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OPINION: Are eBooks too Distracting?

(Photo Credit: Shianne Henion / The ASP)

By Shianne Henion | October 4, 2021

The Albany Book Festival was a hubbub of chatter, the smell of Sharpie and paper filling the air as authors congregated to promote and sign books. Readers traversed back and forth between the Campus Ballroom and the Auditorium, all while passing tables covered with books.

The festival was brought to campus through the New York State Writers Institute, where local authors of Albany can show off their talent and books through panels and tabling. I met several authors by visiting their displays and learning about their released projects.

But what brought me to the festival was my interest in learning these authors' opinions on ebooks and whether or not they hold the same literary value as their physical counterparts.

Over time, there has been a change in the course of reading history, and much of it comes from products like the Kindle, or Barnes and Noble’s Nook device. According to Government Book Talk, Ebooks came during the 1970s, when Michael S. Hart launched Project Gutenberg. But, they did not take off in the publishing market until much later, when Amazon produced the Kindle in 2007. From then on, the way people read changed drastically.

Ebooks vary in digital formats between physically reading or listening to audiobooks. They can be read from most devices, through a variety of apps from Kindle, Audible,\ and Nook, the typical e-readers, to Apple Books and Project Gutenberg.

While traversing through the Albany Book Festival, I picked the minds of professors and authors alike to learn if they think eBooks are a waste of time.

“It feels more important than ever to pick up a book and leave the phone in another room,” said Edward Schwarzschild, an English professor at UAlbany. He attended the festival to promote his book, “In Security.”

Schwarzschild explained that he feels more prone to distraction and believes it’s vital to read as much as possible. Reading inspires him for his own work and keeps him tapped in on the current climate of the world.

He does not read ebooks.

“How many times do people click on a link when they’re reading online?” Schwarzchild questions. “When you have a book, it’s just a book. You can turn pages, you can skip around, but the book’s in your hands.

When you’re reading something online, the temptation to click on something else or check your email or have a chat, I think that would be really hard.”

Herb Terns shared the same sentiment.

“I don’t think I’ve ever read an eBook,” He says.

Terns stares at a computer for eight hours a day for his job outside of writing, so he’s content with holding a physical book. He also believes it is a great way to meet new people, through connections of ‘Oh hey! I read that book, too!’

But Terns also discusses how influential digital media has become while he writes. The laptop he uses to write his books is disconnected from the internet.

“Everything in the world is out there, and I don’t want that. I want to just focus on what I’m working on,” Terns says.

He attended the book festival to promote his book, “Iron Sharpens Iron,” which is about a young man who participates in Lake Placid’s Ironman, even though he is not qualified.

And finally, on the side of anti-ebook stands Henry Pacheco, who is assisting his client, Cari Scribner at the festival.

“I put my phone on do not disturb, put on some nice instrumentals in the background, and I just pick up a book,” Pacheco says. “If it’s an ebook I get distracted. It’s almost negating the atmosphere I build up towards. Having something on my screen disrupts the flow.”

He has a similar mindset of Schwarzschild where he believes it’s important to take a break from technology.

“We’re so attached to our phones,” He says.

In the lens of these readers, the con of ebooks is that they can be distracting, especially when there are notifications that pop up via smartphone or being interested in clicking on links. That is the functionality of devices, unfortunately, that you can accomplish many things at once without moving a beat.

I agreed with their sentiments of ebooks, because when I read via iPad, I find my attention span is not great. I can’t focus on the story before me, my eyes are everywhere on the screen. I’m constantly checking the time, reading new notifications, and looking to see how much I have left of the book. With physical books, as Schwarzschild said, there is nothing in my hands but the book. There is nothing to tempt me besides the words.

But what about other readers? Are there benefits for reading digitally?

“I love physical books, but ebooks are accessible. I don’t see a distraction,” says Lizette Strait of 518 Publishing.

518 Publishing both prints and digitalizes their books, making them accessible to all readers.

“A physical book or an ebook is a personal choice,” Strait says simply.

Her partner, Andrea Lee, offered her take on it. Lee explains, “As someone with ADD, I will say a physical book is better for me to focus. Anything on screen I am more easily distracted.”

She shared the sentiment of ebooks being a personal choice. I understand that it’s a personal advantage whether one reads digitally or physically, and if the former is distracting, that there are methods to read that won’t make it so–such as reading a paperback.

Keith W. Willis, author of Knights of Kilborn series, gives insight on how ebooks are more marketable for his audience. “Ebooks are a lot cheaper than hard copies. It’s more likely that someone is willing to spend .99 cents to buy a book than 16 dollars for a paperback,” he said.

As for his reading life, he prefers ebooks for traveling, as it’s better than having to lug around hardcopies in his suitcase. Hundreds of books can exist in one singular space rather than taking up too much room.

Besides the fact that ebooks are cheaper for the reader, they are also more efficient for the environment. Cari Scribner, author of “A Girl Like You,” finds physical books a waste of space and paper.

“I like ebooks because they’re just a little snapshot and you can read them and save them on your phone,” Scribner said.

She, as well as Willis, do not find them distracting. They are quite versatile as far as reading and understanding stories go. In a leisurely way, books can be consumed no matter the format, and it all comes down to personal preference, though, in terms of academia, it can be quite different.

“I don’t think I’m neutral about this,” says Jill Hanifan, a professor at UAlbany. She is also the director of The Writing Center, and faculty supervisor for ARCH.

She has a long history with reading, sticking to physical books for the most part, though when it comes to academic pieces, she loads her Kindle with references.

“I don’t mind technology, but I do think it’s changed how our students read,” Hanifan counters. “I think there are layers of reading that our students don’t really get, and so it becomes a long-term problem.”

Hanifan explains that when it comes to their interests, students have no qualms about absorbing stories, despite the format, though with academic reading, there is no purpose for them.

The purpose of reading has changed, and it isn’t the length that is hard for students to consume a novel but to read for understanding culture. “I don’t think students are particularly interested in that,” Hanifan says. “I think the question is, what motivates people to read in the first place?

I think the motivations are somewhat similar: entertainment, enlightenment, wisdom, but there are skill sets that make the particular medium fit where that particular reader is with their generation.”

I gave Hanifan an example of how I personally read academically, because I do believe she is correct. For the most part, I download class books to my iPad. It’s generally cheaper than buying the physical. But, when I am reading an ebook for class, I cannot get absorbed into the material as well as if I were reading physically. I recently read a play through my iPad, and did not have the same understanding as I did by another play I read on paper.

I think the matter is not just if ebooks are distracting, but if the material can even be consumed the way physical novels can. With physical books, you can annotate in the margins, highlight, and truly absorb the material by interacting with the text. Opening and closing the book does something to the human brain that cannot be unlocked by using an app.

“I think that would be a great experiment for someone to do,” Edward Schwarzschild says, “People who grew up reading that way [digitally] may find it better, but I have no idea.” He, like Hanifan, comes from a generation where they only knew physical books, and ebooks are relatively new in concept.

In the end, it matters which way a text is consumed, whether it's for fun or for academic purposes, but overall, it all comes down to preference.


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