people have left. I used to find it annoying, but I’ve grown to enjoy them – particularly when the author is reflecting on the text. I believe that Kindles allow for downloading other people’s notes, so perhaps this complaint is only applicable to audio books.
  4. The book’s history: Second hand books bear the marks of their history. Do they smell heavily perfumed? Are they dog-eared or neat? Is the spine cared for? Are passages underlined or highlighted? Have any bookmarks, photographs, or shopping lists been left in the book? All these things appeal to my inner detective and enrich my experience of a book, which in turn  relates back to points one and two. The more I experience of the books, the better my memory is of it and its contents.
  5. Décor: I just love the look of books. The wall of colours add quite an interesting focal point for rooms that are otherwise kept in Builder’s White so as not to break my rental agreement.
  6. Sentimentality: The various book smells (new paper versus old, binding glue, cover card), the sensation of cracking a spine for the very first time, and the feel of its weight in my hands. While entirely irrational, these experiences are hard to give up.

All this isn’t to say that I’m opposed to Kindles and audio books. As I said, the convenience of audio books have forced my hand somewhat since my son was born, and I wouldn’t refuse to use a Kindle were one gifted to me. But I don’t think that I’m quite ready to give up the experience of physical books just yet…

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