Lost in a book

Imagine reading a print book. Most of your attention will be on the content itself, but you’ll be aware of the book itself at some level. Your hand regularly flips a page. You can see how much of the book lies ahead of you, while the pages you’ve read pile up in your wake. With an e-reader, you regularly touch it to advance to the next screen. And while you won’t see the bulk of the pages moving from one half of the book to the other, if you had my old Kindle Keyboard, a progress bar along the bottom of the screen would slowly advance, and it would show you what percentage of the book you’d read.

Last month, I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Most of the new features are definite improvements, but they don’t really change what using an e-reader feels like. Not surprisingly, the Paperwhite has more options for showing you where you are in your e-book. In addition to the standard location or page numbers, you can get an estimate of how much time it will take you to read the rest of the chapter or the rest of the book. There’s no progress bar, but the Paperwhite still shows you what percentage of the book you’ve read. But unlike other e-readers I’ve used, this one lets you turn off that entire part of the display.

Kindle Paperwhite, showing progress indicators.

The Kindle Keyboard’s progress bar was a distraction. Every time I reached the bottom of the screen, there it was, informing me that I was X% of the way through the book. The bar itself millimetered its way across the screen and I ended up studying it rather than staying in what I was reading. How far had it moved since I’d started reading this time? If it was just a smidgen away from the next chapter marker, how far was that in reading time? So I wasn’t sad to realize it had been removed from the Paperwhite, and besides, its replacements were cool in their own right. Page numbers and location numbers are crucial for navigation, but the “Time left in chapter/book” option was fascinating. It’s meant to help you decide if you have enough time to start a new chapter or finish your current one before you have to go do something else, and I’ve found it useful for that. (Can I finish this chapter before we get to my bus stop?) But then I got sidetracked again. How fast was I reading? Had I lost reading speed because I’d gone back to reread a section? Why did it still say I had three minutes left in the chapter when it felt like I’d been reading for five minutes since the last time I looked? So I turned the whole thing off.

That’s the point at which reading got slightly eerie.

With the progress indicators turned off, I can’t tell where I am in the book. Much of the time this isn’t an issue because I’m caught up in the story itself. It’s a sign of a bad reading experience if you’re constantly checking to see how much longer the book is going to last (“Are we there yet?”). But I do come up for air every now and then, and each time, it’s disconcerting to realize that I don’t know where I am, story-wise.

Many of the how-to-write books I’ve read lately talk about the three-act structure. People swear that this is a natural structure for story and that readers expect it at some level, so much so that a story that diverges wildly from it will rub most people the wrong way. Well, the Paperwhite or any other e-reader with optional progress indicators may be a good test of this theory. With practice, will I be able to tell from the events in the story where I am in the book overall? Or will I be surprised when the story suddenly ends or wonder why it hasn’t ended yet? Can you tell?

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