E-Readers, Ebook Apps and the Technologies of Distraction: Why I Read Paper and Not Digital Books

There was time I downloaded e-books with a madness. There was something exciting perhaps about instantaneously getting access to that new title or some older book I was intending to read. I’ve even blogged about the wonders of ebooks on this blog at some point in the past. Now, I  seldom read ebooks and increasingly I sit down with hardback or paperback copies.

I’m not really entirely sure why I’ve made this transformation. Part of it is perhaps the difficulty with using a device to read. It just seems easier to me to sit down with a book, turn pages, and even underline favorite passages with a pencil. Also, had all the books I recently purchased been ebooks, when I want to refer back to a book,  I just go to my office, locate the book, and flip to those quotes or ideas I’ve underlined. While I know you can do word searches to efficiently track exactly to the passages you want in an ebook, but I read to understand, to engage new ideas and information. I really don’t give a damn about efficiency when I read. 

Perhaps therein lies the major issue with ebooks: those who manufacture e-readers and devices think I’m interested in efficiently reading a book. But that is simply not true. I am the most inefficient reader there ever was. I hardly read sequentially. I read back and forth and up-and-down. I also read 8 or 10 books at once, which means I am physically surrounded by them throughout the day sometimes. Sitting with an e-reader just don’t provide the same experience. Inefficient reading just works for me because my mind isn’t the most inefficient machine either.

Perhaps there’s another reason as well. Franklin Foer writes in his book World Without Mind,

When we read words on paper, we’re removed from the notifications, pings, and other urgencies summoning us away from our thoughts. The page permits us, for a time in our day, to decouple from the machine, to tend to our human core.” (p. 230).

That seems to be the case for me too. Those infernal devices we try to read with also are devices of distraction by architecture. While reading, those notifications and pop-ups pull us away from being lost within the pages. Sure, one can remedy this by turning off notifications, but there’s reason why you see so many of us sitting with screens of distraction in the first place…these devices of addiction are designed to disperse our attention and not focus it. It’s less possible for me to get distracted from paper pages within in a book. And, if the book is really engaging, the world around me dissolves into irrelevance.

I occasionally will pull out my Kindle app on my iPad and read a bit, but to be honest, it is just when I need some time-filled, not when I want to seriously engage a book. This is because a hardback or paperback wasn’t designed for multitasking, and when seriously reading and wanting to get lost in a text, the last thing I want to do is multitask. Perhaps this fundamentally captures the nature of these devices we all have now: they aren’t designed to focus our lives and attention; they are designed to distract us, and that is contrary what it means to read a book.