A Library In Your Pocket: How Having an E-reader Has Changed My Reading Habits

I bought an e-reader almost two years ago. My son had one first, but he’s a technophilic early adopter. I on the other hand am a panda who likes to stick to my one comfortable grove of bamboo. But when my son came with me my signing tour in January 2011, he took his Kindle and I took eleven books. Then I bought more on the way and had to post some home from San Francisco. Even I could see the advantages of an e-reader for travel. There never was a more reluctant purchaser though.

I love books, the contents, yes, but also the physical objects. I bought my e-reader first for reading friends’ manuscripts, for reading free things on Project Gutenberg, and for reading new books that I’d normally buy in hardcover for $35 (normal Canadian price) for $10 instead, and then buy the book in paperback a year later for $10 (normal Canadian price) thus spending a total of $20 (of which the author gets about $3) instead of $45 (of which the author gets about $3). I prefer paperbacks to hardcovers, I always have—I have small hands and I’m not strong. I’d never buy a hardcover except for not being able to wait. It was apparent that it wouldn’t take many hardcover purchases to cover the cost of the e-reader. I read a whole book on my son’s to make sure I could actually use one, and tentatively, reluctantly, with much hesitation I decided to buy one. Then I decided not to when I saw an ad saying you could read for weeks at half an hour a day, which made me think the thing wasn’t aimed at me at all. And friends kept saying I’d come to like it better than books, which was infuriating and off-putting. But then, while I was still doing the Rothfuss reread weekly, the paperback Wise Man’s Fear came out, and it weighed more than a kilo. I was going to Europe, and that literally tilted the scales. I gritted my teeth and bought one.

Of course I love it. What it is, of course, is a library in your pocket.

In a way, it’s a thing I dreamed of having in Greece in the early eighties—books in English were always expensive and hard to find and I’d read and re-read the ones I had. I imagined having a science fictional device—but the one I have now is better. What I imagined, before I’d ever touched a computer, was essentially a laptop, or an iPad with a bean-bag cushioned underside. Computers came along and turned out to be too heavy and awkward and scrolling and backlit for being pleasant for reading large quantities of text on. But my e-reader has e-ink, and e-ink is just like paper, only better. And as for scrolling, not a bit of it, it has a page turning mechanism on the side that feels like really turning a page. The screen isn’t lit at all. And it’s so light, lighter than I could have imagined something could be and hold a thousand books. It weighs less than a paperback. I can carry it and barely know it’s there.

Oh, and as for battery life they’d do much better to tell you that it stays charged for about eight or nine books—I’ve never let it run completely out, and I don’t worry about it. It isn’t like a laptop battery. Eight books without charging it was at World Fantasy in Toronto last year when I’d put my back out and was in bed in my hotel room reading Vorkosigan books solidly for most of the con. (When I bought the hardcover of Cryoburn it came with a CD with all the other books on it.) And the really great thing about this is that it’s flat, not like a book which you have to read angled. So if you’re in a ton of pain and lying down, you can read on an e-reader at angles where you can’t read a book. You can even use it when lying on your belly with ice on your spine, and I’ve never been able to read in that position before, and believe me I have been quite inventive about trying.

It’s terrible for maps and pictures. I think they should email you the maps and pictures separately when you buy a book so you can see them at a reasonable scale on a big screen. But for reading actual text, and then reading more text, and then more again? Great.

I have indeed used the e-reader to read a lot of out of copyright things—like all of Kathleen Thompson Norris and Elizabeth Von Arnim and Dorothy Canfield Fisher that’s available on Gutenberg. And I’ve used it for new novels as I intended, and certainly manuscripts, which now I am a zillion times more likely to read in a timely fashion. I’ve also bought inexpensive copies of lots of things that are in print and are benefiting the author—some new and only online, like the fourth bit of Walter Jon Williams Dread Empire’s Fall, Investments, and some old books that otherwise I’d have had to hunt out second hand, benefiting nobody, like Barbara Hambly’s Sunwolf books or Ian McDonald’s Scissors Wrap Paper Cut Stone.

But all this is minor. It has changed my reading in two major ways I didn’t expect.

First, the eternal calculus of “what am I going to read, what am I going to read next after it, is there enough of this book left for today or should I take another” is solved—I take it, if I finish the book, I start another. I don’t have to think about it. If I feel like reading something different I can. When I finish a book, I can flick through my options and choose something I feel like then, wherever I am at the time. If I am out of the house, I take the e-reader with me, all the time. I don’t even think about it. I’m not talking about travel, I mean if I am running errands. If I’m on the bus or the metro and reading, it’s what I’m using to read.

I am now usually reading half a dozen things that have short pieces, in between reading long things. Right now I’m reading Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters, and Montaigne’s Essays, and Machiavelli’s Florentine History and Joan Aiken’s Armitage Stories, and Nancy Kress’s Future Perfect collection and Algis Budrys’s Benchmarks Continued. and the Selected Poetry of Rilke and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.

That’s a collection of letters, a collection of essays, a history, two short story collections, a book of criticism, a book of poetry, a travel book and a… I don’t even know what you’d call Annals of the Former World, a piece of non-fiction about geology. It’s wonderful, and I’m reading it really slowly because I only read it on Amtrak. Reading it on Amtrak makes me so happy I am saving it for this purpose. Because I can.

You’ll notice none of them are novels. I hate reading novels broken up into little bits. I almost never interrupt reading a novel. I tend to read a novel, which might be on the e-reader or a physical book, and then I read a chunk each of all these things, and then I read another novel. I sometimes do this with non-fiction that reads like a novel too. I could do it with A Time of Gifts, which is the adorable story of how an eighteen year old upper class English boy set off to walk to Constantinople in 1933, but I am enjoying spreading it out and reading one section at a time. It has narrative, but not narrative tension. Travel books always have happy endings.

The second way the e-reader has unexpectedly changed my habits, is that I buy research books for it instead of getting them out of the library. This has the advantage of instant gratification—I can get the book instantly, when I want it—and of being much better for my wrists, because research books tend to be enormous hardbacks. It has the disadvantage of costing money—so sometimes I find myself thinking “$10 now, or wait for weeks…” The thing that really made me realise how much this has changed my reading habits was then I was reading Peter Gay’s awesome two volume history of the Enlightenment in Warsaw last autumn. I’d never have read a book like that there. It would have been a library book, it would have weighed several kilos. I’d never have had both volumes of it at once. But I’d bought it, and there it was on my portable book, and I was really enjoying it.

And of course, if I want to check something in a book I read last summer, why, there is still is. I don’t have to make notes.

When I was in Copenhagen, later on the same epic trip, I went to the Nationalmuseet, where in addition to awesome Viking stuff there’s an excellent exhibition of classical antiquities—many Danish archaeologists went to Greece. There’s a whole room on the Symposium, or drinking party, and there was a passage on the wall from Plato’s Symposium—in Danish, of course. And I realised that I had it in my pocket—in English, and also in the original. I was walking around with all of Plato in Greek and English, not specially, or by chance, but because I always am, now, that’s my new normal.

In Florence there’s an absolutely wonderful library designed by Michaelangelo, which at the time it was built contained pretty much all of surviving Western culture. And then they had to build an extension, and then there was too much, and there wasn’t any one building that could hold that. And now I can just carry it with me all the time and hardly notice the weight of it. It’s my book that contains libraries.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published three poetry collections and nine novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She has just published a collection of her Tor.com posts, What Makes This Book So Great. She has a new novel My Real Children coming out in May. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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