Blog Post

Why I'm a Kindle Drop Out

To my friends in academe, I'm a bit of an innovation martian. I like change.   I don't like to do things the normal ways and rarely meet a tradition without wanting to mod it in some way or other.   But reading on a Kindle or an iPad?   I thought I'd love it.  After trying yet again, I'm realizing it's fine for others--but it is absolutely not for me. Here's why:


First, I don't read in typical ways.   I basically have two very different reading styles.  When I read a novel or a really densely argued article (whether in cognitive neuroscience or cultural studies), I read extremely slowly.   I also like to mark the pages, even sometimes in novels, and then I find myself returning to those marks as I read on.  Usually what I mark doesn't seem key at the time but it almost always turns out to be, either because that's what I'm looking for (i.e. that's how my own attention selects content) or because something in the prose signaled it would be important later (this is the Toni Morrison theory of agitated reading and writing -I'm a believer--applied to all forms of writing and reading).  It's still a pain to mark passages on eBooks but, more to the point, when you read them as slowly and carefully as I do, the weight (especially of my iPad) is a deterrent and so is the lack of flexibility to the device.  I bend pages.  I also prefer to read lying down, on my side, and it's harder to position an eBook.  Because I read so slowly, a paperback lasts me a long time so, for my upcoming trip to Australia, I'll be packing one or at most two and that will be just fine.


Second, for 95% of what I read, I have a form of extremely rapid photographic reading ability where I take in both pages at once in a relatively random way, never read front to back in linear fashion, flip back and forth in the sequence of pages, and prefer to read the ending before the beginning of a badly written article or one with too leisurely a pace.   When I edited American Literature for a decade, or when I read books for university presses, or when I read student dissertations, I can pull a great party trick of reading a fat manuscript in very short time and having detailed, precise points to make.  Unfortunately (it's a Faustian wager, to be sure), I often forget the content quite quickly.  So when I talk to students about their dissertations, I tell them they better take notes then or bring a tape recorder because they aren't getting a repeat performance--but the first one, I've learned over the years, is a pretty good one, as Odd Human Reading Tricks go.    It stinks trying to read in a non-linear fashion ("browsing") on an eBook.  


I realize these are extreme forms of reading but my recent research suggests that, sometimes secretly, we all have variable forms of reading.  The current state of the eBook acts as if everyone reads in the same way all the time. 


I'm not against "electronic publishing."  I love reading online.  On line, where you can scroll extremely fast and see the pages fly by or where you can go back and search-and-find, reading seems almost as if it was designed for alternative processing styles such as my own.  The dorky hey-it-looks-like-the-page-is-turning-yes-it-is-turning-by-gosh-there-it-goes-it's-turned visuals on eBooks drives me crazy.  I could read half a dissertation in the time it's doing that lame looks-like-a-REAL-page-turning trick.  Well, that's an exaggeration.  Except that it is so annoying to take that much time when my At a Glance reading style is so much faster that I want to throw the darn eBook against the wall.  Except that would cost me several hundred dollars, so I don't.  I simply vote with my fingers and stop ordering books.


The reason I'm taking the time to detail this is because there are a lot of cognitive assumptions behind eBooks and most of them are pretty rooted in an old-style of reading dictated by books with bindings, certain lengths of type lines, folios, paper sizes, and mechanized print.   In other words, we've all learned conventions of reading dictated by the materiality of books.   To be sure, we've all learned conventions of writing also dictated by the materiality of books--from sentence length to paragraph form to chapters to book length.   If the materiality changes, why in the world would we want to write in a way with all the vestiges of our duodecimo'd past?  Why would we want to read that way?


These are issues I will be thinking about next year when, with an excited group of students (and I hope as many are English majors as are Computer Science majors) we take the book I am writing for Viking Press--to be published in traditional hardcovers and paperback and also for an eBook--but then reimagine it, start to finish, for the iPad.   If the materiality of a printed book is irrelevant, what is a "page"?  What is a "footnote" or even an "endnote"? Where do links go to foster the argument?  What is linearity?  When would a video work better?  When should I pop out as the author to tell the story or the backstory?  What if we performed certain experiments and put those on the iPad?  Should the full interviews I conducted for the book be on the iPad?  What about issues of intellectual property?  What about privacy? When you really reimagine a book, there are social as well as material and cultural conditions you have to tackle.


Vectors magazine explores many of these issues, and I want to take that even further and really rethink what the next generation of a "book" would look like.   It may turn out that the print-version of Now You See It:  The Science of Attention in the Classroom, at Work, and Everywhere Else is an "app" for the iPad version----and vice versa.    Rethinking the book requires rethinking the app.   And rethinking both the writer and the reader.


But, until then, I won't be ordering any more books for my iPad.   Online, I don't read the way I do on the page and, for now, until eBooks figure that out, I'll be doing a lot of my reading on line, whenever and wherever I can, and then the rest of my reading in physical, material books.   The hybrid eBook, to me, is a compromise between the limitations of the printed page and the limitations of the electronic device. I know so many people who love them and, for them, eBooks are terrific.  But as a conceptualization of written communication, it is not "next generation" but an electronic fossilization of the last one.



Thanks for the Vectors shout out!  We're also developing a new writing/reading platform called Scalar that pushes in exactly these directions.  We've got 17 NEH fellows here at USC right now (day one!) to begin creating in Scalar and to push hard on the boundaries of reading/writing/seeing.


Why not have some of them blog what they are up to?   HASTAC readers would love to know more! 


hi cathy,


we've got the twitter feed going at #nehvectors




This post shows that we all do read in different ways. Many do not like reading with an iPad or Kindle. Like you, I read fast and have to slow down and sometimes re-read a couple of times. 

But for others it is a necessity. Many seniors are getting these so they can read the fonts in large sizes. For for some kids who do not read well the iPad has helped them. Leo and his iPad.





Yes, and there are voice assisting forms too that are great for the visually impaired.   The point is exactly as you say, that we read in many ways and should not trap ourselves in one way because that was the way books are built.  It is exciting, isn't it, to think about what we might imagine as new literary forms for the future, just as the novel was the literary form of mass printing.  Very, very exciting.  Thanks so much for writing!


Hey Cat:  I googled Toni Morrison and agitated reading and only came up with your post.  (Or maybe one other that said "I get agitated reading Toni Morrison.")  Can you point me to the reference?  I can sort of imagine what the theory might be, but I'd like to know a bit more.  Thanks! - Dante


Hey Dante, In Playing in the Dark, she brilliantly and sagely says that in much white-authored fiction, there's a kind of agitation or interference or hyperbole on the page and then, soon after, the African American character enters.   You can find the heightened prose even before the entrance and she talks about it in terms of a whole suppressed, buried history that isn't articulated and then is too weighty, too symbolic for the slim character that appears.    I love that idea and think she is right and find it often happens as a prelude to other overblown, historically-fraught, controversial, or otherwise suppressed rather than directly expressed arguments.   Oh, yes, and I find I sometimes do it myself too!  


Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Cathy,

Interesting article and oh so true. The application of 'book metaphors' to e-readers has been annoying for a while (perhaps even going back to the CD-ROM days).

One of the things that is also puzzling is the focus on consuming books on e-readers as opposed to consuming web-based sources such as RSS feeds (which are perfect for consumption by e-reader because they're usually written with a better awareness of screen based reading style requirements). There's some really interesting options for consuming this type of RSS content agnostically on any reader via something like the free Calibre public domain software.

There's starting to be some awareness of new functionality possibilities on e-readers (for instance in the latest Kindle software upgrade where you can highlight passages and share them with people via social media) but of course the logical and much more interesting possibility would be invert this and enable you as a reader to explore other people's comments on some text while reading it on an e-reader (in short the stuff you can't do with a hardcopy book).

Finally was just going to say that your post's font comes out on my screen as 8pt Arial - I can read it but it's not easy as it's so small. My setup is pretty standard (Internet Explorer 8) and based on the usual stats that browser would probably account for 60-70% of visitors to your blog (I've set this comment to 10pt for example).




I'll make sure Ruby, who is leading us in our new website (oh, the horrors of this one!), is aware of the IE visibility issue.  And, yes, I wonder a lot about the RSS feeds and eBook.  Old habits die hard, and we've had two hundred years equating books with reading.  It's pretty common for new inventions to take on old design, even when function changes . . . and then there is a breakthrough invention, in many cases, and it all changes.  The first mobile phones looked like desk phones without the cord.  It took a while for the flip phone . . . Thanks for writing, Mike!


I have a kindle.  So far I have found the kindle to be most useful for pleasure reading that doesn't require a lot of thinking, notes or looking back.  I purchased it so I could buy academic books that are expensive, but less expensive in kindle format.   Saving money is wonderful.  However, not being able to shuffle through the pages and easily go back to something you didn't realize was important as you were reading it means that these books are not as functional as I had hoped they would be.  I find that as search through actual books, I take in more information than I do using a search box in an e-book.  Also, I find the feeling of reading slower is a detterant to using the device.   It is also harder to skim. 

This study was published a while back regarding reading speeds, so... apparently it isn't just me reading slower.

That being said, the idea of interactivity is really appealing.  Things such as the iPad are very exciting because of the possibilities.  The link you shared with the girl staying up until 11pm experiencing chemistry (I don't think reading is accurate) is so exciting.  It reminds me of the excitement I had when I first got to play Oregon Trail to learn about that part of American History as a child and Messenger ( ) later on in a French lit class.

It makes me wonder what type of interactive approach would work best on these devices and how it will vary by genre, subject matter, etc.  I have all sorts of ideas floating around in my head.  I am very much looking forward to seeing how your book is re-imagined in the move from electronic fossilization to electronic innovation.



I know so many people who love the Kindle and it works for them.  That said, it will be very exciting to think about what a new genre might look like.  I look forward to working with you this fall since reimagining the "book" will be one of our projects!