Do you feel that e-books are just not right for you? Download one and you might be surprised. I was...
While I'm not what you'd call an early adopter of technology, I'm not exactly a Luddite either. However, it was only a couple of winters ago, that I finally discovered that e-books, like their printed siblings, are eminently readable! To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about the e-book reading experience, at least on a personal level. Working at the Library, I had learned quite a bit about e-books in theory: where to find them, how to borrow and download them from the NYPL, which e-readers and devices could be used to read library e-books, but as a reader, I had yet to take the e-book plunge myself. As we prepare for another eBook Central this January to help people borrow and download free e-books from the NYPL, I see that in my own NYPL account, I currently have four print books and four e-books checked out and five print books and seven ebooks on hold. It now seems incredible to me that there was a time (just two short years ago) when I wasn't reading and loving e-books.
My first e-book was a classic, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to reread some of Conan Doyle's original stories before reading Anthony Horowitz's new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, for the January 2012 Reader's Den discussion, and there were no print copies available on the shelf. An impatient reader, I turned instead to the Always Available e-books section in the Overdrive e-books collection. These are books in the public domain, digitized by Project Gutenberg, and you can download and keep as many as you like for as long as you like! Just this past week, for example, Project Gutenberg was an easy way for me to quickly get a copy of George Eliot's Middlemarch to reread in time for author Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch talk on January 29 at Live from the NYPL. In fact, since my inital Adventures of Sherlock Holmes download, I've accumulated a veritable library of classics on my phone, including quite a few novels by the prolific 19th century British writer, Anthony Trollope.
Years ago, a friend passed along a copy of Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, the first in his six-novel cycle that has come to be known as The Pallisers. Although I'm a longtime lover of fat 19th century novels, a 700-page examination of Victorian marriage mores was apparently not what I was looking for at that particular moment. I read the first few chapters, was distracted by something and put the book down, never to pick it up again. I had devoured Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, and the Brontes but had somehow never completed a Trollope novel until ... I downloaded the public domain e-book of Can You Forgive Her? on a whim almost two years ago. This time I became engrossed in the political and matrimonial maneuvering depicted in the novel, appreciating the sharp social commentary.
In fact, I enjoyed reading Can You Forgive Her? so much that when I finished it, a week or so later, I immediately downloaded the next novel in the sequence, Phineas Finn, and continued reading steadily for about five weeks until I had come to the end of the last Pallisers novel, The Duke's Children. I found Trollope's political novels to have great resonance in 2012, a Presidential election year. The politicians inhabiting that 19th century parliamentary world are quite recognizable today and Trollope's comments still surprisingly pertinent. When Plantagenet Palliser observes to Phineas Finn in The Duke's Children that "the idea that political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd," he could be describing our 21st century political landscape.
I imagine that if I had picked up a print copy of Can You Forgive Her? two years ago, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the book in that format, too. But there was something about reading this long novel on my little iPhone that was beguilingly comfortable. People who haven't tried it often ask, "But how can you read on that little screen?" The answer for me is, one or two paragraphs at a time! I never thought about how many pages I had left to read while working my way through Can You Forgive Her? ; I just kept reading. I've found the options to change the font, text size, background color and brightness available in Overdrive and other e-book apps to be a real boon. There are other physical advantages to reading on my phone that I've come to greatly appreciate, such as being able to read in bed without leaving a light on or having to constantly shift around a heavy volume to give my hands and arms a rest. And although drinking coffee on the subway is frowned upon, I confess to sometimes sipping my morning brew while reading one-handed on my phone.
Another aspect of e-book reading that can become addictive is their 24-hour availability. As I was reading through the Pallisers series, I loved being able to seamlessly download the next novel in the sequence as soon as I was ready for it. I was not quite so lucky later that year when I started reading George R. R. Martin's hugely popular Song of Ice and Fire series. After reading A Game of Thrones, I was hooked and wanted to immediately download A Clash of Kings. Alas, I was not alone in this desire, so I needed to place holds and wait for a while between books until it was my turn to check out and download a copy.
In nearly two years of avid e-book reading, despite encountering waiting lists for some popular titles, my experience has been that I always find something I want to read that is available at that moment. In Overdrive, I browse my favorite subjects and genres using the menus on the left side of the screen and then click on the Available Now tab above the results list to only see books I can check out immediately. The 3M Cloud Library app also allows you to apply a filter to show only books that are available to check out and then to browse titles by category. Last winter, for example, I spent many happy weeks engrossed in Laurie R. King's masterful Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series, easily downloading one book after the next from 3M.
And I found an illuminating biography in Overdrive—The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev—that let me check the accuracy of the portrayal of Caterina Sforza in the television series The Borgias. You can always find something worth reading while waiting for your e-holds!
In fairness I should mention that I have encountered a few drawbacks reading e-books. Maps and illustrations can be problematic when reading on a small screen. I was frustrated at not being able to clearly see the map of Westeros and the lands across the Narrow Sea while reading A Song of Ice and Fire on my phone, but this would not have been a problem on a larger eReader or tablet screen. And while I'm a big fan and reader of public domain e-books—I'm thrilled to have all six Austen novels on my phone to read anytime, anywhere—I sometimes miss the critical introductions and editorial notes that I would find in, say, an Oxford World's Classic or Penguin edition. This added material can enrich our understanding of the time and place we're reading about, as well as offer insight into the author and the work itself. I found that using the Wikipedia app or a Google search on my phone as I read through the Pallisers novels was a pretty effective substitute when I wanted to find out what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did or when British Members of Parliament were first paid for their service (Answer: 1911). The Trollope Society website and the Victorian Web were also wonderful sources for background information.
Discovering The Trollope Society on Twitter also enhanced my Pallisers reading experience.So far, I find I'm a somewhat less omnivorous digital reader than I am in print. I read news and trade articles on a computer, phone, or tablet screen all the time, and I've read several biographies and some narrative nonfiction, like Mark Kurlansky's Cod, on my phone, but I haven't yet tried any really dense nonfiction in e-book format. Yes, you can create bookmarks and add notes to e-books, and a good e-book edition will have links that allow you to quickly tap in and out of notes and references. Yet I somehow still feel that the tactile experience of flipping back through pages to verify something read in a previous chapter, browsing the chapter headings at the tops of pages, scanning the print index, and penciling notes in the margins are integral to the sustained reading for information experience for me. That said, since I had never read any e-books until two years ago, I can't discount further changes in my reading habits to come…
Am I abandoning print for digital? Absolutely not. I still prefer to read a printed page in natural light when possible. My ideal reading experience involves a physical book, a lounge chair on a deck beneath a canopy of trees, and a cup of perfectly brewed tea at my elbow. But because I love to read all the time, I'll happily take my books any way I can get them. If I want to request a popular title from the NYPL, like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I'll check the ratio of holds to number of copies for the e-book and print formats and request whichever seems likely to be available first. e-books have expanded my reading options and given me greater, often instantaneous, access to many books, for which this reader is grateful.
If you're ready to take the ebook plunge, we're ready to help! Bring your iPad, Kindle, Nook, smartphone, or other e-reader, and your NYPL library card to eBook Central at the Mid-Manhattan Library. We're offering walk-in, hands-on help hours from 12-2 p.m., Monday, January 6 to Saturday, January 18. We'll show you how to download library e-book apps and access digital copies of our materials. Many other NYPL branches also offer hands-on e-book classes and help sessions. You can also find instructions to follow on your own on the eBook Central page. However you choose to do it, I wish you lots of engaging, inspiring, informative and fun reading in 2014!