Rod has asked for my assistance — ‘twould be churlish of me to refuse. And no churl am I.
We currently have recourse to several technologies of reading that do different things well. Rod is exactly right that a print magazine encourages us to flip through page by page, and makes it easy to stop and read something that catches our attention. I might also add that it’s easy to figure out in a print magazine how long a story is — which means, how much time it’s going to require of you — and when you’re thumbing through to determine the length you’re probably also scanning the text and gathering some information about what the whole thing is going to be like. All this is information you use to determine whether you want to read it. Magazines and many books offer you a larger visual field than a screen of text, and long-time readers know how to use that to their advantage.
On the other hand: I never read the Atlantic in print anymore because the text is too small for me — or feels too small, anyway. To some extent this is simply a change in my eyesight with age, the kind of thing that happens to many if not most people, but to some extent also, I believe, my discomfort is a result of knowing that I have an alternative. The very moment I start to think This print is kinda small I also think I could read it on my iPad. Likewise, as soon as I think It’s getting darker in here I move right on to Don’t have to worry about that with my iPad.
But when that backlit iPad screen starts to make my eyes ache I think Maybe I should be reading this in print with a nice bright light or — hang on, we have more options — Hey, the Kindle isn’t backlit, and I can adjust the size of the display to help my old eyes! And then there’s the question of what kind of reading device is best if you want to take notes….
And so around and around the technological whirlygig we go. My prediction is that all of this is going to get sorted out, in a general sort of way, in the next five years. Those for whom reading is an occasional-to-common activity — especially if most of their reading is of the periodical variety — will use iPads or other tablets to read. Devoted readers of long-form writing — novels, histories, biographies — will probably prefer the Kindle Paperwhite or other e-ink readers that light the reading surface but are not backlit.
And good old paper codices will be increasingly confined to texts that require extensive illustration or are in some other way objects of physical beauty. Electronic books work too well for publishers: no shipping costs, no out-of-stock notices, no returns, and readily correctable errors, not to mention the various ways readers of electronic texts can be data-mined. I don’t agree with Joe Queenan that books are dead, but codices are going to become rarer and more expensive. Alas.