Why do people read books? For pleasure or distraction? For self-improvement or to learn something new? For class assignments: textbooks, literature?
Are eBooks best suited for use cases that are fundamentally utilitarian, rather than pleasure seeking?
Why do people read eBooks?
I’ve been pondering these questions for a few days, sparked by an entrepreneur’s pitch. He dreams of reinventing how people read and experience books, at least among young people. He wants to host the conversations that take place around books, via a new “social eBook app” for the iPad and other tablet devices.
A New App for eBooks
His eBook app will be enhanced by “a social wrapper” — in order to encourage online conversations among readers of a book, or exchanges between book fans and the author. In brief, here’s the concept.
Reading as a social experience
Imagine a book opened in front of you. Each page of the book is displayed on the right — pretty much what you’d see if you were using Apple’s iBook app on an iPad. On the left, where you’d normally see the facing page, his app’s UI displays short messages exchanged among readers of that particular book — similar to a Twitter message stream or a chat window.
His notion of reading plus online conversation may offer real benefits to students who must read the same book for a class assignment. As long as his platform allows people to express their ideas or questions without the artificial constraint of the 140-character tweet, this technology may lead to enhanced learning and student engagement. Assuming, that is, that the books they need to read are made available for his eBook app.
But I’d like to share my impression about the implications of this approach for people who read for pleasure.
First Impression — Not for Me
My reaction to the new concept was tepid, even though I own an iPad 2 and have been collecting apps for it. I’m a voracious reader: consuming between 100–200 books a year, for pleasure, plus several dozen business books. You’d think I’d be the ideal customer for this enhanced eBook app given the value I place on reading.
But here’s why the proposition doesn’t appeal to me:
- At my level of “addiction to reading,” the public library is the most cost-effective source of books for me.
- I love the look and feel of a well-designed book. So far, the eBooks that I’ve seen (iBook and Kindle formats) lack any real typographic elegance — each page looks pretty much the same. Books become boring as a result.
- When converted to EPUB® format, the book’s original page layout is drastically scaled back when rendered by the digital book reader. This simplification can reduce meaning or comprehension — whatever was intended by the way the designer laid out text, headlines and images on the page to be printed.
For example, the sample shown here condenses a lot of information to a single page, thanks to the design choices that are expressed through this layout.
But my most important reason for preferring today’s book format to a “social eBook Reader” is the desire to preserve the holy grail of reading: the state of flow, a wonderful emotional state that is the hallmark of the world’s best books.
Reading & The Joys of “Flow”
When reading a well-told story, I’m immersed in the experience — caught up in the state of “flow.” My personal boundaries dissolve when I enter the storyteller’s world: I feel the heat and dust of the North African souk, or the penetrating cold and damp of the Scottish highlands.
Psychologists describe flow as a very desirable state of mind (source: WikiPedia):
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand…. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity — not even oneself or one’s emotions.
While it’s possible to achieve flow while reading an eBook, the experience of flow is so rewarding that choosing to interrupt it for chat messages is the last thing I can imagine doing when reading for pleasure.
But this may be a generational preference… Perhaps teenagers and young adults are willing to sacrifice the experience of flow in order to check in with each other. Or maybe their hyper-active, multi-tasking world is not one that’s amenable to flow; not having experienced it, they have no reason to want it. For them, is connection preferable to flow?
Perhaps my real issue with this concept is that I prefer asynchronous to synchronous socializing, when it comes to the experience of reading a book.
Yes, We Engage Socially around Books
My friends and I are highly likely to talk with each other when it comes to books or magazines we’ve enjoyed. Books are common topics of conversation among us. We bring bags of books to social events, for sharing with each other — our own lending library, if you will.
We always talk about books (or movies) when we go for hikes or long walks, and often over a glass of wine or a shared meal.
Some are avid book club members, and love talking about a book with others during semi-structured club meetings.
After finishing a book that’s made a huge impression, we’re quite likely to email a recommendation.
Most of us already own an iPad or a Kindle; all of us have computers. So it’s not the device that’s the issue.
It’s just hard to imagine that we’d want to chat in real-time while reading for pleasure, when we so enjoy talking about books face to face…
The entrepreneur is actively seeking financing, so I chose not to identify his company nor his product. I wish him the best of luck, as long as there are enough people who will value digital books enhanced by a social experience.