The act of reading the hard copy of a book is an experience not easy to improve upon or replace. One need only look to the endless supply of love letters written by legions of authors and poets lauding the innumerable qualities books possess (or, if time is scarce, a Google search of famous book-related quotes will suffice) to get a sense of how important books are to so many people.
But if you look around in classes or lectures, chances are that at least one of your classmates is using an e-reader in place of a normal textbook. As tuition continues to rise, e-readers are an increasingly popular way for University students to save at least some money on their textbook costs.
With more and more students using e-readers and tablets in class and the recent closings of many local bookstores, Ann Arbor seems to be in the midst of a transition from print to digital. While the benefits of e-readers cannot be denied, what does an increase in their use mean for traditional books?
English Prof. Eric Rabkin said the physical manifestation of a book is enormously important, and the physicality and formatting are lost in e-readers. This loss of formatting translates into a difference in the meaning of the text.
“If you look at any children’s book, the writer has deployed the physicality of the book in order to get meaning across,” he said. “That’s wiped out in all digital readers. The screen is the same size, same shape and the same luminosity all the time.”
“(E-reading) destroys the visual and physical reality of a codex,” Rabkin added.
Rabkin related reading a book electronically to viewing a movie in a theater and compared reading traditionally to watching a movie on DVD at home. He said that while neither one is inherently better than the other, the two experiences are not the same.
“The act of reading digitally is, in fact, a completely different medium,” he said. “So even though what we’re doing is looking at those words, the fact that it is a different medium makes a radical change.”
According to Rabkin, this change in medium leaves something to be desired.
“If you’re reading a book, and you have this sense of ‘How close am I to the end; is this a step along the way? Or am I at the climax then the Kindle destroys that physical sense of your relationship with the temporality of the plot,” Rabkin said. “And that’s true for all digital reading experiences … And I think that’s a big loss.”
University students who have used e-readers in classes have also noted differences in their scholastic experiences.
LSA sophomore Audrey Easterwood said that while e-readers are more convenient, there are some drawbacks to the new technology.
“I always prefer (and) am more comfortable reading from a real book,” Easterwood said. “I enjoy it more, and it is easier to read from a real book than a screen. After a while, it hurts my eyes to keep staring at a screen.”
Paul Conway, an associate professor in the School of Information, said he has some concerns about the quality of the page images and graphic content of e-readers.
“As for quality, we are learning in our research at Michigan that online books vary tremendously in terms of their readability as well as in the type and severity of error,” Conway said. “Low-quality books are less likely to be accepted and used by readers.”
Conway said that as long as e-textbook publishers are determined to present content in a way that’s wedded to the traditional notion of a textbook, there would be many problems in content delivery, which will result in frustration for e-book users.
“Ultimately, what is needed is a complete rethinking of the idea of a textbook to take advantage of interactive Internet access, the easy delivery of text and images from databases, and the deconstruction of textbooks into teachable units,” Conway said. “All of these issues are subjects of intense research.”
Though there are plenty of issues surrounding e-readers, their convenience and cost efficiency has driven the University libraries to begin developing an e-library.
According to the MLibrary Textbook Services and Initiatives website, the University has acquired multiple e-book collections that include textbooks required by some University classes. In fact, there is the potential for an entire online textbook initiative. And given the widespread use of tools such as CTools and Wolverine Access, it’s obvious that the University is no stranger to online homework and resources.
Conway said that despite the problems e-readers present, he is supportive of the library’s efforts to get involved in the e-book business.
“In many regards, I believe that e-readers are the future of reading. Portability, flexibility and easy access to millions of books are just three currently obvious reasons,” Conway said. “As books change from being static objects produced and controlled by publishers to flexible, interactive creations remixed by users, the advantages of e-readers become even greater.”
Conway’s prediction that e-readers are the future of reading may be correct. The announced closing of Michigan Book & Supply earlier this week and the noticeable absence of Borders on East Liberty suggest that students are slowly moving away from buying traditional textbooks.
Kevin Hawkins, MLibrary’s head of digital-publishing production, said this slow progression from physical book usage to e-readers is comparable to the progression of the music industry.
“Students are growing increasingly comfortable buying and consuming digital media, and textbook publishers, which have been sticking with print to protect their revenue model, are shifting to digital distribution now that the e-reader vendors have set up sales channels that make it easy for consumers to acquire the books legally,” Hawkins said. “It’s similar to music: While some people still buy music on vinyl or CD, for most consumers, a digital version is more convenient, despite its drawbacks.”
Though Easterwood prefers traditional books, she noted that her Kindle makes reading for classes much easier when she’s on the go.
“I use my Kindle when I have to carry a lot of books and don’t want my bag to be too heavy,” she explained. “For instance, it is convenient when traveling.”
LSA junior Wisam Berry is a strong advocate of e-reader usage at the college level. Berry, who has used an e-reader in place of actually purchasing textbooks, said it was much more convenient and practical for all of his readings. He said he would prefer to use an e-reader in all of his classes.
“It would be all in one place and easily accessible from anywhere and not just if I carry the book around with me,” Berry said.
LSA junior Sandhya Rajagopal, who has also used an e-reader in place of a textbook, said e-readers are more than just a convenience because they are easier to use than traditional textbooks.
“They are also helpful in that they allow you to quickly search (or) look up specific topics or keywords,” she said.
While the ability to easily look up unfamiliar terms or literary allusions is an appealing prospect for many people, Rabkin said “easier” isn’t always better.
“Ease is probably a good thing for most people. We don’t like to make life difficult,” he said. “(But) if you want to make that reading part of you, then whatever kind of resistance the author has built into the text needs to be there. And the e-reader, in fact, undercuts that.”
So will University students soon be relying solely on electronic resources for their homework needs? While there’s no definitive answer just yet, it’s certainly a prospect worth considering, especially to the students at the University, who will be directly affected by its outcome.