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Seven Ways Electronic Books Will Make Us Better Readers

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In this transitional era, when the world is moving from paper to electronic books, I hear many people say, "But I love my paper books..." So do I, and my business depends on selling products to people who love books. But iPads, Kindles, Nooks and Sony Readers have demonstrated that books are bigger than any medium through which we receive them. What's more -- and so exciting -- is that our new book technology can make it easier for us to lead well-read lives.

Our present transitional era actually began in the mid-1970s, with the advent of Books-on-Tape, the brainchild of entrepreneur Duvall Hecht. Now called audiobooks, this form of reading demonstrated that books weren't reliant solely on written words. They could project all their magic -- and then some -- through the spoken voice. Audiobooks have their own strengths and weaknesses when compared with printed books (strong at dialog, weak at skimming and annotating, for example).

Now electronic books are demonstrating their own strengths and weaknesses when compared with time-honored paper books. The surprising thing to me is just how strong their strengths are. Some are fairly obvious, like the ability to search and to expand type size. Others are subtle, but when taken together, will allow readers to get more books in their lives and more life from their books -- which, as it turns out, is the subtitle of the book on reading I wrote five years ago, called The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life.

Happily, however, I believe paper books may have an even larger role going forward. And this isn't about which of our book-children we love the most -- it's that I believe that with the help of digital technology, we are poised to take our love affair with books to the next level.

After six months of reading on my iPad, I can report that most of the methods I recommend in The Little Guide for enhancing your reading life are made easier -- sometimes dramatically easier -- by eReaders. Herewith are seven reasons why e-reading will help us become better readers of books.

Reason #1: Giving Up on Books. In my research on reading, I discovered that one major obstacle keeping people from reading more books was the nagging feeling many have that they must finish the books they start. This clean-your-plate mentality, a holdover from our school days, fetters adults in their pursuit of lifelong learning. In my talks on reading I turn this attitude on its head and say, "If you're not giving up on at least five books every year, you're not beginning enough of them."

With e-books, it's easier to sample many more books and apply the liberating 50-page rule: If it doesn't float your boat after 50 pages, give it the heave-ho.

Reason #2: Having Better (for You) Books to Choose From. Reading success is greatly enhanced when you're choosing books not from some airport newsstand while running to your flight, but from the books you've been lovingly setting aside for yourself. But when you have the time and inclination to begin a book, you're not always near that stack of books that you really want to read. With your electronic reader, you can fill it up with those beckoning books -- the ones I call your Library of Candidates.

Reason #3: Writing in Books. One great way to become more engaged in your books, especially nonfiction, is to write in them. Yet millions of people, whom I refer to as Preservationists (versus Footprint Leavers like myself), are terribly reluctant to write in their books. It seems like defacement to them. This reluctance is blasted away by electronic reading. Highlight and annotate with abandon on your digital copy to make it yours.

Reason #4: Sharing Books. So much of the enjoyment of books is in discussing them with friends and family members. When we all have our own eReaders, it will be far easier to obtain books, begin reading when you wish and discuss them sooner. Over breakfast with three of my colleagues, one of them mentioned a passage in a book we're all reading. I lifted my iPad from my case and quickly searched for and highlighted the passage that meant so much to him, and wrote an electronic note in the margin about it. Wow.

Flow on the iPad

Reason #5: Smart Re-reading. To get much more from your books, you'll want to review them shortly after finishing them the first time. Your long-term yield from your reading is so much higher with this little extra time. With physical books, this can be a logistical problem. On my most recent plane trip, I reviewed my highlighted and annotated copy of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience on my iPad. Would I have dragged my print version on this trip? Not a chance, and I would have missed out on this delightful re-reading just when I wanted it and benefited from it the most.

Reason #6: Having Your Library at Hand. Living Library is my name for those books you've read, loved and cherish, and enjoy having on your shelf at home. What if you could have this library with you whenever you wished? Now you can, virtually, with such software as Shelfari, Good Reads, and Library Thing. And with the eReaders' access to the Web, your library and your book are clicks away. "Wait, didn't I read something like this in my other book? Oh, yes, I'll update my review right now." That's the kind of rich reading that Mortimer Adler was advocating in his How to Read a Book, fifty years before it has become so very easy to do.

Reason #7: Books as Portals. When a book sends you to a dictionary or encyclopedia, it can be the best kind of learning. But when this had to be done physically, it seldom was. Now that the opportunity to run off on an intellectual journey is only clicks away, we can more easily use books as stepping stones to learning expeditions.

Even so, this power can be either wonderful or an impediment to focused reading. Developing new reading skills is the price we must pay for new powers.

Surprise Bonus Reason #8: Getting in Flow. Electronic reading can actually help us focus on the text. (Yes, I know, now I'm claiming the opposite of what I just wrote above.) I judge it to be slightly easier to hold my iPad in its easy-to-grip case than to hold a conventional book. Not only is a paper book usually heavier, but you must flex it a bit with both hands to make the pages flat to your view. Being able to just tap to turn the page versus actually turning the page is surprisingly nice.

These are small things to be sure, but over time, I've found that I get in the flow of reading sooner, get there more often, and stay there longer with my iPad. I wasn't expecting this. Nor did I even want it to be true. But here's proof of the pudding: when I'm at home and have the choice to pick up my hardcover book or my iPad with the same book, I pick up my iPad. Hmm...

A dark lining to this silver cloud

Technological progress, even for something as beneficial as electronic books, has a way of being a mixed blessing. The dark lining I'm worried about is the one Stewart Brand describes so well in his Clock of the Long Now. It's that our digital files -- in this case, our precious notes in our books and our virtual libraries -- may last forever or for six months, and it's hard to know which it will be.

The best protection, based on the long history of books and libraries, is duplication and dispersal. Don't, in other words, do your own reenactment of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

For Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, I've written my own rough review in Word by clicking through my highlighted passages on my iPad. Not only does this help me get the most from the book, but then I copied my write-up into my review on Shelfari (in the cloud), and printed this out to put inside the dust jacket of my hardcover, which sits in my library at home.

The rainbow

Note that I've purchased two copies of Flow, the electronic one on my iPad, and the hardcover for my library. In fact, I bought a dozen more to give to our staff at Levenger and to my family, I liked it so. Is it possible electronic books, by making it more enticing to read well, will open up a new golden age of book publishing, book selling, book sharing and book collecting? In my opinion, it is quite possible--much as digital photography has democratized further photography to millions more who now enjoy taking and sharing photos.

And now that physical books are freed from carrying 100% of the load of what Barbara Tuchman rightly called "the carriers of civilization," they can be liberated to do what they do best -- be wondrous, beautiful, tactile objects.

Physical books brilliantly designed, expertly printed, bound with creamy paper and touch-me covers, books that say "keep me and treasure me" -- those will be as treasured as ever they were. Perhaps even more so.

Borges's new idea of heaven?

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library," Jorge Luis Borges famously said. In order to get to heaven, you must recognize when you're there. Let's quit worrying about the so-called demise of printed books and recognize the blessings of our new book age. We get to ramp up the enjoyment of electronic books, become better readers, and appreciate even more our lovely paper ones.

I'm imagining that paper books will evolve to become something akin to candles -- we have them in our homes and cherish their light, but don't light our homes with them. Readers of Lincoln's era would likely be surprised at how well-lit our homes are, and I think it's likely that we will be surprised at how well-read future book readers will be.