My Gut Reaction to Naomi Baron's "Case" Against E-Readers


Before I dig in, it's time for a quick disclaimer: I write, primarily, for the digital medium. I blog, and am the author and producer of eBooks. I am a reader of novels, more often than not, at least lately, in their digital format. I own and adore my Kindle. I do not, for a single second, believe that physical books are superior in any way - but, I used to, for reasons that were predominately irrational. And this WaPo article? I read it digitally, not in their print publication, but via their link on the Facebook website. I am a user, generator, and consumer of digital stories. Now, on with the show...


I usually ignore these types of articles, or, at best, take them with an incredibly large grain of salt. But, this latest salvo in the "grrr! argh! digital!" argument from Naomi S. Baron, courtesy of Washington Post, was particularly rankling.

Baron takes care of the easy-picking arguments typically found in these debates, looking at ease of portability, digital democratization, environmental factors (renewable trees versus irreplaceable and toxic rare Earth metals in production of books vs digital devices - both of which would have been much more interesting, and more well deserved of research, than her focus on the low-hanging fruit she occupies herself with), before writing about her research - just in time for the publication of her novel, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

Now, I haven't read her book, nor do I plan to. I want to talk (rant?) solely about Baron's Washington Post article and its narrow, murky thesis. The gist of her article seems (to me, anyway) to revolve around this: eReaders are OK for fluffy little best-sellers, but not for monoliths of "important" literature, like James Joyce. And the implicit argument in that is, eBooks are fine for the wee little minds geared only for entertainment, but if you're a serious connoisseur of literature, you cannot possibly read it digitally.

To me, this reeks of elitism, and its a classist argument, a facade of high brow mindedness pitting "real" readers versus consumers of more pedestrian novels. The argument goes, if you are a true, pure-blooded reader of literature, you best dare not read it on your Nook.  And just why not?  Well, Baron argues, because, distractions. She writes:

But the real nail in the coffin for one-size-fits-all electronic reading is concentration. Over 92 percent of those I surveyed said they concentrate best when reading a hard copy. The explanation is hardly rocket science. When a digital device has an Internet connection, it’s hard to resist the temptation to jump ship: I’ll just respond to that text I heard come in, check the headlines, order those boots that are on sale.

Readers are human. If you dangle distractions in front of us (or if we know they are just a click or swipe away), it’s hard not to take the bait.

But, are eReaders really the object to blame for reader's attention deficits? I don't find that to be a very valid argument, and Baron seems to send a bit of a mixed message here. Her argument carries the same sort of baggage that other, older, similar arguments had in response to any technological revolution that threatened to destabilize The Old Way. If I recall correctly, television, video games, and smart phones have all had the same criticisms leveled against them. It's a bit of a chicken and the egg argument - are people to blame for their dwindling concentration, or are the inanimate devices around them to blame? But, then she points out that humans are supremely distractable anyway, so maybe it's a moot point. So, then, why make it at all, let along as a particular crux in your axe grinding?

Some also acknowledged they took more time with printed text and read more carefully – not really a surprise, since digital screens encourage scrolling and hasten us along to grab the next Web site or tweet.

Now, I'm not sure what kind of eReader Baron is using (I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that she is actually familiar with these devices), but after having avidly used a Kindle for the better part of a year, I never felt "encouraged" to scroll or "hasten" along.

Mind you, not all "digital screens" are equal, nor are the guts behind their shiny display. Your traditional PC computer software functions quite differently than your eReader software. You interact with it differently, and both the behaviors and purposes of the devices are different. Further, I do not think the format one reads in is at the center of blame for their bad behaviors.

Here's an anecdotal example for you. When I was reading physical books, either for enjoyment or for school, I would - gasp! - set the book down on occasion to go online and check out Twitter, reply to an e-mail, or check the headlines. Should we then blame the physical novel for that? I "jumped ship" even without any internet connected devices!

This anecdote is ridiculous, of course, but so is what Baron is implying. Because readers can easily switch between a novel and a web browser, all on the same device, that means digital is bad for books? Admittedly, I'm not a rocket scientist, but I do not find her premise to be as plainly clear-cut as she implies. I have little trouble staying engaged in a story regardless of its medium. Maybe I'm just special, who knows.

What fascinates me is how many people – from teenagers to millennials to those of a certain age – prefer print when reading both for pleasure and for school or work. Drawing examples from my own research, some of the reasons are aesthetic (“charm of actually turning pages” and “scent of a new book”). Others involve a sense of accomplishment (“able to see how much I read”), ease of annotation (“I can write on the pages”), and navigation (“easy to locate where I was”).

Baron is initially supported here by a 2013 research study that was widely circulated amongst various news outlets, and which responders showed a strong preference for physical books. Looking back at my own self circa 2013, I would have been one of those readers affirming preference for physical books. Now, two years later, I staunchly prefer digital. I'd be curious to find more recent studies to see what they show. I suspect there's been a growth, perhaps even a large growth, in acceptance of eBooks in the intervening years, so this merits some more research on my part. It could be out there and I'm just not aware of it. I do wonder, though, how much of Baron's new book is reliant on old research. Technology and adoption rates of new devices can advance a hell of a lot in such a short amount of time.

And drawing examples from my own use of a Kindle, I find Baron's other examples lackluster at best. Before actually giving digital a try, I was a die-hard physical book only reader, convinced that I would never, never!, read a digital book. There was something pure about a printed work, the scent of those pages, the accomplishment and ease of seeing how much I'd read and what was left to go. And that was largely all nonsense, in hindsight. Which, again, makes me wonder just how current Baron's research is and how dated her pool of examples might be in the present day. Times change, sometimes very rapidly, and I doubt I'm the only to reverse course on this issue.

In 2013, I slowly began reading eBooks on my wife's iPad - and largely because I was able to find a hefty novel for less than $2 to read through the Kindle app. It was a matter of sheer convenience in the beginning. Did I want to lug around, say, for example, Stephen King's massive door stopper, IT, or a light-weight iPad? But, the more eBooks I read, the more I realized that I was not actually missing anything. The story was the same, as pure as it had ever been, but a little more portable, and a little easier to access on cross-platform devices - I could literally take my book anywhere and read it on anything, aestheticism be damned.

I took me a little while to adjust to the "accomplishment" factor, but again, it was not a significant hurdle that made one form of delivery inherently superior to another. I've got plenty of Kindle books with real page numbers that I can digitally bookmark, and I can type in annotations and highlight passages. And that highlighting business? That is something I absolutely would not have ever done to a physical novel, short of a textbook, because I so strongly believed in the sanctity of the novel, as if it were a monolithic object to be revered. After all, it was special and sacred, damn it! I actually got annoyed when I would lend out a pristine yet well-read favorite novel to a friend, only to have it returned dog-eared and its spine broken and scarred. Digital books? I can loan them out with full peace of mind. And I can, and have, highlighted and annotated away without troubling my conscience.

I think the argument behind this "preference" is really just a lack of understanding about the digital world. The reasons Baron lists for why physical books are preferred were many of the same that I shared way back when, but which were easily corrected as I became familiar with eBook devices and their various options. These examples she relies on in her research are not a "digital book problem" so much as "user error."

I also wonder how many people just blindly cling to the assumption that print is better, as I once did, just because it was all they knew and were hesitant, or maybe even fearful, of change.

We know a lot about the pros and cons of reading a hard-copy book vs. reading electronically. The problem is, many of us refuse to listen.

I refuse to listen unless solid evidence can be presented. I want facts, not opinions or preferences. If you want to tell me that eBooks are bad and print books are great, or maybe even the be-all, end-all of our shared reading experiences, then I want something a little better than "well, Joe, likes how books smell." Because, really, what are these pros and cons, and what do they essentially boil down to? Baron doesn't do this argument much service in her WaPo article beyond what's been quoted here, and most of these cons are really non-issues, ultimately.

The ones that could legitimately foster discussion and thought - such as the use of rare Earth metals in production of eReaders - the discussions that could put serious weight behind the "are eBooks bad?" argument, are quickly dismissed in favor of respondents preferences. And, frankly, I couldn't give a shit about what Joe think versus what Timmy think, because Billy said this while Sue said that. I mean, really? That's what this debate is, at its heart.

Beyond that, a number of these are cons that can be worked around, or even turned into pros. It might mean trading page numbers for percentages read, but that's not really the end of the world or a nail in anybody's coffin. Preferences do not mean an eReader is bad - it only means that you think it's bad. It's telling that Washington Post's capsule summary in their Facebook post distills her piece down to "Hard copy books are just more pleasant to read." Oh, well, OK then. Show's over! The case has been made!

I don't buy into the argument that one way of reading a book is more valid than another, that one way of reading is "more pleasant" than another. I'll levy this against the fact that I do get eyestrain from prolonged computer monitor use; Kindle books, well, not so much. So, it's pretty rare that I'll read a book on a PC screen for any length of time. This is an important distinction to make because there are differences in the quality and types of screens in various eReaders, where much focus has been made toward ensuring the comfort of its users. Whatever eyestrain issues that the proponents of print books have, I think that particular argument has been lessened by technological advances and will be, if it hasn't already been, eliminated entirely.

I can't help but think that Baron's article is borne entirely out of fear for the loss of the cherished, Old Way of doing things. Mostly, this whole argument behind book vs eBook is a silly canard, with time better spent encouraging people to read, regardless of the format they choose. And isn't it better that they have an option as to how they get to enjoy or study their material rather than being confined to one particular method, simply because that's just how it was done in the past? We should be celebrating the written word, rather than agonizing over the various options available for the consumption of those words.

What are you thoughts? Chime in below.

Michael Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

If you have enjoyed my free-to-read writing and reviews at this blog, in ebook form,
or elsewhere, it's easier than ever to donate and support my work on a monthly basis.

Become a Patron!