How E-Readers Are Changing Readers

An author at the Guardian highlights a phenomenon many of us know all too well:  the irresistible lure of the Kindle impulse purchase.  


On the train to visit my father, for example, I discovered that I could obtain the entire collection of Motor Girls novels--an undistinguished series of early twenties juveniles about yes, girls with cars--for free.  Did I want to read these novels?  No I did not, it emerged--no matter how fondly they are intertwined with my memories of summer dawns under the tree in my grandmother's back yard, I cannot now muster the appetite to read one all the way through.  Yet I can't bear to delete them, either--rainy afternoons on the back porch!  Christmas eve in front of the fire!--and so there they sit, clogging up my queue.

At least they were free.  And I have not quite descended to drunk driving my Amazon account:


Because I am a writer, people sometimes ask me how ebooks have changed the literary landscape. The short answer, for me, is that I have developed a compulsion to drunk-dial Agatha Christie several times a week. The Poirot mysteries, which initially seemed to me to rush by too fast and leave nothing behind, are, I find, perfect for a drunk reader with a decreased attention span. The undazzling writing style now seems to me to correspond, profoundly and even ingeniously, to the plot: despite an unassuming, even banal or ridiculous appearance, the detectives work in unfathomably deep ways. Sceptics call Miss Marple fluffy and dithery; they call Poirot senile and gaga - but, again and again, the fluffy and the gaga triumph over Scotland Yard and the most deceptive criminal masterminds. In this sense, despite the profusion of corpses, Christie's novels are all about cheating death. The time has come for age to claim Marple and Poirot - but age never does claim them. Decrepitude is endlessly thwarted by ingenuity.

Reading Agatha Christie novels now, as a drunk person, with impaired judgment, lowered cognitive capacity, and decreased short-term memory, I no longer try to guess the killer's identity in advance. When I was 11, I was constantly trying to outthink Poirot, with miserable results. This added an unpleasant degree of tension to the reading process. Now, my pleasure in Christie is entirely passive. I know I can't solve the mystery, and why should I? Possibly because of my chemically acquired poor short-term memory - drinking, I realise, makes you old - I have also grown to enjoy the stereotypical characters.

For the past few months, with the exception of work-related books, I have barely read anything at all except Poirot novels. When I'm sober, this worries me a bit. I recently confided this worry to a colleague, who, in an attempt to make me feel better, pointed out that, in the greater scheme, drunk-dialing Agatha Christie isn't such a terrible vice. "You could be on Ebay, buying sectional sofas," she observed: a remark which opened a brief, vertiginous vista on to the field of possible dependencies that might lurk in my future. Adderal and Proust? Cocaine and Very Short Introductions? The prospect troubled me for the rest of the afternoon. But at the end of the day, when I uncorked a $7 bottle of Viognier and turned on the Kindle, a wave of well-being washed over me. I opened up Death in the Clouds, in which Poirot investigates the death of a wicked Paris money lender, in an aeroplane, by poison-tipped dart. Luxuriating in the measured accumulation of banal small talk and abstruse clues, I reflected comfortably that I had still only read 32 of the 34 Hercule Poirot novels. What problem awaits me next? Time will tell.

Most of the publishing people I've spoken to agree that the Kindle and the iPad will change books--that they will be shorter, that opening chapters will have to be tighter and more compelling in order to survive the free sampling, that transitions will have to be livelier in order to preserve the reader's interest.  But no one has yet told me how they're going to maximize the impulse buy, which seems to be one of the keys to making money on eBooks.  Ideally, they need some sort of advertising format that takes you by surprise while you're doing something else, like a half-formed thought.  "Don't you wonder if you'd like Proust if you gave it another go?" seems to me to be the ideal marketing campaign for the internet age.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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