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Moving From Paper to E-Book Reading

By Joan Vinall-Cox / March 2012

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When I was 10, back in the analog and paper book age, my Grandmother delighted me by giving me a copy of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. I read it repeatedly and left tearstains on the sad pages. Another book, given to me by a friend of my Grandmother's, later helped me do well on my English literature exam in my final year of high school. It was a paperback that was falling apart and only held together by an elastic. Back then books were tangible objects, delightful to hold and smell and regard. I have loved to read since before I can remember and have read for pleasure, learning, and as part of my role as a teacher all my life. So I am watching with fascination what is happening to the reading habits of people as we move further into the digital age.

The reading that occurs when people scan Web pages or engage with social media requires massively different eye-pattern movements and intake-and-response habits than the reading of books. Or rather, the reading of books requires eyes moving only from left to right (for English), sustained attention, and the ability to follow the author's (hopefully well-written) train of thought: A different set of reading habits than on websites, and the one I want to look at today.

I have recently acquired a Kindle app and started reading e-versions of books. It is an experience at once the same and quite different. It's the same with my eyes tracking symbols, letters, text, from left to right, starting at the top line and moving down a line at a time. It's the same in its requirement for sustained attention and the ability to follow the author's train of thought or plot. It's different because all books are the same size as the one screen I read them on. It's different because I can make the text bigger or smaller, black on white or sepia, or white on black. It's different when I add a bookmark using icons that I open at the bottom of the screen with a click, and which shows an anachronistic "dog-ear" on the upper right of the screen, imitating the paper book fold-over of the upper corner. It's different when I "turn the page" because with an e-book I swipe my finger from right to left across the screen, and the next page appears on the screen. (I have, a number of times, attempted to turn the page of a paper book by swiping the page: It doesn't work.)

The biggest difference, I believe, will be in the academic use of books. I remember the strictures against marking up paper books, even ones not from the library, but my own. I remember using recipe cards to copy quotes on, and later stickies on pages with notations to guide me back to the quotes I might want to copy word for word and use in essays. I remember too, the sense of liberation when I began to annotate my books, underlining, highlighting, writing comments in the margins. I really liked this interaction with the author, even when I wasn't finding quotes for essays. With e-books, this kind of response to books is very different, and will radically affect the process of academic writing.I can again use icons and my finger for a number of these processes. I can hold my finger on a word on the screen, and then drag my finger along the text so that it highlights, and then I can chose, using a menu that pops up, to add a permanent highlight or use an onscreen keyboard to add a note. When I want to see my highlights and notes, I can, again using the menu at the bottom of the screen, see the full set and even add them to a document. I no longer have to copy quotations out word-by-word on a recipe card. My annotations aren't on the screen, but I can see them any time and see where they come from in the book on the screen. I can cut and paste to add quotations to essays. I can even share my annotations with other readers, using social approaches such as, where you can follow a particular reader's annotations, if she or he allows them to be public. Imagine how that can be used for teaching or in a book club.

The major difference between analog and digital reading, in my opinion, is that the words aren't located by page. Instead there's a system I'm not yet used to. When I go to "My Notes and Marks" all my highlights and notes are labelled by "Location" followed by a number. I think this will work as well as page numbers. The one difference I haven't gotten over yet is the tactile sense of how much of the book I've already read, and how thin the remaining set of pages are. The mark on the chart that I see before I "open" the book just isn't the same.

I see more and more people reading using digital tools, and I believe paper books, much as I have delighted in them, will become, like the typewriter, an artifact of the past. Reading on the screen is here to stay.

About the Author

Joan Vinall-Cox is a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. For many years she was a professor at Sheridan College, where she received Sheridan's Teaching Excellence Award for 2000/2001. In 2004 she received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, and her thesis can be found at She maintains blogs at,,, and She can be followed at @JoanVinallCox on Twitter, on Diigo, and +Joan Vinall-Cox on Google+. She can also be reached at [email protected]

Copyright is held by the author. ACM 1535-394X/12/02 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2157652.2159560


  • Sun, 29 Nov 2015
    Post by David

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  • Thu, 17 Jan 2013
    Post by Pat Fischer

    There are two current problems with e-books.

    Reading is an extension to life and it is most important for healthy living. With 10,000 people turning 60 every day, we must remember, it is the older generation that was raised reading print on paper that e-books effect the most. Can they (60 and older) all learn to read e-books? If they can read print now, have the money, and given an opportunity and some training the answer is yes. But this is the first problem happening today. Those with the access to technology will read e-books, and those with no access, will be left with print on paper, and that market gets smaller.

    I was working with a client last week and she has low vision and finds a tablet works great for her to read books. She takes a PDF copy of the book which allows her to make the font large enough to read. She loved that she could read her books anytime, anywhere, except for when the book is not available in PDF. How do persons with disabilities get access to the books in the proper format for them to read? As the owner of a book, you have the legal rights to make one copy of a book to accommodate your needs. See U.S. copyright law, known as the Chafee Amendment (17 U.S.C. ยง 121). That takes time and money and there is the second problem.

  • Sun, 03 Jun 2012
    Post by Les Hayden

    The new electronic publishing is also radically changing what is available for us to read. In some ways that is great. New, unknown authors have opportunities that we've never witnessed before. However, I'm afraid the overall quality is decreasing as most of those works are poorly edited.

  • Fri, 13 Apr 2012
    Post by daja57

    There is anecdotal evidence that eBooks such as the Kindle help people with dyslexia to read better. I am currently carrying out research into this and I would be interested in hearing from adults with dyslexia. My email in [email protected]

  • Sat, 10 Mar 2012
    Post by morar

    My 95 year old dad has just finished reading his first book on kindle. I think he would agree with everything you have said, Joan, except he would add that it is nice not to have to hold a large heavy book!