E-Reading: A Midterm Progress Report

E-readers have been around long enough now that the novelty has largely worn off. To be sure, we still get the occasional article or blog post celebrating the smell of "real books" and denouncing the disembodied fakery of text on a screen, but not nearly as many as in recent years. E-readers are simply part of the reading landscape now -- the first Kindle was released almost five years ago -- and it's time for a midterm progress report. How is the technology developing? What has been accomplished and what remains to be done?

  • One good development in the past five years: more options for reading at night. There are backlit LCD reading possibilities via the iPad and subsequent tablets, including the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7, plus a much less eye-frying option, the e-ink Nook Simple Touch GlowLight. The Kindle software for the iPad and iPhone allows you to dim the screen for that app only, which is helpful -- and I think it's great to be reading as the sky grows darker and not have to get up to turn on a light, remaining focused on the book -- but my eyes just hurt after a long iPad session. I don't know that anything can be done about that.

  • LCD screens are as glare-prone as ever: though there are some screen protectors that claim to reduce glare, I have yet to find one that has a significant effect, so if you're going to be reading outdoors the e-ink screens are still your best bet. However, it should be noted that all e-ink screens are more reflective than paper, so that some degree of glare management is intrinsic to the e-reading experience, at least for now. Technologies have not changed noticeably in this respect.

  • E-ink screens today have much better contrast that the earlier ones did. That's a big plus.

  • E-readers still have limited typeface options and do a generally lousy job of handling kerning and spacing. I've seen little improvement in those areas.

  • On a matter unrelated to e-reading technologies as such, e-books tend to have far more errors than print books, especially older books that have been scanned using OCR software and carelessly edited (or in some cases not edited at all).

But it seems to me that the most serious deficiencies of e-readers involve readers' interactions with books. In this respect we may be losing ground rather than gaining it. That I even care about this clearly puts me in the minority among readers, as I know from decades of teaching literature: it has always been, and it continues to be, difficult to get students to write in their books in meaningful and useful ways. Many won't write in books at all, and many more will only use a highlighter, which is scarcely any better. That this attitude is common may help explain why extremely long and detailed comparisons of e-readers do not even mention highlighting and annotation features.

Presented by

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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