A Writer Reads: E versus “real” book reading

(A post from guest author Mary Burns)

I bought an e-reader shortly after I published my first ebook (Shinny’s Girls, the Trilogy) last summer.  If I was going to talk the talk, I better walk the walk, was my reasoning, but I didn’t actually read anything on my new toy until I hit the road.  For even diehard “real” book only fans will concede that e-readers are wonderful for travel.

Absalom, Absalom!I downloaded books that related to where I was going, the southern United States, and since that region is so rich in literary history, it was fun to pick and choose.  Along with a non-fiction overview, Confederates in the Attic, I added a couple of modern southern novels and some classics, including William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! which has been called the greatest southern novel ever written.  It is so easy to download books into a reader that it is just as easy to be greedy, and I had more than I could fit in between seeing the sights and enjoying the company of old and new friends.  Absalom, Absalom! had to wait until I got home, when I placed the e-reader on the stack of “real” books alongside my reading chair.  This turned out to be serendipitous because it allowed me to compare the reading experience.

Faulkner’s novel is huge, weaves back and forth through time, and has multiple narrators.  It contains the longest sentence in literature at 1288 words, but many other sentences are also long and labyrinthine.  The language is beautiful, the style unique, all of which made me want to press the corner of the “page” to dog ear for later reference, and to press a word or sentence, which, on my device, opens the annotations menu and allows me to make a note or simply highlight. I did plenty of that, and if I were a more methodical person, those tools may have helped me unearth what I wanted to remember later.  But when, after finishing the book, I found that I had not been painstaking enough with my dogearring and word pressing, and after spending too much time searching for a passage describing a ball that took place on the eve of the Civil War, I decided to just look for a paper copy of the book, because I will definitely re-read it.

That experience got me thinking of how I physically relate toe-reader and books paper books.  Not only do I enjoy their covers and the pleasure of flipping through the front and back pages, re-reading an epigraph, for example, or notes about the author, I have a sense of where a passage is in space.  About here … I might think, when looking for a dog- ear or an underline.  Or, towards the end.  I can press sticky notes on pages I seriously want to review, sticky notes on which I can jot down an idea.  Favourite books are like having the author and all the thoughts and stories s/he presented here in my house. I like the look of books on a shelf; the various thicknesses and colours of the spines create patterns that make a room instantly homey. I also enjoy being able to loan them to my godson, who loves books as much as I do.

On the other hand, a close friend and serious reader, who has more shelves and more books than I do, has turned almost exclusively to e-reading novels and even some non-fiction books that pertain to her field of anthropology.  She started, as I did, by appreciating the convenience of e-reading while traveling. For readers who fly, no more worries about overweight luggage, no more worries about finding English-language books in foreign countries.  Now she is entranced by the convenience of finding virtually any book she has heard of, and being able to download it in a snap, or a whisper (depending on the terminology your ebook store uses).  And, she has not experienced the same frustration I did regarding references she had marked.  She claims it is because of the e-reader she chose to use, but it could be her conscientious nature. She is someone who follows directions exactly and so most likely mastered the way to note and refer back.  Let that be a lesson to you, I told myself.  But I still intend to re-read Absalom, Absalom! in paper.  Certain books work better than others in e-form, and the weight of all those words in Faulkner’s classic is something I want to feel in my hand.

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