Why I can’t read ebooks

From a technological point of view, my reading habits have definitely regressed. I still buy plenty of books, but only those made from trees. My ebook purchases have fallen to zero, and this has been true for several years now. This is probably music to publishers’ ears (but not to bookstore owners because in the same period, I have not bought a single book in a physical bookstore).

There was a time when I bought many an ebook, but – let me be very honest with you – I have not read a single one of them from digital cover to digital cover. I have tried reading all kinds of books – fiction and nonfiction, classics to contemporary, long and short, and ebooks I bought for $15 and those I got for free. In my experience, the ebook is failing as a “reading platform” because reading on an ebook device is simply not a pleasant experience. But the unpleasantness is not, I would argue, for the reasons you might think.

I have turned away from ebooks, but NOT because of:

  1. The Purchasing Experience.
    The experience can be clumsy, but it seems that most of the issues have been ironed out. And there is nothing like having the book that you want in your hands within seconds. The buying experience, it seems to me, is no worse than buying physical books online and better (in many ways) than buying a book in the bookstore for all the usual reasons (time cost of getting to a bookstore, limited selection, haphazard organization, overpriced books, rude storeowners etc.).


    You do lose the pleasure of browsing when you buy online, but you can get much the same experience by going to a library. It seems to me that the enemy of bookstores today is as much the library as it is Amazon, or rather, a combination of library + Amazon. I have to admit that I have stumbled upon an interesting book at a library and bought it there and there from Amazon with my phone (actually, it was from abebooks.com). This is good for me, not so good for bookstores.

  2. The Screen.
    Ever since I first laid eyes on a Kindle (back in 2008), I was convinced that it would be a game-changer. I believed that the e-ink technology – the clarity of the black letters on the pearl-white background – would upend the publishing industry. I really did see it as something that would accelerate the democratization of reading – i.e. getting more (diverse) books to more people more quickly. Today, I think screen devices – e.g. iPad etc. – are also fine for reading. The resolution is incredible, and there is much you can do to mitigate the bright light (reading in dark mode etc.)

So, I personally do not believe that these two issues (commonly raised as objections against reading ebooks) serve as much of a roadblock at all. I also believe that all the cute little reasons that people give for why physical books are actually better technology does not really hold water. It may be true that physical books don’t have to be recharged, ink-on-paper is high resolution, easy to markup etc. But they have their disadvantages as well – inability to change font size or font type being obvious examples. I am looking at my copy of Richard Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype – arguably his most important book – and the paper is cheap, the font too small and ugly, the cover bestial. It devalues the content of the book. In the end, this exercise of chalking up the pluses and minuses is a futile exercise. If ebooks were “good enough” it would simply overwhelm the advantages of the physical book. As long more people could write books and more people had access to them more cheaply, nothing else would really matter. You can have houses built to the highest safety codes, and you can train the population until the cows come home, but when a tsunami hits… well, it’s a tsunami.

But ebooks are not good enough. And the reason I can’t read ebooks has to do with the devices themselves. Quite simply, ebook readers are designed by people who don’t read books. More accurately, they are designed by people who do not read books for pleasure. You see this over and over again. Here are my issues:

  1. You cannot hold an ebook reader.
    It may come as a surprise to some people but reading a novel takes time. When you are reading for work or school, where you are using your device to access information (often scanning a page), you may very well be at your desk where you can lay the device flat on a surface. But pleasure reading is often done in a chair, or in bed, or at the beach or a cafe where you have to actually hold up the book. Ebook readers are not designed to be held up for an extended period of time. Usually there is a tiny plastic bezel around the screen (seemingly getting narrower at every iteration). How are you supposed to hold the device? With your fingertips? With your fingers at the back and your thumbs perpendicular to the screen? Holding it from the top and bottom? Balanced on your palm like a tray? Try doing any of that for more than two minutes. You cannot lose yourself in the prose when your fingers ache and you are constantly fighting the machine. There is also the huge psychological cost of constantly having to avoid touching a large area (the screen).
  2. The screen is too responsive.
    If I were to design an ebook app, the very first thing I would do is turn off screen rotation. This should not be an option, and the user should not have to do anything to the device to prevent it from happening. If you are reading in bed, think about all the different positions you may adopt. You might be sitting up, or slouching, or lying on your belly, or flat on your back with the book in the air. You are forever changing positions, and – among other things – this is a function of your arms and eyes growing more tired the longer you read. The book must be a constant among all this movement. You could be reading on your back and then slowly turning to your side – the moment your screen starts spinning around like a Ferris wheel you are out of that imaginative world that you and the book have created. Notice that a movie app like Netflix does not do this. The moment you begin a movie, you are in full screen and no rotation. Complete immersion, no matter how you are holding it. The Amazon Prime Video app however does spin from landscape to portrait. It also has an “X-ray” feature where when you touch the screen, information about the actors on the screen pops up. Both of these are design mistakes. Every accidental touch of the screen or shifting of your body position will pull you out of the narrative.
  3. The page must not turn.
    In my opinion, this is by far the most important feature and one that ereaders get badly wrong. Inadvertent-page turning must not happen! Coming from a world of productivity apps and games, developers and designers have got it in their heads that responsiveness is the most important thing. But reading is not a video game. And the device must respond only to a clear, unambiguous, intentional effort by the reader to turn the page. In some ways, the first few generations of the Kindle (which had physical buttons for page-turning) was better designed than the current touchscreens. But even those devices weren’t perfect – it was too easy to push the buttons accidentally, and they were located at exactly the place where you would typically hold the device. Every accidental turn of the page will pull the reader out of the narrative, and the imaginative world of her or his making.
  4. Did I mention that the screen must not respond?
    Reading is a deeply personal experience. It is not communal – like films or TV shows can be. It is done alone. Books can be painful, frustrating and annoying. They can be gripping. Literally. There will be passages in a book which will make us hold the book differently. Will that pompous twit, Mr. Knightley, finally propose to that spoilt brat? What has become of the true heroine of the novel, Jane Fairfax? Who will prevail in that Godzilla vs. Mothra-esque epic showdown between Emma and the monstrous Miss Bates with her volcanic eruptions of battle-axe prattle? As the rumble in the jungles of Highbury unfolds, we hold the book more tightly, more urgently. In time, the venomous Miss Bates is vanquished and our fingers relax, only to tense up again as Mr. Knightley appears on the scene to rain on Emma’s victory parade with his hoary platitudes. There are also times when phrases, sentences, paragraphs will be puzzled over or admired. Sometimes even revered. We may run a finger under the sentences as we read. It makes them more real – this reading as a tactile experience. Nothing is worse, nothing pulls us out of this private intimate experience, than having the page jumping around like a monkey on cocaine, pulling out dictionaries or highlighter windows or menu items. Unresponsiveness is the key. I will repeat: response only to clear, unambiguous, intentional effort by the reader. I suggest on the Kindle a physical button at the chin of the device that requires a fair amount of pressure to press. On the iPad, perhaps a Force Touch on a specific region of the screen? While we are at it, I would make the screen larger if possible (I understand that there are tradeoffs between size, weight, convenience and cost). Even deliberate page-turning has a pull-you-out-of-your-imagination costs (albeit much lower, and in part due to the habits of reading physical books). But fewer pages turned the better.

As any reader will be well aware – the physical object that you are reading really matters. In a physical book, the font matters. The size and texture of the page matters. I don’t buy mass market paperbacks if I can help it because it detracts from the reading experience. Beautifully crafted books are a joy like no other. They make bad books tolerable. They make good books sublime. Readers and writers of ebooks should demand the same level of artistry of ebook apps and ebook readers. Give me the opportunity to lose myself in the story and I will start buying digital books again.

(Image from Techcrunch)