Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover: What You Read on Your E-reader

Downbelow Station Cherryh 18dydguk6gpqsjpg

Would You Read This Book at a Coffeehouse?

I was amused by a recent article in Business Insider, “No One Ever Wants to Admit the Real Reason to Buy a Kindle.”

The writer, Madison Malone Kircher, claims that reading on an e-reader “lets you peruse guilty-pleasure stories without anybody around you having to know.” She interviewed co-workers who admitted to reading dicey titles like Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles because they didn’t want fellow subway riders to see what they were reading.

cherry downbelow station dicey cover 15905We’ve all been there. I am enthralled by C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, a fascinating, angst-ridden science fiction novel, which won the Hugo Award in 1982.  (But doesn’t the cover scream science fiction?)  Cherryh, who is a classicist, tells the story of Pell, a space station established by a merchant corporation on Earth.  It is suddenly overcrowded by refugees of war, many of whom are violent and stole identities to get on the ships. They are locked up in Q, the huge quarantine wing of Pell, and gangs run wild and everyone lives in terror.   The ruling dynasty of Pell, the Constantines, are humane, but in addition to the overcrowding problem and displacement of citizens they are targeted by the rebellious colonies at war, because Pell is a crucial station.  The Constantines must also manage the planet “downbelow,” which is populated by a workforce of simple, kind native aliens and human beings.  They must assimilate some of the refugees.

This is a stunning novel.  And yet did I whip out my paperback at the coffeehouse?  No, because of the cover.  And the cover is not that embarrassing.

Prospero's Cell Lawrence Durrell 71LxYZeF78L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Now, mind you, I also had my Kindle, so I was happy to read an e-book.  I’m not exactly secretive about what I read (I was reading Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, a travel book), but it is true that there is no title at the top of the screen.

But e-books are not private or secret, because ALL e-book companies track what we read.  My real reasons for having a Kindle (and my previous e-readers, the Sony Reader and the Nook) are convenience and low prices.  I  carry my Kindle in my purse so I can snap it open and read on the go.  And e-books are usually cheaper, though I read more books than e-books.  There is something magical about finding a book you’re looking for and instantly downloading it on to your device.

Of course you all know that. But I should have had the paperback of Prospero’s Cell with the non-embarrassing cover, and the e-book of Downbelow Station!  But that’s not the way it goes.

Back to the Book: Is It a Trend?

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha:  Wouldn't we rather be here than in an e-library?

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha.

Are people turning off their e-readers?

Are they going back to the book?

Is it a trend?

Or is it just me?

I have an elegant Nook, stocked with free e-books by Mrs. Humphry Ward, E. M. Delafield, Charlotte M. Yonge, Stella Benson, and Elizabeth von Arnim. Conventional wisdom says that e-books of new hardbacks are inexpensive (half-price or less), but I have found that used books are still cheaper.

I have journeyed from true e-love back to paper.

In my very first post here, “Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader,” I wrote:

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader. Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend. It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile. I have my hands all over the screen every day. I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

And so it went on for a couple of years.

Then suddenly I tired of reading on the screen.

In 2013, 21% of the books I read were e-books.  This year, although the number is only slightly lower, 19%, it is emblematic of my return to real books.

The Means of Escape Penelope Fitzgerald 519CFN92NAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The book: a lovely object.

On a plane from London to Chicago, surrounded by the loud e-silence of people on machines,  I  turned off my e-reader and took out a paperback. I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape, Gerald Heard’s mystery, A Taste for Honey, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube, and much of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heat Wave.

It was a long paperback trip.

And I discovered I concentrate better with paper.

There are too many e-distractions with e-readers–checking e-mail, etc.  Once I tried the Kindle app, and that was much less satisfying than the Nook.

Others, too, concentrate less well when they read e-books.  A study released last summer found that readers of the Kindle comprehended a mystery less accurately than paperback readers.  When asked to reconstruct 14 events in the plot, Kindle readers did “significantly worse” than paperback readers.  The Norwegian lead researcher also said that paper supports reading better than text on a screen.

I take notes on e-books, because it is so difficult to find things later.

The general consensus is that everyone is reading e-books now, but it is hard to find statistics.

The Pew Research Center says that  younger readers read more e-books:   Thirty-five percent of of 50- to 64-year-olds and 17% of people ages 65 and over read at least one e-book, but the number jumps to 47 percent in 18- to-29 year-olds  And since Christmas 2013, the number  of Americans owning e-readers or tablets has jumped from 43 percent to 50 percent of adults 18 and over.

I am not a trendsetter.  If I am reading less on my e-reader, others are, too.

Mind you, I have read some wonderful e-books.  I recently read Edith Olivier’s The Love Child ($2.99), a charming fantasy about a woman whose childhood imaginary friend materializes as a real child after her parents’ death.  I was never able to get hold of the Virago, and pounced on the e-book.

But when I can get the real book, I prefer it.

E-readers, Never Shop with a Man, & NANOWRIMO

The-eBook-e-Reader-Painting--95667Sometimes my e-reader is my friend, sometimes it isn’t.

Last week I had a solitary weekend.

Everyone I knew was out of town.

My husband was on a business trip and gave me several phone numbers I would never call.

Doesn’t everyone love a solitary weekend?

It was pretty much my e-reader and I.  We are  great friends since I deleted my email account and Twitter from the machine.  No more email alerts:  no more reading 10 pages, then checking 10 emails.  I feel about my e-reader the way the women in Sex and the City feel about their vibrators.

And so I spent the weekend reading Meg Wolitzer’s brilliant new novel, The Interestings, a long realistic masterpiece that pleased critics who underestimated her last book, The Uncoupling, a short, clever riff on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

As I said at my old blog, Wolitzer has a brilliant, distinctly American voice, slightly Nora Ephronish, with a twist of Dorothy Parker.

In The Interestings, she writes about a group of New Yorkers who meet in the ’70s at an arts camp.  Their friendship extends into middle age in the 21st century.

Read, read, read.  And then…

Oh, no.  A car in the driveway!

I hoped the person with hennaed hair and black clothes in the driveway was not the old friend with hennaed hair and black clothes I had last seen in a mental hospital after her bad trip at Woodstock II.  Normally I am happy to see anybody, but this was my weekend!

The person went away.  Wrong address apparently.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings seemed to apply to the situation, though, as so often happens when you’re reading and living life.  She writes about mental health politics as well as other changes of the 20th and 21st centuries.  The pills do not necessarily work well.

The main character, Jules, a (female) social worker, is married to Dennis, who has depression.

Ever since he’d been taken off the MAOI five years earlier, Dennis had rarely returned to buoyancy.  Instead, he still struggled with what his pharmacologist variously referred to as “low-level depression,” “atypical depression,” and “dysthymia.” There were some people who were just very hard to treat, Dr. Brazil said.  They were able to live their lives, sometimes to a fairly full extent, but they never felt good.  Dennis’s atypical depression wasn’t making him break down, as it had in college, but it also wouldn’t go away.  He felt its presence like a speck in the eye or like a chronic, rattling cough.  Different drugs were tried, but nothing worked for very long, or if a drug did work, the side effects made it untenable.

By the way, I am so glad Obama’s health care plan will treat mental illness like a physical illness, with the same deductibles, etc.  Don’t let the insurance companies and the Republicans destroy our new national health care.

Hey!  Why didn't we look like that?

Hey! Why didn’t we look like that?

NEVER SHOP WITH A MAN.   I  went to the mall with a man.  What was I thinking?

I had to buy a few things that were too big to fit in the bike pannier.

He moodily paced behind me.  No smile, and he wondered why no clerk would help us.

Finally I caught the attention of  a clerk who showed me several bags I could use for a laptop that weren’t strictly laptop bags.

Later, the man was so tired and mall-phobic that he argued over whether we could spend 99 cents at Target.

The other men at the mall were behaving well, but their wives were clearly in charge.

I bought the 99-cent item.

You know the reggae:  Get up, stand up.

But it’s really easier to shop with your cousin.

THE SHORTEST NANOWRIMO EVER.   Every November people all over the world sign up for NANOWRIMO (National  Novel Writing Month) to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I’m not a fiction writer.

Nor do I want to write fiction.

Nor do I want to write 1,660 words a day.

But I love the idea of writing a novel in 30 days, so I planned to write a new version of Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo.

Then I realized I’d rather read Ovid.

I wrote 32 words.

I lasted one minute this year!   I will not even PRETEND to write a novel.

That’s it!  I  promise never to sign up for NANOWRIMO again.

Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon; GETTY IMAGES

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader.   Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend.  It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile.  I have my hands all over the screen every day.  I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

I told everyone recently that I didn’t need a new one.   “What do we need with all this new electronic crap?” I was haunted by images of e-waste I saw in a 60 Minutes story in 2008:  computers, phones and other electronic devices burning  in a dump in China where old computers and other electronic devices were sent to be “recycled.” One expert told Scott Pelley that these devices leak toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chloride.

I was horrified.  I want to make my e-things last.

But then my e-reader broke, and I had to replace it.  Call it Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader: all of them are genies.

On Saturday, while my driver listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, I clicked on my e-reader and looked at the screen.  My device informed me that the temp was 36 degrees, and that on the basis of  recent library activity, which it semi-literately refers to as “picked for you based on recent library activity,” I might enjoy James Salter’s Burning the Days or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

I am indulgent of my e-reader’s faults, such as recommending books I already have, like Smith’s book, one of my favorite novels.  It is like having an encounter with a bookseller.  I might appreciate Burning the Days.

Suddenly the  screen dulled to gray because of the glare.  At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I realized, “It’s so smart! It’s making it easier for me to read.”

Here is a short digression about my reading.   You probably think I was reading Disraeli’s Sibyl, or some other obscure 19th-century text available for download free from Project Gutenberg.

drowning-girl-caitlin-r-kiernan-paperback-cover-artNo, I was reading a new book I could just as easily have found at a bookstore:  Caitlin R. Kiernan’s strange, lyrical, fantasy-cum-psychological novel, The Drowning Girl.

Did I feel guilty that I hadn’t bought the paperback?  Not on the journey.  I was too fascinated by the poetic voice of the heroine, Imp, who is schizophrenic, like her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt, and who is writing a ghost story, about ghosts of mermaids and wolves.

She says:  “Sure, I’m a crazy woman, and I have to take pills I can’t really afford to stay out of hospitals, but I still see ghosts everywhere I look, when I look, because once you start seeing them, you can’t ever stop seeing them.”

I was guilt-free about my e-reader until we arrived in Iowa City and browsed at independent bookstores.  Why wasn’t I supporting Murphy-Brookfield Books, Prairie Lights, or Iowa Book & Supply?  Well, they’re too far from home.  I order books online,  books or e-books, because they are not available at physical bookstores in my city, where at least 12 independent bookstores have closed since the ‘90s.

Murphy-Brookfield Books

Back in the car, after buying a book, I immediately loved my e-reader again.  THE SCREEN LIGHTS UP IN THE DARK. I could read my e-book in the car.  I had to wait to read my paperback till I got home.

E-readers have their disadvantages.  At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a study tells us that most e-readers have the capacity to track our searches and monitor our reading habits.  We mostly ignore that.

Lulling us with e-readers and computers, encouraging us to post our thoughts on Facebook,  Twitter, and e-mail, is fun for us, but great for surveillance, should it come to that, and provides employers with data to fire employees or information for divorce lawyers to prevail in court. In a strange kind of way, it also prepares us for the apocalypse, not Triffids, as in my favorite science fiction book, The Day of the Triffids, but perhaps for The Day of Climate Change.  We are indoors so much–except in Kindle ads–that we should be less panicky if it comes to the point where we can’t go outdoors.

Meanwhile, our e-devices are our friends. My e-reader is a female friend.  Does anyone else have a feeling like that?   And we sincerely hope our e-things will never jeopardize us.

Carpe diem while we can!