About a decade ago, somebody gave us our first crock pot, also known as a slow cooker. For months we feasted on the remarkably easy, delicious dishes it could produce: chicken tagines and chilis, beef briskets and vegan stews. Then I made the mistake of discussing our love of slow-cooker food with a fellow crock pot owner, who observed: “yep, it’s handy — but have you noticed that everything comes out tasting the same?”
I hadn’t noticed, actually, but once it was pointed out to me, the spell was broken. Yes, it was a delicious flavour….but it was always the same flavour: goût de crock pot. My embrace of the Kindle — and ebooks in general — has been hampered by a similar phenomenon. Yes, I can use the Kindle to read a literary novel, or a business bestseller, or a sci-fi thriller, but they all come out tasting like Kindle. The authorial voice that forms a large part of my reading experience is somehow flatted and homogenized such that even books I expected to love — Anathem, A Short History of Women, Generosity — left me lukewarm….until I gave up on the digital versions and switched to paper. While I’ve done lots of work with and on ebooks (including writing my own series), it seemed like a medium that could usefully accommodate my professional reading, but not my desire to disappear into a novel.
At least until this past November. Faced with a long-haul flight and eager to read a novel that was not yet available in Canada, I downloaded Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch onto my Kindle Paperwhite. Somewhere over the Atlantic I realized I was no longer noticing the Kindle. I tore through the book as furiously as I’ve read many a paperback, and lost myself just as completely. To test whether this was the exception, or a breakthrough, I looked for another well-reviewed book, and landed on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: another winner. At that point I realized I was halfway through the four novels on the New York Times’ list of the 10 Best Books of 2013, so I moved on to Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — completely fascinating, totally engrossing. Yesterday I wrapped up the quartet by finishing Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, again without experiencing Kindle-itis.
So here I am, a convert to digital reading. My on- and offline conversations with friends and colleagues had led me to believe such a conversion was highly unlikely, since readers seem to fall into two camps: those who have readily embraced ebooks for their convenience and features, and those who (like me) found that it fundamentally altered their reading experience. Now that I’ve crossed the chasm, and can enjoy the benefits of e-reading without diminishing my reading experience, I want to share my tips on how you can learn to read ebooks, even if you’ve faced similar challenges:
- Evaluate your commitment. There’s no intrinsic reason you need to become an ebook reader, especially if you’re old enough that you expect to predecease the printed book. (At age 42, I’m not sure I will.) If you’ve had a hard time taking to ebooks, you may find that learning to read on an e-reader is a little bit like learning to read in the first place: it takes time and practice to move from reading as work to reading as pleasure. Unless you’re really committed to reading digitally, you may not be able to get over the hump, so think carefully about how much you’re prepared to invest in acquiring this skill.
- Find a use case. If reading an ebook were no more useful than reading a printed book, I doubt I’d ever have gotten over my antipathy. What kept me trying were a few compelling use cases: situations in which an ebook is much more useful than a printed book. For me, these are travel (especially longer trips in which I might otherwise haul multiple titles), and bedtime (unlike a lamp or even a booklight, the Kindle is dim enough that it doesn’t keep the kids awake, so I can read while they drift off).
- Try multiple devices. The Kindle Paperwhite I now enjoy reading on is the fourth or fifth device on which I’ve tried digital books (two earlier Kindle models and two different iPads). The first- and second-generation Kindles really were too sluggish to enjoy; the iPad too harsh for my eyes. The slim size, adjustable contrast, e-ink and responsiveness of the Paperwhite made happy e-reading imaginable, if not immediate, so if you haven’t taken to e-readers, try a few different models until you find the one that seems like the best fit.
- Tweak your settings. A friend who is a professional designer attributed some of my e-reading travails to the difference between digital and print line lengths, and adjusted my iPad reader’s line length, font size and margins to something that felt more book-like. When I was first adjusting to my Paperwhite, I tweaked the same settings, using a paper copy of the novel I was reading as a reference point: I played with the font choice and point size until the line length closely approximated the layout of the printed book.
- Switch it up. When I was last bemoaning my trouble getting into ebooks, a number of people advised trying a wider range of titles. While the four books that finally converted me are all very much the kinds of books I enjoy on paper, I know that what I look for in an audiobook is different from what I look for in print, so it’s easy for me to understand why some people make similar distinctions between paper and ebooks. If you’ve had a hard time enjoying digital novels, try nonfiction, or try reading trashier (or more challenging) books than you read in print. Try multiple genres and forms until you have a few reading experiences in which the e-reader is no longer front-and-centre, and then try reading the kinds of books you enjoy on paper.
- Share your book. Passing on a well-loved book to an equally loved friend is one of life’s great pleasures. And while it’s theoretically possible to lend a Kindle title, it’s not quite as simple as handing over a physical book. That’s why I’ve needed to find other ways to own, and share, what I’m reading: by embracing the highlighting feature (now as much a part of my novel reading as it is my nonfiction reading, since I can finally hold onto the lines that resonate) and by sharing my very favorite passages on social media.
- Buy fresh. When I have fallen out of the reading habit as a print reader, it’s usually because I’ve had a hard time transitioning from one book to the next. While I’ve stockpiled tempting novels so that there’s always something on hand, I want to read what I want to read….and if nothing on my own shelves catches my eye, and I don’t have time to hit a bookstore, I may go weeks or months before I next pick up a book. Stockpiling digital titles creates the same problem, so unless I expect to be offline for a sustained period of time, I try to buy at the time I plan to start reading. That way I can buy something I’m eager to dig into immediately, often because it’s an intriguing new release.
Have you had trouble reading on an e-reader, or have you taken to ebooks with immediate enthusiasm? I’d love to hear your experience, and your tips for having a great e-reading experience.