Home > Authors, Books > Are eBooks changing the way we read — and write?

Are eBooks changing the way we read — and write?

The launch of Apple’s iPad II in Canada this weekend is a great time to discuss the effect of such new reading devices  on both the way we read books, and the way we write them.

I’ve had a Sony Reader for over a year. As one of the first eBook readers, its technology is pretty basic and it’s already been surpassed by the competition — the Kindle, the Kobo (from ChaptersIndigo), the iPad, and the new RIM Playbook.

For that reason, my reading pattern is probably not  typical. When I get around to buying one of the newer products I’ll be better able to measure the difference. For now, I can only say that I’ve used the Sony mainly to download classics I had never gotten around to reading, and specialist books that I would not be inclined to buy in print. For “real” reading, I still prefer the paper version.

But others have a different take on  the effects of the more than ten million electronic reading devices already in use in North America.

Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman says these new devices are forcing people to read in different ways:

They scroll and scroll and scroll. You don’t have this business of handling pages and turning them and savouring them.”

As a result, he adds, you get very fast reading, picking up snatches here and there as we do with news off the Internet,  with little or no lingering on the language.

Once we lose the desire to absorb the nuances of descriptive narrative and the beautiful language that the best writers evoke to tell their stories, what point will there be to that kind of writing? Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, E. L. Doctorow — will anybody be reading them? Will their like be seen among future writers?

One of my favorite pieces of writing — in Mark Hume’s River of the Angry Moon (Greystone Books, 1998) —  has taken me back time and again:

“The river is fed by the sky. It runs over a bed of shattered mountains, through the dreams of a great forest and into the mouths of ancient fishes. It starts in clouds as grey and heavy as the sea and ends in a windswept estuary haunted by ghosts. It is a place where white swans dance on dark mud flats and salmon lay fragile eggs in nests of stone.”

You can’t get this in the 140-word bursts of books being written on Twitter. Stories that are written to grab your attention for a moment, for readers who are not very interested in style and beautiful language.

Right now, most eBooks are of course only an electronic version of the original print. But as eBook sales pick up and outpace their hard copy parents (as has happened on Amazon already), writers, agents and publishers are going to be looking at what sells online, and adapting their narratives accordingly.

Already, writers are being forced to speed up their narratives. At the eBook sites, sales are triggered by brief excerpts or quick overviews. More than ever, writers will have to hook readers right away.

“You’re going to want to have blood on the wall by the end of the second paragraph,” adds Lev Grossman.

eBooks are changing the world of publishing in all respects, from pricing to author’s royalties to the opening up of the marketplace to self-publishing. There’s a potential new audience of millions of readers who have seldom or never bought books before.

Whether what they’ll buy — and what they’ll be offered — will represent books as we have known them, only the future will tell.

So go ahead and try out the electronic reader — the reviews says the iPad II is great and that RIM’s new Playbook will be a tough competitor.  Remember that the $500 it costs will buy you a dozen or more hard cover titles — and what it brings you may never match what you already have.

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