Tag Archives: e-readers

The nonlinear reader

We generally consider reading books to be a linear activity: begin at the beginning and read one chapter after another until you reach the end. Me, I’m more of a nonlinear reader. It took a while for me to notice this about myself because I don’t go to the extreme of turning every book I read into a Choose Your Own Adventure book (turn to page 40! now turn to page 27! now go to page 189!), but maintain a general forward momentum and the illusion of linearity while in reality my reading goes off on all sorts of tangents.

Early on in my reading life, I was seduced by peeking. I’d start off reading a book the normal way and make it through a few chapters. But if I reached the end of a chapter a few minutes before I needed to do something else, I was stuck. I didn’t want to stop reading but I also didn’t want to stop partway through the next chapter. So I’d jump ahead a bit randomly and read a scene. Not too close to the end, but further ahead. And the next time I did it, I could be in a completely different part of the book. After a while, I’d have an assortment of unconnected scenes floating around in my head: nonlinear reading that gave me the impression of a book, but not the story as the author intended it. But not being completely nonlinear, I’d also continue to read the book front to back as I had time, slotting each disjointed scene into its proper place in my memory as I came to it.

17208721416_9bd13ab869_nOnce, just to see how nonlinear I’d gotten, I put a rubber band on the unread pages of a novel. This drove home the point of how often I peeked because I was wrenched back into awareness every time I tried to skip ahead and couldn’t. (Also, having to slip each fresh page out from under a rubber band is a really annoying way to read a book. I finally freed up a chapter at a time for reading comfort.) What hit the hardest, though, was feeling blindsided when a major character was killed. Apparently I’d been getting more warning from my peeks than I’d realized, and in other books, I’d braced myself emotionally for plot turns like this. With that book, I’d had no warning and I was probably as shocked as the author hoped I’d be.

Enter e-readers, and suddenly nonlinear reading got a lot harder, for the same reason I don’t like using e-book editions of reference books: it’s blasted difficult to skip around with an e-reader. You have to get out of the text, pull up whatever feature lets you move to another section, and decide how far to move. It’s a far more calculated set of actions than just letting a chunk of paper pages slip by and reading wherever you’ve cracked the book open again. Indeed it’s enough of an effort that basically, I don’t bother.

So for the past four years (wow, I’ve been reading e-books that long?), I’ve been reading novels the way authors have expected me to. I don’t need to skip ahead to figure out obvious plot twists, but now the clever, devious ones really do come as a surprise and without the annoyance of having to wrestle a rubber band. This hasn’t broken me of the peeking habit. I’m reading a print book right now, and this afternoon I finished a chapter four blocks from my bus stop and peeked for the next two blocks. But most novels I read now are e-books, and I think overall, the linearity has been a good thing. Even if it’s conventional. And hard on the nerves when favorite characters are in danger. 😉

So am I the only nonlinear reader out there? And if you read e-books, have they changed how you read books in any noticeable way?

photo credit: Bookmark via photopin (license)

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?

Commercial whimsy

Kindle in hand, I could tell you what the reading experience is like, maybe compare it to reading e-books on an iPod Touch. Perhaps I will, someday. But for now, I simply give you a scan of the barcode on the box, which amused me.

Kindle box barcodeAnd yes, the box was easy to open.