Struggling with eBooks: To Read or Not to Read

Don’t get me wrong — I love my Sony 505 and read on it every day for at least a couple of hours. But what I read on it are novels, fiction that goes in one brain cell and out the other, rarely making a lasting impression. (There are a few exceptions, such as Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet [see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept] which I keep thinking about and wondering why no major traditional publisher has scooped her up, in contrast to Ruth Francisco’s Amsterdam 2012, which I have yet to review because it was such a disappointment, yet the storyline is intriguing and one I think about, but I keep wondering where to begin a fair review).

No, the problem is with the mainstay of my reading — nonfiction, particularly history and biography. I keep trying to read nonfiction biography and history in ebook form and I inevitably stop and return to the pbook version. This shouldn’t be; there is nothing inherently wrong with the ebook experience — or there shouldn’t be — to make reading of nonfiction so difficult for me. Yet, it is.

I have been trying to analyze why and have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Surely part of the problem is the way ebooks handle images, which is poorly. I admit that I don’t really care about studying the fake maps that some novels include for “informational” purposes. I’m not really looking to delve into the deep psychoses of the characters or the lands; I’m looking for easy entertainment after a day of reading and correcting manuscript. But in nonfiction books, I really do care about the maps and photos. I don’t want to commit them to memory, but they often provide an insight to the history being related. When told that an army marched 60 miles, I find it hard to imagine how long and hard a march that must have been 2000 years ago and a map helps. When describing a sarcophagus, a photograph helps. And these are weak points of ebooks — the ability to show such images clearly and in a readable form. The problems lie in how the ebook file was created and in the fact that I am trying to view the image on a 6-inch grayscale screen (although I’m not sure that a 6-inch color screen would be much improvement).

Perhaps another problem I have is that most histories and many biographies are riddled with footnotes (or endnotes) and references. (For my view of the use of these notes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.) I know that some readers, if not most, simply bypass these annoyances, but I admit I’m one who reads everything in a book, including the copyright page. I find myself compelled to check the notes and references — the notes because authors too often have some of the most valuable information tucked away in them, and the references because they often lead to other books I need to buy. (My to-be-purchased [TBP] list is probably as long as, perhaps even longer than, my to-be-read [TBR] list; usually what holds me back from buying a book on my TBP list is the cost. These books tend to be out of print and if I am going to buy an out-of-print book, I want to buy it as a first edition, first printing, in near fine or better condition — not a cheap undertaking in many cases.) Sadly, too many ebooks come with broken links to the notes and references because publishers and/or the converters of the books do a lackadaisical job of activating the links.

Consequently, I am always in a struggle when it comes to buying ebooks. I have little hesitation with fiction, it being difficult for publishers and converters to do a horrendous job (although far from impossible as many ebookers can attest) and because so much fiction can be bought so very inexpensively, but I hesitate, and hesitate, and hesitate when it comes to nonfiction. With one exception, For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz, the story of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and Clarence Darrow’s brilliant defense, which focused not on guilt or innocence but on the death penalty, my nonfiction purchases have been unsatisfactory and have resulted in my purchasing the pbook version. Some examples are Bruce Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti and Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Pillar of Fire, Parting the Waters, and At Canaan’s Edge. (If you haven’t read these books by Baatz, Watson, and Branch, put them on your list. It is better to read them as ebooks than not to read them at all.)

I keep trying, however, to read nonfiction in ebook form. I have purchased and tried reading in ebook form several books but nearly always gave way to finishing reading in the pbook form. Perhaps it is the ease of accessing the notes and images, perhaps it is easier to contemplate passages, reread them for deeper meaning or better understanding, perhaps it is just me. I’m not certain about the ”why” but I am certain that authors, publishers, and converters have to spend more time and effort thinking about ebook design and how an ebook is read (or, in the case of nonfiction, how it should be read) by the reader. At the current juncture of development, ebooks are ideal for fiction, less so for nonfiction, but there is no reason why the ebook form shouldn’t be/can’t be ideal for any type of book.

(P.S. Some worthwhile nonfiction books I have bought in both ebook and pbook form are the following: On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker; From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America by Christopher Finan, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker; A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by Steven Pinker; The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky; and The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. I recommend each of these books whether you read them in ebook or pbook form.)

reposted with permission from An American Editor

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