Earlier this month author Tracy Chevalier had some observations about the experience of reading printed books and reading the same texts on electronic readers:
the only thing an e-book has going for it is its size. Hornets' Nest is a hefty tome, hard to carry in a normal-sized handbag and a little awkward in bed, whereas the Kindle is slim and easy to handle.That was also one of its problems, though: the Kindle felt flimsy and insubstantial, making the book I read seem flimsy and insubstantial too.It’s only natural that we’ve gotten used to the quirks of the printed codex, such as being able to see each recto page as we turn to the preceding verso page. But I don’t think those sensations are inherent in the act of reading a novel. Before the codex was invented, people read scrolls, and today some people read manuscripts; neither of those forms allows or forces readers to look ahead every other page, and the narrative experience isn’t significantly different.
In fact, it was a fascinating experiment because it made clear to me that reading is a three-dimensional experience. When I read I'm not just taking in words on a page. Also affecting me is the geography of the two-page spread, where I can see more of the text than I'm reading. I can look ahead and notice dialogue coming up, or how long or short paragraphs are, or how someone's name is recurring a lot on a page.
And then there are the physical pages, the heft of the book that physically represents the heft of the story. I can literally feel how far I am into a story, when I'm halfway, when I have just a little bit left.
I agree with Chevalier that knowing how much of a narrative remains to be consumed is significant to the experience of reading a book. I’ve been brought up short by histories that have unusually large backmatter, thus ending “early,” and by stories that turn out to be only the first volume of several, thus ending not at all. (I’m talking about you, Gideon the Cutpurse and Children of the Sea.) But most electronic readers provide just that information.
As Chevalier goes on to note, “the Kindle told me I was on, say, ‘locations’ 5432-37 out of 12,789, and that I'd read 42% of the book.” She calls that data “meaningless.” Apparently she prefers to see 42% of the pages in her left hand and 58% in her right—exactly the same information in an analog “display.”
At the end of the day, when we want to curl up with a book, I think these differences will turn out to be as insubstantial as the electrons in a digital file. The point of reading an engrossing narrative is to become immersed in its world. A good story makes us think a lot about stuff that isn’t there at all, and as little as possible about the weight of the object in our laps.