Do Ebook Readers Read More Books?

There’s a persistent nugget of common sense that keeps floating around the web indicating that people who read ebooks read more books than those who read paper books.  It’s reared its adorable little head again on the WSJ this week, and I think it’s worth analysing it a bit deeper. Snip:

A study of 1,200 e-reader owners by Marketing and Research Resources Inc. found that 40% said they now read more than they did with print books. Of those surveyed, 58% said they read about the same as before while 2% said they read less than before. And 55% of the respondents in the May study, paid for by e-reader maker Sony Corp., thought they’d use the device to read even more books in the future.

You can see why people want it to be true (people other than Sony, that is). Ebooks are a bit of a boogeyman for publishers and booksellers – some of them like to pretend that ebooks spell (variously) the end of the book, the end of reading and the end of the bookstore. However, if it turns out that ebook readers read more books than paper book readers (and more importantly, buy more ebooks than paper book readers) then the amount of money that books make for everyone will increase, which will reverse a worrying downward trend in both reading and book buying over the past decade.

But the questions is – is it true? It’s obviously a very difficult thing to prove at this point. As the WSJ points out itself, it’s a bit too early to tell if the increase in reading will continue after the lure of the new gadgetry wears off. Nonetheless, let us indulge ourselves in some idle speculation.

It’s true that the early adopters of ereaders are likely to be both gadget-fiends and fairly big readers already. However, it’s very likely that the penetration of ereaders and ebooks into the ordinary book buying public will occur for a few key reasons, each of which, I believe, is directly related to why ebook readers read more books than paper book readers.

Firstly, there’s what’s called interstitial, or cereal-box reading. That is, ereaders and ebook technology lends itself towards the type of reading you do from the back of a cereal box while scoffing down your breakfast. And, let’s face it, the average person spends three years of their life on the toilet – what better time to finally finish Ulysses? (Especially if it’s already sitting on the iPhone you have in your pocket).

There’s also the ease of purchase. Despite the teething problems readers are experiencing at the moment in regards to book availability, pricing and territorial copyright, the digitisation of other industries has proven that these things eventually settle down. Not only are we already in a position to quite easily read The Passage while lining up in the pub or waiting for a YouTube video to load (two of the most distasteful waiting times in a modern human’s life), we can also buy, download and begin reading Mockingjay when we finish it without leaving our spot.

Tied in to the ease of purchase, of course, is the availability. How often have you gone into a bookshop looking for a book and left without it because it wasn’t in stock? How often do you end up tracking that book down elsewhere? If you’re lazy like me – almost never. When the ebook teething problems are sorted out, that will be a problem of the past.

So, to sum up: when it’s easier, faster and cheaper to get books, and you convert more interstitial time into time to read books – you will probably read and buy more books, irrespective of whether you’re a gadget freak or a book lover. What do you think? Are you convinced by my tenuous argument, or do you think the ebook is the end of civilisation? Sound off in the comments.

3 Ways to Finally Finish Ulysses

Speed reading for dummies – and rabbits!

In this post I’m going to go through a few speed reading solutions that I’ve tried over the last couple of years. Some are so fiddly that you may as well just read normally, and others will give you magical powers to read books faster than you have really ever wanted to.

1. Learn to Speed Read the Old Fashioned Way

There are a number of free, online courses to learn to speed read in the way nature intended (ie by learning a new skill that will last a lifetime). I’ve invested a couple of hours into a couple of these courses, and what I can tell you about them is this: proper speed reading is hard. I imagine learning the skill would be very useful, if you were the kind of person who could dedicate the months of time needed to learn it. Sadly, I am not that person. It reminds me a little of learning to touch type. I learned to touch type because I had a spare summer holidays and a typing program instead of proper computer games (I was a deprived child). Now, I know how to touch type, and the frustration of the learning experience is far behind me. None of the online courses are particularly fun, and the simple reason is that it’s not an easy thing to learn.

What these courses do give you, however, is a solid understanding of how speed reading works. Most people read the way we were taught to read, we sound out the words in our head. This is called ‘sub-vocalising’. The key to speed reading is learning to see a word and understand it without sub-vocalising it. And that’s pretty difficult.

2. An Easier Way

There are a number of iPhone and iPad apps for speed reading, most of which are utter rubbish. They crash, they lack the most rudimentary feature set, and ultimately fail at helping you get through your reading any faster than usual. Quickreader is the best of a bad lot. It’s basically a shortcut to real speed reading, the kind you have to work for, but requires very little effort. It’s technology-assisted proper speed reading. You can use any text file, or download one of the many free titles available through the app. The app then presents you with a screen (as below) and will highlight the passage you’re supposed to be reading for as long as you’re supposed to read it for. It forces you to move faster than you’re comfortable with, and by doing so teaches you to read faster. You can then test your reading speed in another part of the app. The upside is that it’s a good way to learn to speed read. The downside? It isn’t quite fast enough to be useful, and has none of the advantages of normal ebooks. You can’t search the text, look up a word in the dictionary or read it on another device.

I don’t know why you’d want to read A Room With A View at 800 words per minute. But if you want to you can.

3. Finishing Move

If you really want to get the job done, speed reading-wise, then use Zap Reader. Zap Reader requires no ability whatsoever, except the initial reading skill. The website works by flashing words at you at a rate you specify. You can copy and paste text into it from any other website, or from an ebook you have stored on your computer (so long as it allows you to copy text from it, which many DRM schemes do not allow). You can improve a lot with it if you use it frequently, by slowly increasing the speed and the ‘chunk’ size (the amount of words shown on the screen at any one time), but you can increase the speed pretty high from the get go. I recommend starting at about 400wpm with three words at a time, and slowly increasing it from there. If you’ve ever had to read something boring and long that you just want to finish and just don’t have the energy to sit down with the book – then give this a go. You can thank me later, lazy people. If you can be bothered.

Crush Ulysses – just as this long-haired gentleman is about to crush his muscular friend!




The Book of Last Resort

Speaking to a particularly ebook-wary friend the other day, I was told the only reason an ebook might be useful is when travelling. Years ago, he said, he travelled with half his pack full of cassette tapes and half with books, then stuffed a few pairs of underpants around them. After he started using an MP3 player he discovered he had a lot more room. Ebooks, he said, might reclaim the other half of his luggage. Presumably with the magic of electronic reading, he can now pack more than just underpants when he goes on holidays. The world sighs in relief.

This conversation got me thinking about book scarcity. When you’re relying on finite paper resources (or finite luggage resources) there are only so many books you can carry. There isn’t much space for the book that you don’t think you’ll read (but you might). Ebook buying, on the other hand, lends itself to this kind of purchase – the book that you really think you might never get around to, but at least you have it just in case. I’ve got many friends that treat their bookshelves like I treat my ebook reader. They’re full of books they’ll probably never get around to reading, but you never know – there may come a time when you really decide to commit to A Brief History of Time, Ulysses or Infinite Jest.

This all leads in to the title of this post. The Book of Last Resort. I think you all know the one. It’s the book that has crossed over from the ‘might never read’ category into a habit you can’t kick. The book that follows you around like a bad smell. You read a chapter in 2008, two chapters in 2009 and a few pages in 2010. It’s long, it’s difficult, it’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s there – mocking you. It’s the book you do take on holidays, but it remains unread while you plough through the Stephen King or Jodi Picoult on the rented house’s bookshelf. But it will always be there, at the bottom of your bag, or somewhere in the alphabetic calamity of your ereader.

My question for this post is to own up to your Book of Last Resort, whether it be electronic or not. What book can’t you quit, and why?

If You Were Lost on a Desert Island…

OMG Lost fans, guess what?!
The final episode of Lost aired over a week ago on TV, and the world – gasp – is still turning! Hard to believe, I know…

Oh, you guys know I’m only playing with you! Don’t you? I jest, I jest. But truth be told, I don’t get what is so great about Lost. Or rather, I didn’t, until recently.

Being the spoiler-lover that I am, I of course Googled the last episode as it was airing in the US and got the lowdown on what happened during, and how everything ‘came full circle’. Whatever that means. Of course, it didn’t make much difference to me – I had no idea who Jack and Kate and all the rest of them were. But while I was searching for reasons to watch the last six seasons of this TV show I knew very little about but which still managed to create a cult (that is, worldwide popular cult) following, I stumbled across an interesting little tidbit about the show. Apparently, aside from all the Sci Fi time-travel shenanigans and psychological madness and murder, Lost is a show which depends on its literary references to release clues to the audience. Clues to what, I hear you fellow ignoramuses ask. Well, only clues to the whole MYSTERY of Lost, gawd! You may as well have asked, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ (I’m just trying to give you a Lost fan’s perspective here, don’t get all offended).
Turns out literary references turn up in a lot of episodes, and they’re all symbolic of something to do with why these people are stranded on the island in the first place [yes, I realise that this post is strangely serendipitous considering Fiona’s most recent post over at The Book Burglar – coincidence, you ask? More like fate (Fiona, no I don’t think you’ll get stranded on a desert island very similar to the one on Lost…just..keep safe!)].

I am especially partial to the Alice in Wonderland reference – apparently white rabbits are a reoccurring theme in Lost (I wonder what it all means?) and the Chronicles of Narnia reference – the DHARMA initiative station, is named the Lamp Post, after the lamp post which marks the passage between two worlds in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Could I have been wrong about the show all along? Is it perhaps, not the models-in-bikinis-and-men-with-six-packs serial I first believed it to be ? Is it in fact, a much more respected serial of models-in-bikinis-and-men-with-six-packs atop a mound of LITERARY GENIUS?
Other examples include (but are not limited to): The Brothers’ Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy and Ulysses by James Joyce.

If these heavyweight classics are being thrown around like children’s discarded playtoys, it tells me there are some SERIOUS readers at the helm of Lost. In turn, I have to question my pooh-poohing of the series to one of my friends, who absolutely loves Lost but, she says emphatically, not JUST for Sawyer.
So I am done with my Lost snobbery. If it encourages the world to read more, I am ALL for it. Just don’t get me started on Rory from Gilmore Girls…*

*Actually, I want to talk about the Gilmore Girls phenomenon next week. So don’t quote me on that last sentence. It was for effect only, people!

We Can Eat Too Much Sugar

The Girl With The Dragon TattooCall it airport fiction, call it mass market fiction, or call it trash, the reading equivalent of quick-fix, craving-inducing simple carbohydrates are something we all secretly or not-so-secretly love. You know the ones. The Dan Brown bestsellers and the books that need not be named by the Mormon mom turned author that have tweens and adults alike aflutter.

But before you pooh pooh such ‘lowbrow’ reading matter that’s the literary likeness of riding the sugar high, please consider that, as with simple carbohydrates, which have been blamed for all manner of societal and waist-measurement evils, such reading matter not only has its place in our reading diet, it can do us some good.

We can eat too much sugar, but we can never consume too many books. Any reading is good reading, be it reading the sides of cereal boxes, determining epic fails on signs (those are a whole other blog in themselves), conquering such tomes as Ulysses, or devouring page-turners such as Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

Because we all know what happens with simple carbohydrates. We eat them. We eat them fast. They make us high and happy. Then they’re burnt up by our bodies (ok, or stored, but let’s not go there) and leave us hungering for more.

It’s the hungering for more is where the door opens for us to consume some more substantial books and to continue to expand our reading tastes. Seriously. Why do we always make each other feel as though our reading habits must be something like a cross between eating only wholemeal and raw health foods (which are fine, but never as tasty) and taking medicine?

Hands up who did further research into the Illuminati and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper off the back of Dan Brown’s breakout bestseller? Hands up who ventured into unfamiliar reading territory to explore vampires and werewolves courtesy of Twilight? And hands up who is, like me, now firmly entrenched in Team Edward, although almost willing to have a foot in both camps based purely on the extraordinariness of Taylor Lautner’s abdominal muscles that were flexed at every available opportunity in the film adaptation of New Moon?

We’ve all been on crazy, carbohydrate-free diets and we know that they make us unhappy. We also know they end in a massive carbohydrate binge. The question is why we can’t use carbohydrates as part of—or a door to opening ourselves up to—a balanced literary diet? Because here’s the thing. I finally read the first book in the mass market series that has arguably stepped up to fill the post-Brown, post-Meyer void: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

I found it less than ordinary. And that’s actually a good thing.

The book (and indeed the Millennium trilogy) has been a runaway bestseller, with relative non-readers around the world picking it up, enjoying it, and recommending it to others. The funny thing is, the book is slow. Interminably slow. I’m a voracious reader and I struggled with the first 300-odd pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I mean, sheesh, for a journalist who would have spent his life abiding by the inverted pyramid—or the rule that all the important information must be up front to draw readers in—Larsson completely inverted the inverted pyramid.

I think I could have skipped the first half of the book and been no worse off for it. I skimmed half the details about the Vanger family, which Larsson made far too large, with the various members blurring into similarity meh-ness. And the Lisbeth Salander character, the girl who sports the title’s tattoo, was unnecessarily (and boringly) difficult (I actually groaned when she stormed off for being complimented on having a photographic memory, then returned to the house when she was invited back in a pointless, irrelevant scene designed to demonstrate her different-ness). She’s a pale, caricatured character when you compare her with a strong, troubled, but interesting female such as Lucy Farinelli from Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

Yet in spite of these flaws, people—and, in my experience, most surprisingly non-readers—are enjoying The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and recommending it to others. Which is an excellent. If they are prepared to read through the 300-odd pages that should have been cut and put up with characters that either don’t enhance the narrative or that simply don’t quite work, they’re prepared to take a step up from simple carbohydrates to some more complex ones.

Indeed, rather than pooh poohing people’s enjoyment of white bread-like reads, we should be celebrating and encouraging their starting-somewhere simple carbohydrate-book diet.