Myth two: Ebooks are inherently harder to read from than paper books are

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Our rebuttals:

1. Many people, especially older Americans and some K-12 students with special needs, will actually find ebooks easier to read. They can typically alter type size and choose from at least a limited selection of fonts. But manufacturers could do so much better, with encouragement from the endowment and librarians.

Kindles will not let you precisely set type sizes or margins. Either for want of knowledge or access to the right technological abilities in Kindles and the like, users are not benefiting from all the possibilities of ebooks, including decent text to speech for the nonblind. Endowment-funded activities will educate Americans about what they are missing—to create pressure on vendors to improve, if they ignore librarians and educators.

2. Ebooks need not be unpleasant to read from, because of such factors as eyestrain. Most of the students in one well-publicized study used desktop and laptop computers for reading etext rather than high-resolution tablets or dedicated ebook readers. That was hardly optimal technology for minimizing eyestrain. The study’s results were on target. But the research reflected digital reading as it now exists, not how it could or should be.

Among other anti-eyestrain measures, users can try E Ink-based readers with front-lighted screens so they are no looking directly into the light. Many other possibilities exist. Twilight, for example, provides relief for Android tablet and phone owners. iPhone/iPad, Android, Mac, and Linux, users may benefit from f.lux. Alas, the iOS version won’t work unless you jailbreak your phone or tablet—which could open up technical problems, especially in regard to security. Here are yet other tips for reduction of eyestrain.

Significantly, recent iPads, iPhones, and some other devices can automatically compensate, if the reader wants, for different levels of ambient light. The Apple devices also include a “Night Shift” option to eliminate or at least reduce sleep disruption and eyestrain by filtering out blue rays (Amazon’s Fire tablets offer similar capabilities). In addition, iPads and Phones allow use of all-text boldface in various programs via the San Francisco font so users can crank down the backlighting of their screens if eyestrain is an issue. Below is San Francisco in Apple’s iBooks app. The lighting is normal, but it’s easy to understand how the bold would be more visible with a dimmer setting than a normal font would be.

IMG_2776Yes, all-boldface text or a pinkish screen won’t match the look of a paper book. But just as people have learned that Microsoft Word is not just a virtual typewriter, they also need to think in new ways when reading ebooks. What’s more, as screen technologies improve, they will be more paperlike than ever without the need for these trade-offs. Stretchable or roll-out-able screens, allowing not only comfortable reaching but also pages the sizes of those in magazines or hardback books, may even be possible for affordable cell phones in the next five-ten years. Meanwhile E Ink remains an option for users valuing a paperlike look.

Update: Amazon now offers an all-text bold font on Kindles and Fires and within reading apps.

3. Also, ebooks do not have to be sterile, like budget hotel rooms. Covers viewed on tablets and phones can be just as striking as with paper books, and in fact it is easier and less expensive to include detailed, colorful illustrations in ebooks than in paperbooks. The main obstacle to such illustrations might be bandwidth constrains in some cases, but that will change as connections improve. Above all, keep in mind that if vendors allow a greater choice of typography, then ebook readers can create their own mix of elegant typestyles.

4. Ebook critics complain that they cannot track their reading progress, but with the right software, the opposite is true. A progress bar at the bottom of the screen can tell you at a glance where you are in a book. Page numbers can augment this information. There is no technical reason why—with appropriate software—you cannot even track your progress within a chapter. See the above screenshot of the iBooks program.

5. As noted earlier, the technology is only going to get better—probably to the point where ebooks and paper books will become more or less indistinguishable, in line with the prophesies of the Last Book project. Scientists have even envisioned flippable physical pages.

6. The easiest-to-read paper book in the world will not be of much help if it is not available at a local library or bookstore or if the student or other reader cannot afford it (one more reason for digital books and a national digital library endowment). Digital books are less expensive to distribute and can reach even the most isolated areas.

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