An ebook Disadvantage

Let it be said outright that I am a fan of ebooks.  I love not having six or seven books sliding around in the back seat of my car. For the longest time, though, I didn’t purchase any because it’s difficult to lend them to my students, especially those who want to take the book with them to read in other classes. I’ve had a student delete my homework from an app on my iPad before while in class; there’s almost no way I’m letting the device wander into the wilds of a middle school.

Lately, however, I’ve been purchasing more ebooks. The ease of purchase and the instant gratification of the purchase makes ebooks appealing, especially since I share my Kindle account with my partner, and she likes reading ebooks.

So the disadvantage (you know, besides not holding a physical book, etc.) I’ve recently run into is regarding novels in verse. Back in December I lent out my copy of Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark, and I want to replace it. And I considered buying the ebook so I could go back to it whenever I want.

And then I thought about my experience with Tricks by Ellen Hopkins in the Oyster app. The text looked strange — very different from what I’d previously experienced with Ellen Hopkins’s novels. (Note: I like the Oyster app. There are a lot of books I’m going to read that I wouldn’t have read otherwise because of this app.) One of the things I love about reading books by Hopkins is the hunt for “hidden” messages. So I pulled my copy of Identical off the shelf and pulled a copy up on Oyster to compare. Here’s what it looks like on Oyster.

Identical by Ellen Hopkins in Oyster app
Identical by Ellen Hopkins in Oyster app

Oyster’s interface is beautiful.  But because of the ability within ebooks (this applies to most digital reading platforms, I imagine, not just Oyster.) to change the font size and spacing, we lose formatting. In novels like Hopkins’s and Clark’s (whose formatting choices reminded me of Hopkins), formatting is deliberate. Here’s what it looks like in the actual text.

Identical by Ellen Hopkins Print text
Identical by Ellen Hopkins Print text

There’s a marketed difference. In the print text, the first line is clearly a title. While the titles sometimes act as the first lines of the poem, that is not always the case. And what about those words down the right-hand side? And the words down the left-hand side of the facing page. That’s on purpose, naturally, and it provides another dimension to the reading and depth to the characters. The character on the left side is questioning the origins of evil, where the character on the right is definitively saying evil is created. Readers knew that the characters were different, but this serves as another amazingly-crafted piece of evidence.

As a reader, I get excited about finding these little tidbits in my novels in verse. They make me feel like I’ve discovered something that no one else has.  And when my students read Ellen Hopkins, we have conversations about how she crafted the poems deliberately to help us understand the characters and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not an easier read just because there are fewer words.

I’m going to keep reading ebooks, I just won’t read novels in verse digitally. I’m going to keep reading print books and I’m going to keep listening to audiobooks, even though all of these formats have their limitations. Each is an integral part of my literate life.

I’m also interested to see, as the way we read digitally advances, whether or not platforms like Oyster, Kindle, Nook or Kobo will be able to remedy this problem. What do you think?



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