Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.

reading in a digital age

How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.

I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.

Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.

In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.

I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.

I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.

With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.

PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.

I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.

Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.

I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.

I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.

For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.

For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.

I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.

For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)

I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.




Physical Bookshelves versus Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 5, 2015

I’m in a buying quandary. Is it better to own a hardback or a digital book? This particular problem arose just now because I’m wondering how to acquire Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger, a new book about Ada Lovelace. At Amazon it’s $12.99 for the Kindle edition, and $19.41 for the hardback. I’d save $6.42 by buying the digital book – that’s a good bit for a retired person. But since I routinely buy used hardback books for $3-5, I’d could save even more if I wait. But then Mr. Essinger would earn no royalty.  In fact, while reading about Ada’s Algorithm I see that he also wrote Jacquard’s Web, which I immediately bought just now for $4 (1 cent for the book, $3.99 for shipping). If I waited I could eventually get the same deal on the book about Ada Lovelace.

However, there is more to my buying decision than price. In the long run – defined as rest of my life – is it better to own a hardback or ebook? Which format is easier to read? Which format is easier to review? Which format is easier to reference and look stuff up?  Which format is easier to lend to friends? Once I start thinking about all these other factors, my brain begins begging for a nap.


I love holding a hardback book. I love their dust jackets. But I don’t like owning a lot of possessions. I often cull my old books and give them to the Friends of the Library after I’ve read them, so buying the hardback doesn’t mean owning it for life. One advantage of buying the Kindle edition at Amazon is I own it without having to shelve and store it. In other words, Kindle books don’t weigh heavy on my sense of possessions, and thus I have them as long as Amazon remains in business, which if I’m lucky, is for the rest of my life.

If Kindle books were as exactly usable as hardbacks I think I would always buy the Kindle edition. Unfortunately, they aren’t – at least not at this moment. Hardbacks are far more user friendly when it comes to flipping around the book, and reading randomly. Hardbacks are nicer to lend to friends, and use for reference. Kindle books are easier to hold. Kindle books are easier to copy quotes from. And I can find a Kindle book faster.  And it’s a snap to search for a keyword.

I really wish Amazon would put some major effort into making managing my digital library more fun and useful. I own a whole lot of Kindle books I’ve forgotten that I own. Kindle books would be more appealing for collecting if we had better library management tools.

Man, my brain is really begging for a nap now. If Ada’s Algorithm had been $7.99 for the Kindle, I would have bought it immediately, and not even thought about writing this essay. Mr. Essiinger would have gotten paid, and I would be reading. Instead, I’ll wait for Jacquard’s Web to show up in the mail. In other words, price will determine what kind of book I buy. Next Christmas when I’m going through my old Wish List items at Amazon, I’ll see Ada’s Algorithm and if there’s a cheap hardback, order it. I ordered four or five books that way this Christmas when I was reviewing my Wish List for things to tell my wife what I want Santa Claus to bring me.  Hell, I don’t mind when Santa has to pay new hardback prices. I wish I had gotten Santa to get me the Ada book this Christmas.

That said, I do wish I had digital copies of all the books I’ve ever read or owned. I often give away books and later want to look at them again. Publishers want to raise ebook prices. That’s their prerogative.  As long as I can get used hardbacks for $3-5, then that’s the price that makes my decision. I’d be willing to pay two or three dollars more for ebooks, so the author gets paid, but not two or three times as much.

Finally, if I wait long enough, I see the ebook edition of books I want in the Kindle Daily Deal or Bookbub for $1.99. At that price I often buy books I’ve read just to have a copy for my digital library. Someday I don’t think I’ll have bookshelves or own hardback books, and it might even happen before I die. (Yes, it’s always about me.)


Science Fiction Short Stories

Over at SF Signal they held a Mind Meld asking sixteen of their favorite SF fans and writers to assemble their own anthologies of personally favorite science fiction short stories.  This produced several hundred short stories with annotations and commentaries to think about reading.  Strangely, there is damn little overlap.  Just from eyeballing the list without using any kind of tallies, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny got the most recommendations, with three.  I think the participants consciously tried to avoid the obvious classics.

Science fiction is at its purist in the shorter lengths of fiction where ideas dominate. Reading any good science fiction anthology should showcase the true potential of science fiction, and any recent anthology of the best SF will show the furthest edge of the speculative universe.

Robert Sabella did pick my all-time favorite SF novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, and he picked several other of my favorite stories so I need to check out his unfamiliar selections.  Tinkoo Valia, whose web site Variety SF is devoted to short SF produced a rather novel list that shows he reads far and wide.  Jason Sanford made a nice selection of Then and Now stories, and since I remember fondly many of his Then stories, I figure I better go after his Now stories.  Before seeing his list this morning, I read his number 19 choice last night, “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky, a rather tender story about a woman and child in love with a robot.

Since Nancy Jane Moore picked “Empire Star” another all-time favorite that I reread regularly, I’ll need to track down the stories on her list too.  And I’d definitely have to check out Rick Klaw’s quirky anthology of ape stories – his list comes with a nice enticing historical introduction.

The trouble will be finding all of these great stories.  Lucky for us many are reprinted on the Internet just waiting for readers, like “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon.  Other stories like “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” by Samuel R. Delany require a visit to ISFDB to find which books have reprinted the story over the years.  Of course you can jump over to Free Speculative Fiction Online and check there.  Quite often its possible to put the title and author in Google and if you’re lucky, the actual story will be in the top search returns.

But what I really wish for is a totally different way to find these stories.  What if science fiction writers could load their stories into a database at, and Amazon allow their customers to build their own Kindle anthologies at bargain rates – maybe 24 stories for $9.99 (the latest Dozois The Years’s Best Science Fiction has 32 stories for that price).

Readers could build their own anthologies to order, or the contributors of the Mind Meld could have assembled their lists with links to Amazon with their collections pre-assembled for purchase.  Amazon could also keep tabs on the most popular stories to help Kindle users easily build new collections, and maybe even offer a voting system.  And it would be fantastic if Amazon offered Kindle editions of all the classic past SF anthologies, like Adventures of Time and Space, or Before the Golden Age, or reprint all the Judith Merrill, Donald Wollheim, Terry Carr past annual best of anthologies.


This would be a good time to also recommend to Amazon that they redesign the Kindle with folders, so I could have a Science Fiction Short Story folder, and within it have something like playlists, or virtual folders so I could organize my short story collection by publication year, author and theme.

JWH – 10/19/10

Ebook Economics

Big name authors are making ebook marketing deals like Open Road Integrated Media and Odyssey Editions, while Amazon claims they are selling more ebook titles than hardbacks.  Is there an ebook gold rush?  Is 2010 finally the year of the ebook?  I’m meeting more and more bookworms with Kindles and Nooks.  I ordered the new third generation Kindle the day it came out, and lucky for me, because it sold out in a matter of days.

If everyone reads on an ebook reader does that mean printed books will go extinct?

On several of my online book club groups we have been grumbling because of rising ebook prices.  Ebooks used to be like paperbacks – far less glamorous than hardback or trade editions.  After the Kindle came out, ebook editions started coming out concurrent with the hardback editions, but priced at $9.99.  Can you imagine in the old days if new books were published in hardback and mass market paperback on the same day?  Which would you have bought?

Are cheaper ebook editions published the same day as hardbacks too good to be true?

Publishers now want more money for ebooks because ebooks are replacing hardbacks, as well as trade and mass market editions.  It used to be you bought the expensive hardback because you wanted to be among the first to read a book.  Sure there are book collectors, but most people just give away their hardbacks when they finished them.  Publishers want the most money for a book when its new, even if its in a digital edition which has no collector value at all.

It’s now possible on Amazon to find Kindle editions more expensive than hardback editions?  WTF?  That doesn’t make sense, does it?  What will be the new cheap mass market paperback edition then?  If everyone reads ebooks will they slowly drop in price as their sales dwindle?  Instead of waiting for the paperback edition, people will wait for the $4.99 digital edition.

What does that mean for new book sales, used books and remaindered books?  It used to be if you waited a few months you could buy a new hardback marked down for a fraction of the original price.  $35 books would go for $7.99.  Or you could go to a used bookstore or a library book sale and get a copy even cheaper.

If a bestseller sells a millions digital copies, how many used and remaindered books will show up for sale?  Will physical books from before the ebook era become more valuable as less books are published on paper?  Or will people just prefer a Kindle edition?

I’m in four online book clubs and I try to read one or two each month.  Some books I can get at the library, but often I can’t.  My choice is to buy either new or used.  I can generally get used hardbacks cheaper than new mass market paperbacks.  But if I had a choice between a $5 used hardback and a $5 download I’m going to pick the download for the convenience.  However, if the choice is a $5 hardback or a $9.99 download my decision gets harder.  The idea of having a 3,500 book library on my Kindle is cool, but not when I think it will be $35,000.

I’ll never need 3,500 books on my Kindle.  I read about 50 books a year, and even if I live to be 90, that’s only about 1,600 books, but still $16,000 at $10 each.  I could save a lot of retirement money by going to the library or shopping for used editions.  But what if used editions disappear?

Here’s where the pricing of ebooks will effect me.  I want the latest yearly edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois.  At Amazon, it’s $26.40 for the hardback, $14.95 for the trade paper, and $9.99 for the Kindle.  If I wait it should show up at Edward R. Hamilton for $2.95-4.95.  Amazon has for years stopped me from buying it from my local bookseller because of the huge discount.  The trade paper is $21.99 locally.  If I want this year’s edition now, the ebook is $9.99, which is $12 cheaper (not counting tax) locally, or $5 cheaper from Amazon. That’s a pretty good deal.

But book publishers are balking at selling new books for $9.99.  If the Kindle edition was the same as the trade edition, wouldn’t it be logical to get the paper edition?  I could give it to a friend when I’m through, or donate it to the library.  But would I pay the same just for the convenience of having it on my Kindle?

Authors are flocking to agents to get special deals for their back list of books.  Royalty rates are 25-70% for ebooks compared to 8-12% for printed editions.  I wonder if writers would prefer to sell a million digital editions or a million hardbacks if they ended up making more on the digital edition.  I’m sure hardbacks will always be the most prestigious format.  Or will it matter?  I’ve bought hundreds of hardbacks I no longer own, maybe even over a thousand.

I’m starting to meet people that didn’t buy books before that are buying ebooks because they can read them on their iPhone.  That might be a novelty thing, or it might be a trend.  You have to carry your phone everywhere, but carrying a book everywhere can be a pain.  And if you are in the mood for a book and don’t want to wait for Amazon to mail you one, or find it at a local bookstore, will you just take the easy way out and buy a digital copy?

But look what happened to audiobooks.  Years ago about the only kind of audiobook that were for sale were miserable 2 and 4 cassette abridged editions that went for $25-35.  If you wanted unabridged editions you had to pay $50-$150 from a specialty seller.  Or rent them for $20-30.  Now I get digital audiobooks, unabridged for $9.56 apiece.  That’s how digital audiobooks have changed the economics.  But I buy my audiobooks from (owned by in 24 credit packs.  If I got them one a month they would be $16.  Audible is forced to sell a few titles for 2 credits per book, but I won’t buy those books.

You have to be crazy to buy CD audiobooks nowadays.

I’m thinking ebooks will shake out the regular book business too.  Non-fiction might hang in there because beautiful picture books look horrible on ebook readers, even the iPad.  Bookstores might focus on non-fiction.  And non-fiction books are the kind I like to see before I buy too.  I’m more likely to buy non-fiction locally, rather than order from Amazon.  Unless it’s $50 locally, and $22 from Amazon.

There are several economic revolutions going on at once with books.  When they come out with a digital ebook reader that makes non-fiction books look better than paper, that will cause another revolution, especially with textbooks.

Amazon is making deals with writers to sell classic old books for $9.99 for the Kindle.  Here’s a list of some titles to consider.  These are famous literary titles like Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie or The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer.  $9.99 seems too high for these old titles.  But the cheapest paperback of the Mailer book is $12.24.  Amazon also sells used paper editions starting at $4.86, but most sellers want $3.99 shipping. 

Thus $9.99 becomes a very interesting price point.  It’s cheaper than new paper, but slightly more expensive than used paper, but it conveniently goes on the Kindle.   If I searched around at used bookstores I might find a copy for $2-3.  But if I buy the $9.99 copy, Mailer’s estate gets a royalty, and Amazon and the publisher make money.  It stimulates the economy.  Plus it will sit patiently in my Kindle library not taking up any shelf space, not requiring any effort to move if I move, so it’s sort of appealing at $9.99.

Will low price and convenience kill off printed fiction?  But then, with ebooks, fiction should never go out of print.  In the end I predict ebooks will kill off the mass market paperback, seriously hurt sales of the trade edition, and hardback sales will be geared towards book collectors and libraries.  Slowly, the used book trade will retool for selling to collectors.  I think new books will sell for more than $9.99, that books that were sold as trade editions will sell for $9.99, and that as sales fall off ebooks will migrated down in price to be lower than the average cost of today’s mass market book.  We’ll eventually see $.99 – $2.99 specials.

JWH – 8/10/10

How Kindle and Nook Can Better Compete With The iPad

Last weekend I wrote “To Ebook or Not To Ebook” and I’m still agonizing over which ebook reader to get.  There are two main issues I’m still worrying over.  First, which book is the most comfortable to read for long periods, and second, which ebook reader is the most universal in terms of buying ebooks.  I imagine the light E-Ink readers, the Nook and Kindle, are easier to hold for long periods of time, but it’s obvious the iPad can read books from Amazon, B&N, iBooks, and many other smaller ebook sellers.  The iPad is almost the universal ebook reader and I’m leaning towards buying it.

My need for reading comfort might put me in a limited market so my buying desires are of less concern to ebook engineers, but I wished they’d consider them.  I have bad eyes, and back problems that make it uncomfortable to sit long in one position, and an arm problem that makes holding a book pain inducing over time.  I’m getting old and wimpy.  I’d love to sit and read for hours like I used to, but it’s a struggle.  That’s why I fear the iPad – many reviewers have complained its difficult to hold for lengthy reading sessions.

And, besides that, I don’t want Apple to just crush the competition, so how could the Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Sony ereaders better compete with the iPad?

Universal Reader

First off, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders should make a cross license deal to display each other’s DRM material.  That way any Kindle, Nook or Kobo owner could buy and read books from all the leading booksellers.  The obvious solution would be a universal ebook format and DRM, but that might take years to hammer out.  It might be easier to add competitor’s software to each others readers.  Obviously, the iPad does it with ease.

The reason why I’m leaning towards the iPad is because I can buy books from all the major ebook retailers and read it on the iPad.  If the E-Ink readers want to compete they need to do the same thing.  It was foolish of Amazon to start the trend for proprietary readers.

Add a Handle with Trigger

The second way to compete with the iPad is make the E-Ink readers even more svelte and easier to hold.  I wished they came with a detachable handle so the ebook reader would look something like a church fan.  A nice handgrip with a trigger to page forward would make holding an ebook reader nicer, and make the page turning more convenient.  You can leave the back page button on the reader because it wouldn’t be needed that often.  I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine a handgrip handle would be more comfortable to hold than holding the ebook reader like a book. 

I’m talking about making the device comfortable for reading 8 hours at a stretch.  This is where the iPad is weak.

The Third Option

I’ve even thought of another option, but this one by-passes the E-Ink technology.  Keep the books in the handle and beam the content to a pair of special glasses via Bluetooth.  I wonder if it’s possible to make a pair of glasses that displays words that are even easier to read, something that helps the reader tune out the world and become one with the word.  In the music world we’ve moved the speakers into the ears, why not move the page right in front of the eyes?

Why Reading is Specialized

iPad fans lord their gadgets over the E-Ink readers claiming its a universal solution.  They ask why anyone would want a specialized device when one device, the iPad, can do so much.  I think the iPad is a revolutionary device, it moves the computer screen off the desk or lap and into the hands where it makes a big functional difference.  But is that the ultimate location?  And is it the right weight and form factor?

Bookworms like to read for hours on end, and the ultimate ebook reader will cater to that need.  I tend to believe the lower weight of the E-Ink technology gives it a chance to compete with the more glamorous and universal device of the iPad if they are optimized for streamline reading of text.

Many bloggers and journalists have written about the approaching doom for the E-Ink reader, but I tend to doubt those predictions.  That doesn’t mean I won’t buy an iPad any day now, but it also doesn’t mean I won’t buy a Kindle 3 when it comes out.  The new Pearl E-Ink technology is appealing.  It just galls me to think about buying ebook reader that can’t read all ebooks.

The Deciding Factor

To be honest, the universal ebook reader of the iPad sways me more than comfort of the smaller E-Ink technology readers, and I’ll probably buy an iPad for now.  That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy an E-Ink reader too, especially if they become a universal reader.  I’m greatly disappointed that most books I’m reading right now aren’t available for any ebook reader.  That sucks.  But we’re living in transitional times for books and times will change soon.

JWH 7/4/10

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