BookNet Canada E-Reading Challenge Part III: Four Hours of Reading

The first hour with the Reader is all struggle. For anyone starting off with an eInk device, take this advice: pick something compelling to read, a page-turner, something where getting to the next page is worth overcoming distraction. For the first hour, I was annoyed. If I held the Reader wrong, I’d hit one of the chapter buttons that sit along the bottom of the screen, jumping randomly ahead. I kept hitting the wrong buttons, or turning pages by accident. Every time, I would pop out of reading mode and into what’s-wrong-now mode, fighting my way back to the page I was reading.

The second hour is all ergonomics. How should I hold my hands? Where can I safely put my thumbs? What’s the best way to hold a book with just my left hand? Can I hold it with my right and still turn pages? (the page controls are all on the left.) It’s cold. Its hardness, its non-paper-ness, makes it feel heavy, if that makes any sense. Even though it weighs about the same as a hefty trade paperback, my hands and arms made a “it’s metal, therefore it’s heavy” connection that I had trouble getting rid of.

Then there’s what I’ve come to call the click-flash. Every time you turn a page, there is a click as you press one of the page forward/back buttons. Then the whole screen goes black as all of the eInk spheres reset before forming the next page. It’s a fraction of a second, but a bit jarring, like suddenly losing your sight and then regaining it.

It takes four hours of reading before you forget. At the four hour mark (complements of jetlag-induced, five-hours-ahead insomnia) I was no longer conscious of the device. I was holding my thumbs in the right spots. I wasn’t randomly pressing buttons anymore. My brain was now ignoring the click-flash and turning pages was no longer a conscious effort. My arms had adjusted to the weight and it no longer felt heavy. It’s at about the four hour mark that I started to notice the good things about the Reader.

The display is very crisp. In four hours of reading, I didn’t feel any more eyestrain than I would have with a paperback. In fact, as my eyes got tired, I bumped up the print size, making it easier to read as the hours went on. The lack of screen backlighting, which makes it feel a bit like a primitive PalmPilot at first, helps out here. A few hours in and I don’t have the etched-retinas feeling that I sometimes get with my laptop or monitor. The better the light, the better I could read, just like a book. Broad daylight was best of all. If the lighting was a bit dim, I bumped up the print size again and rolled along, large-print senior-citizen style, with a slight bit o’ self-consciousness that comes from sharp-eyed bystanders being able to read the page you’re on from ten feet away. (Quick, switch to the “serious” novel.)

At the end of four hours, I have the hang of it. I’ve passed through some kind of barrier with the Reader. I’m sure the product management people at Sony have charts and focus group reports that document this point, along with forecasts of how many people give up before the four hour mark. What’s interesting about the experience is that it forces me to confront all of the physical aspects of reading that I burned into muscle memory a long time ago. It also highlights one of the differences in experience that separate eInk devices from digital music devices like iPods. With music, you can click once, start the music going and not touch it for hours, letting the device move you from song to song. As long as the headphones are OK, the experience is uninterrupted. Books have a constant low-level interaction. With the Reader, for the first three hours, I couldn’t believe how often I turned pages. There were hundreds of page turns. It was never-ending, like a dripping faucet. When the font got larger, there were even more. But the brain is clever, especially if there is a reward on the other side of each page turn. By the fourth hour, I had some brand-new Reader muscle memory, along with some kind of bypass that rendered the click-flash no longer annoying. I was a Reader reader. Not in the sense of wanting to throw away my paper books, only that I was once again reading a book rather than using a device.

My other realization is that my early struggles with the device were nothing more than design problems. The page looks great. The words are easy to read. I’m carrying around a dozen books in a package the size of a large Moleskine. Smart engineers could make that experience simpler, will make it simpler. Maybe even give it the sense of wonder that I got with my iPod, where interface and industrial design converge into fetish object. When that four hours drops to five minutes, things are going to get interesting. The first one to figure it out gets all the cookies.

(Next up: At the FairReading in Public)