The Personality of Books and the Big Problem with my Kindle

By Deane Barker on June 22, 2009

I love my Kindle, but there’s one thing that’s...icky, about it.  One thing that confirms all the background fear and dread I had about transitioning from actual paper to ebooks.

The Kindle strips out all the tangible character of a book.  In doing this, it eliminates the mental “markers” I retain about a book after I’ve read it.

When you remember a book you read, you’re of course remembering the content of the book.  But there are also physical markers about the book you remember:

  • The typeface, including the size
  • The color and tactile feel of the pages
  • The cover – the content of it, the colors, the way it fades and ages, the beating it took as it got tossed around in your car, etc.
  • The weight of the book, it’s dimensions, and how it fits in your hand

These things all combine to “set” the book in your mind.  These tactile reminders help the book to occupy a place in your head.  They help give the book a personality – a character.

With a Kindle, you get none of this.  The fonts, colors, weight, dimensions, etc. are all same.  One book looks just like another one.

I purchased Wikinomics and Here Comes Everybody at the same time.  I read them back-to-back, overlapping a bit.

To this day, I can’t separate the books in my head.  When I think of a concept in either of them, I can’t figure out which one it was from.  Granted they were about similar topics, but I still think that if they had been actual books made out of paper, each with their own personality, I would be able to isolate them more readily.

Does this mean I got less out of the books?  Not at the time I read them for sure – I remember being glued to my Kindle on multiple airplane trips reading Shirky’s book in particular.  But looking back on them, do they occupy a less readily available place in my mind because of their Kindle-imposed homogeneity?  I suspect they might.

I love my Kindle, and it’s a net positive to own one, but in the sense of what I’ve written above, the Kindle can be a little depressing.  It’s also made me understand that there’s more to a book than just the words in it.  Books have personality – they have character.  And at least some of this is conveyed by things that the Kindle can’t reproduce.

Comments (6)

CRiggins says:

I found something similar after using my Sony reader for some time. Without the visual cue of the cover, I find I cannot remember as well which of the stored books I’ve actually read. I end up re-reading the first paragraph or two before I realize I’ve read this one before.

Paul Biba says:

Great post! Took the liberty of posting an excerpt on the TeleRead site.

Paul Biba Co-Editor

Adam Hartzell says:

I too have found that my Sony Reader doesn’t allow for the easy remembrance of where a particular argument lies within the book. I have visual memories of where on the page (top or bottom; left or right; beginning, middle or end of paragraph) a point is made by the author. (I read mostly non-fiction, which results in the National Endowment for the Arts arguing that my 9-books-a-month habit is really evidence that I do not read at all, since I don’t read novels much.) Because of this, I find my e-book a better format for reading articles off the web in a more mobile form. Articles on the web lack a similar tactility (however, there is a haptic quality, a visual tactility of the design of the webpage, yes) so I don’t experience much of a ‘lack’ in my experience when going from the web to an eBook. As others have noted, eBooks will not be a complete replacement of our primary interfacing with books. It will nestle into it’s niche, where its affordances (the uses it allows) exceed those already available from p-books.

Karen Wester Newton says:

I don’t disagree that eReaders provide a different experience. But I don’t think it’s a matter of losing something as replacing it. I, too, used to remember reading something in a particular spot on a page. When I wanted to go back to that specific text, I would flip pages and stare at that point, Sometimes I found the text that way, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I found it in a different place because I remembered it wrongly! Now I can search for the words I remember reading, which so far has proved at least as reliable.

I haven’t had any problem keeping content straight as far as the words. I do think, from the few illustrated novels I have read on my Kindle, that ebooks have a way to go before they can deal with illustrations well. I don’t mean color, either, I mean scaling them to the font size and placing them well so you don’t have an almost blank screen and then an illustration with one line of text (not a caption) below it. On the other hand, the zoom feature is really nice.

I’m also not enamored of the little dots on the bottom of the Kindle screen that show me how much of the book I have read and how much remains. For some reason, I don’t feel as much sense of accomplishment from making dots move across the screen as I do from seeing a stack of pages get thicker. I understand Kindle 2 shows an actual percentage; don’t know about the Sony.

Publishers also need to work on proofing ebooks as ebooks, so they don’t get weird formatting problems, which can be annoying as all get out.

I still love my Kindle, though, because it allows me to read more books than I could without it.

Gary Frost says:

The only deterrent to the advance of dedicated reading devices is simulation of physical book navigation. The quirks of page turning application are an example as are purely visual prompts of progression through content are more distractive than reassuring. Perhaps the most disturbing simulation is the suggestion that a single screen can present “a lifetime of reading”.

Haptic and kinetic prompts assist comprehension in the physical book. Classical speed comprehension is based on the use of finger cursor following and, if you watch yourself, you will discover your inadvertent fingering prior to page turning. There is also a response to the “spread” of two pages and the topography of the drape of the gutter and the sense of the reverse side of the visual opening. Do you sometimes scout ahead or reverse a few pages to sense the scope of the narrative?

All such navigational acts are hands prompting the mind via a deeply embedded learning pathway. The research of this ergonomic of comprehension as refined in the physical book is distributed in psychology, robotic engineering and evolutionary neurology.

Sanchith says:

No digital solution can replace my books, period!