Saturday, June 2, 2018

Prism of Eyes

So in my review of Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery, I noted how it used the format of a physical book to bring an interesting experience: you could start from either side of the book, and it had a sealed section, which required you to cut the pages open yourself to reveal what was inside. With the ever-rising popularity of e-books, I really appreciated how the novel made use of certain qualities of the physical book which e-books couldn't imitate easily, and I mentioned a few other examples of neat ideas I had seen in physical mystery books in the introduction to the review that weren't likely to be seen in e-books soon.

The e-book as a format however is of course unlikely to disappear from our lives, as it has also brought mystery readers a lot of good. E-books, and modern print-on-demand services, have allowed rare out-of-print stories to come back alive for prices lower than a human sacrifice and your soul, and with issues like stock out of the picture, the price of e-books in general have also gone down. A handy e-book reader will allow you take a lot of books with you without actually having to carry the physical weight of each individual book, and handy features like being able to change font sizes, or to use dictionaries and set bookmarkers help the overall reading experience too. There are some other things an e-reader can't do of course (like easy borrowing and lending), and I do think that cover art has worsened a lot since the uprise of e-books, but that is a matter for another day.

For many I think portability is also a factor, as not only can an e-book reader carry more books, it is usually a bit smaller than a physical book too. As I mostly read Japanese books however, I find that Japanese pockets are usually even easier to take with me. Most Japanese novels I purchase are in the bunko format (A6), and that's a format that can easily fit in my coat jacket, and even when packed in the train or metro like a can of sardines, I can read with one hand and hold a hanging strap with my other.

I still do most of my reading in the physical format, with occassionally an e-book in between, but lately, I have noticed that my reading when dealing with e-books is less than ideal, and I wonder whether more people feel the same. While this is not exclusively something that has to do with mystery fiction, it does influence my reading of the genre. My biggest problem is that I simply remember less of what I've read when read something in e-book format. I simply don't absorb the text as good as when read from actual paper. I miss details, I seem less engaged when reading from my e-reader. When I read a physical book, I find it much easier to remember what I read, and also where/when. When you have an actual book, with pages you have to turn around, you have all kinds of things that help you remember story details and the flow of a story: from page number to the 'feel' of how many pages are left, to how many pages away you were from the chapter opening or the next chapter, or whether you read it on the left or right page (and where) and other physical markings like that one crease in the page. "Oh yeah, that happened on the right page, about halfway through the book" or "That was one or two pages after the chapter opening, right?". But when I read an e-book, it all becomes one big mess of indiscrete, nondescript words projected on a display, and I just can't read a book as well as I can with a physical book. As all "pages" on a e-book reader are projected on the same display, each page just... becomes one muddy image in my head and this extends to my memory of the story itself. With a proper mystery story, with proper foreshadowing and clewing, this is of course something less than ideal, and in general, I find myself less immersed in actually solving a mystery when in e-book form. Especially as times passes by, I notice that the memories of books I read on an e-reader some months ago, are less vivid and detailed than those of the physical books I read in the same period.

I also really miss being able to easily page through a book. I find myself going back and forth in mystery novels more often than in other books, as you'll often want to check on previous statements (which again, I can more easily remember where those passages are in the first place in physical books), but also diagrams and other useful pages. And yes, you can place bookmarkers in an e-book, but I find just placing my fingers between the two pages and flipping back and forth much more convenient than calling up a digital page one at a time, also e-books don't really allow you to check and compare two (or more) pages as quickly as in a physical book. I'll do some super-sneaky stealth-marketing here and mention The Decagon House Murders, The Moai Island Puzzle and The 8 Mansion Murders here. While I obviously worked on the translation of those books on my computer, on a screen, my own first reading experience with these books was in physical form. All three novel feature a number of floorplans and other diagrams and personally, I can't imagine myself actually checking the plans in detail and flipping back and forth if I had read these books as e-books, even though I most definitely did when I first read them as physical books and consider it part of the reading experience of these mystery stories. I've been reading the Toujou Genya novels by Mitsuda Shinzou lately, and there too I found myself constantly going back to the pages with the family trees ('cause Mitsuda has some CRAZY family trees in his book), but I might not even have bothered in e-book form because it's just not as convenient. The same with character name lists by the way: many books I read have such handy list, and I have to check them regularly as I am horrible with names, but again, I hate doing that in e-books. And you can imagine how I feel about foot and endnotes!

By the way, and this has nothing to do with the readability of e-books, but as I already mentioned The Decagon House Murders: people who have read the novel, will know there's one single sentence that turns everything around. In the Japanese version (which reads from right to left), this sentence was printed as the sole sentence on the right-hand page, so you needed to flip the previous (left-hand) page over to read that one sentence (it was the last sentence of the chapter, so the rest of the page was blank). It had a really crazy effect. I was sadly enough not able to reproduce this effect in the English translation due factors like word count and text mark-up, so I had to settle by placing that sentence at the very end of the left-hand page, which made sure the reader wouldn't see that sentence until the very last moment, as they were unlikely to see the sentence while flipping the previous right-hand page over. These games with the page layout to place certain sentences at certain spots on the page are of course also something an e-book can't really reproduce perfectly, due to the ability to change the number of words on a page and the font size.

So in general, I find myself only using my e-book reader for mystery stories if I have no other (reasonable) choice. I mean, if I can get a book for cheap digitally while a physical copy runs into the three digits, sure, I'm not going to complain, but I do notice that reading mystery stories on an e-book reader is significantly less enjoyable to me than in physical form, and I really do think it's a shame. I wonder if more people have trouble with reading e-books, or perhaps whether they find reading from an e-reader actually preferable (in terms of pure reading experience)?


  1. In regard to whether you comprehend material better reading from a book or a computer screen, see a paper from Review of Educational Research entitled "Reading on Paper and Digitally," (July 21, 2017), and other papers available on line. My experience is the same as yours. I remember very little of what I read on line. This is why I only buy print books. Also, it offends my collector's instinct to have a book without owning it. I don't consider I own a book unless I have it in a format that the publisher cannot delete at will (as, I recall, Amazon did with 1984 some time ago). Either that, or I print it off in hard copy so I can underline and annotate.

    1. Thanks for the pointers to the papers.

      I find that e-readers (e-ink) provide a far, far more pleasant reading experience than normal displays (laptop/tablet/computer) and I at least can finish a novel on an e-ink display without killing my eyes, but still, it's no paper.

  2. I suffer from this as well. That's why I haven't bought any e-book yet. In fact, even with less text I'm somewhat unable to keep focus. For example Kindaichi manga I've only just started to being able to read a complete story in a single sit(and now I've run out of translated stories so it's a useless skill :P) but my eyes go over the test far too fast...

    Since we're on it, I'm having an even harder time believing the concept of Audio-books. I just cannot understand how people can listen to books and remember things...

    I mean there's a reason this quote is still taught :
    scripta manent verba volant

    1. Yeah, I do't get audio books either, I just can't focus on them. I love audio dramas, but they're of course a completely different thing. I can't even imagine how an audio book of the more technical mystery novels (locked rooms etc., or the earlier Queens) would go.

  3. I, too, prefer physical, paper books over digital reads, but, as you said, e-books are often the more convenient and economical option today. For example, I can buy an entire set of Christopher Bush e-books from DSP for less than the price of two paperback editions from the same publisher. See how I was slowly tempted?

    It did take me a while, before giving e-books a try, but it has given access to a lot more titles. I don't have the problem of remembering less of a story when reading an e-book. My only real problem with e-books is that they're just not the same as physical books. I also like to flip back and forth in a story to look back at a statement or take a second glance at a floor plan. And that's just not the same with an e-reader.

    1. In terms of costs, convenience and availability, the e-book is really undeniably an asset to our world, but even with that in mind, I think that on the whole, the balance (with me) will almost always weigh in favor of the physical book.

      E-ink is really easy on the eyes, but it's also the reason why it's not as pleasant to flip through the pages, as it's refresh rate is simply not as fast/clean as other displays (which are far more tiring to the eyes), or simply good ol' paper :P

  4. This same goes with games. Many keep hailing that PC is the master race yada yada but honestly the enjoyability factors just not there.