E-books: why we don’t judge a book by its cover

Peter Jackson
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I met a fellow traveller on the path to blindness the other day.
What I meant to say is, I met another visually impaired person while out for a walk. He was almost totally blind, whereas I’m only at the stage where I didn’t renew my driver’s licence.

The Kobo eReader Touch, an Amazon Kindle, an Aluratek Libre Air, and a Barnes & Noble Nook (left to right) are displayed in this photo, in New York, Tuesday, June 14, 2011. - The Associated Press

Sorry, I said that word again. The CNIB doesn’t like it. In fact, they don’t even want to be called the Canadian National Institute for the Blind anymore — just CNIB. The word “blind” is an absolute term; it excludes those who can see the eye chart, just not the letters.

So, the CNIB is now a disembodied abbreviation, just as IODE no longer stands for Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.

At any rate, my fellow CNIB client and I chatted about assistive devices. We name-dropped software, and marvelled how accessibility has improved considerably over the years. I haven’t seen a dramatic change, being somewhat new to the club, but he certainly has.

You can still buy an expensive text viewer with closed-circuit TV that projects printed words on a screen. But with the rapid move towards digitalized text, it’s increasingly easier to just use your own computer. You can increase font size, zoom in and out, and invert the text to white on black (as I do). With a swipe of your finger, you can have a human-ish voice read it to you.

(Just for a lark, I sometimes choose a voice with a British accent to read my columns. It makes me sound deceivingly authoritative.)

Which brings me to the point I was aiming for.

Digital text has presented modern humans with more than just aids for the not-quite-blind. It has heralded a brave new world of reading convenience.

My 85-year-old father said recently he wouldn’t give up his Kindle for anything. He is no longer interested in the printed page. And he is not the only person from pre-digital times I’ve heard say this.

It may seem counterintuitive, but I firmly believe digital text provides a more pure reading experience.

This may not jibe with the romantics among us — those who reminisce about reading “Treasure Island” while sitting under a tree, or under the bedcovers with a flashlight. Oh, but there’s nothing like the smell of binding glue when you open a fresh book, or the smell of mildew from an old one. And there’s nothing like the erudite ambience of a bookshelf, especially if everything else screams philistine.

Which is all fine, if not a little overly nostalgic. Yes, the sensuous experience of a book can be pleasurable, just as art and music and food can awaken the soul. But when you think of it, e-books are far more efficient.

Quite apart from the convenience of storing countless books on one device, electronic readers take much of the distraction away from the act of reading. And

e-books, unlike the old-fashioned kind, don’t fade, tear or burn. These days, you can store your purchased books in a virtual “cloud,” so they aren’t lost forever in the bowels of a damaged device.

Language, at least western language, is abstract. Letters, once joined together in words and sentences, have no symbolic meaning. You don’t think of mountains every time you see an M or the Eiffel Tower every time you see an A. You see words and sentences and context.

The philosopher Hegel considered poetry to be the highest art, because it has transcended the limited media of space and time. Ink and paper in themselves serve no purpose for the enjoyment of literature. That’s why, once you start reading, you say you are “lost” in a book.

E-book sales haven’t surpassed printed editions just yet, but in the U.S., they did outsell hardcover books in 2012.

The writing, I think, is on the wall — or screen.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email:  pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Geographic location: Treasure Island, U.S.

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Recent comments

  • Coin Burke
    May 14, 2014 - 08:38

    Maybe the "B" in CNIB now stands for "the Bought": the CNIB seems much connected with the Doctors of Optometry advertising what now would appear to be a profitable new "industry" as much as it is a medical profession. I used to collect, free of charge even after they offered to pay me, for the CNIB years ago until they stopped asking me, and I've seen no one else since then collecting for them in my community. Has the CNIB become more of a business, therefore, than a voluntary service to the unfortunate? As to the main point of this column, I spend enough time looking at a computer screen for purposes such as this, for me to welcome the relatively non-glaring pages of a real book when I want to relax while reading.