Reading books again

Florens Verschelde

I got my first e-reader a year ago, and it’s good.

I had pretty much stopped reading books at this point. That was a bit different from my previous experiences with reading.

ONE. As a teen I had a tendency to get bored and I spent a good chunk of those years reading science-fiction novels from the local public libraries (in French translations).

TWO. In college I was studying both French literature and English as a foreign language, so I made up a rule that all my “for fun” reading time would be in English, because at least I would be improving one of two skills. (While it did help my English skills, I also neglected to build an appreciation of classical and contemporary literature.) Then for a while I lost interest in fiction and was mostly reading essays and articles.

THREE. For context, I have some anxiety difficulties. Over time, as a result of mismanaged anxiety and changing habits — now including work, social media, and series more often than films — my attention span shortened. My capacity for sustained concentration dwindled. If something felt uncomfortable, I had to step back and switch to a different stimulus.

This affected my reading habits: I could still read articles (taking several breaks when they were long), but averaged at one and a half book per year (2 or 3 in a good year).

FOUR. In the summer of 2016, while I was burned out from (mismanaging my anxiety at) work, I tried to remember the last book I had read. (Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which I had read a year before.) As I made plans to recover, I knew that I wanted to start reading books again. Not that I think there’s something superior in that activity, but I suddenly felt nostalgic for the time when reading was a simple past-time and something I enjoyed consistently.

Or maybe I was angry and trying to get back some level of control over my fucked up mind, and hoped that reading more books would be both a sign of me getting better and a concentration practice of sorts.

FIVE. When you want to make a change in your habits, it’s natural to look for a tangible thing to change. Just picking up one of the thirty unread books you own is not particularly exciting. That’s probably why I went back to my long-held desire for a great e-reader.

Now you must understand that I’ve wanted electronic books since I read a fateful article in 2000 — technically, last century. According to the journalists and scientists in research labs, we would soon have high-resolution, color, flexible e-books. One could only imagine the resulting applications and form-factors!

The first, second, third, fourth and fifth waves of actually marketed products were mightily disappointing: gray, plastic, bulky, low resolution, and plain ugly. Every other year, I would check the e-reader market and realize that the future was a lie. E-readers were my very own flying car fixation.

But in late 2016 it seemed like there was finally something decent on the market: slightly bigger screen (8 inches instead of the ubiquitous 6 inch screens), print-level resolution, and not bulky.

Kobo Aura One official product image
The Kobo Aura One. It doesn’t suck.

I still have big dreams of foldable technicolor e-paper, but I had finally found a e-reader that was close to a paperback’s size and resolution, and I decided that it would be enough for now. Had to wait while it was sold out — turns out I’m not the only one who wanted an e-reader that is not tiny.

As for the device: it’s nice. I won’t bother you with a review, but I like how the user interface is set in Georgia — an unusual and excellent choice — and how the screen and optional back-lighting are easy on the eyes. The bigger, 8-inch format can also work well for some black-and-white graphic novels (those with not-too-dense pages, and most manga).

SIX. You know how buying new gear — a new camera, instrument, etc. — does not come with magical motivation and dedication? Yeah, so I was a bit worried about that.

In any case, I was tired of packing 4 books on vacations (and only touching one of those for a week), or hesitating to load my day bag with a heavy volume. Even if I ended up not reading much, packing just one e-reader instead would be a weight off my shoulders.

I asked a friend for a few book recommendations and she sent me a dozen epubs. I did buy a few books legally too, one without DRM and the rest loaded with the whole DRM shitshow.

In one case, after buying a digital copy of Philippe Jaccottet’s À la lumière d’hiver (which I had bought in paper format twice before), I realized that the book contained a dozen typos and — the horror — straight apostrophes everywhere! I spent hours finding a way to crack the Adobe DRM, so that I could use my HTML-fu and fix that book (and keep it in 10 years when the Adobe DRM servers are down, too).

I started reading books again, mostly during my commute, but also some nights and on vacations. I’m reading roughly one book per month, sometimes two. I’m not pressuring myself to read, it’s just convenient and offers and alternative to other pastimes (and since mine tend to happen on a computer, they’re loaded with distractions, so this one often feels like much-needed time off).

SEVEN. I’ll close this post with a few highlights from 2017:

It looks like I’m mostly reading books written by women these days. The only exception this year was Douglas Coupland’s Worst Person Ever (it was plain gimmicky and boring, and its transphobic twist soured me forever on this author).