COVID-19 only deepened my dislike of reading online, though I know that others not only like reading novels and nonfiction by way of electronic links, but prefer that mode to having hard copy in hand. Kindle can pack a library, valuable especially for travel (remember that?). Curling up with an iPad to read books may be for some no different than cozying up with text, even outside, where light adjustments can be made to screens.
I suspect, though, that what most people read online is light or popular fare. Does anyone want to try a PDF of “War and Peace” or take on a researched monograph with endnotes? Thrillers, romances, memoirs, short histories — these may work online, but good literature (what you would want to re-read some day) deserves concentrated attention.
Although many publishers will gladly send a PDF, some suggest other links and assume that a hotline click will easily bring them up. Not necessarily, and so a reviewer (guess who) may spend time on preparing to read, rather than on reading. By the way, did I mention that I live in Springs, land of reception challenge? Particularly with increased numbers of residents (usually only in summer), power can slow or go off for inestimable periods.
Amazon is still a good source of books already published, but advance copies of new works can’t be sent if presses aren’t rolling and distribution networks have become problematic. And who knows what condition pre-publication copy will be in, given that many freelance and staff line-editors have had to be let go?
But let’s say, I (reluctantly) accept a PDF and start to read. Suddenly, I hear a ping. It’s the latest news flash, product advertisement, or political screed that has somehow made its unbidden way to my device (often with loud sound and visual override). I’m no longer alone as I would be with hard copy. I’m in cyberspace, using a device that serves basically social media or making purchases purposes — not an ideal environment for expectations beyond fast and simple.
I like being a couch-potato reader with a book in hand. I also like having my computer or iPad handy in order to fact check or call up information when an author alludes to or refers to something or someone I don’t know or recall. And so now, in the age of AC, I have to stop reading my PDF to google Wikipedia, then return to the PDF, only to discover that I have five percent power left. Juice up time. Oops, what page was I on? (Double oops: as I write this on a rainy pandemic day, the power just spiked.) I also like to flip back and forth coordinating chapters and endnotes, prefaces, acknowledgments, and afterwords — much trickier if not totally frustrating online.
Hard copy easily allows a reviewer to make marginal comments or to note page numbers. It also lets a reviewer see how far it is to the end, a valuable consideration in assessing a book’s narrative arc or capacity to hold interest. But now, in the age of AC, I have to pause the PDF, hit Ctrl Home to get to the table of contents for pagination reference, then blindly scroll fast forward to get back to where I think I was.
Some books will suffer no loss by being read in the virtual world. In fact, some may find a desirable home online, such as cookbooks, how-to manuals, or data-driven texts whose main purpose is to deliver information (usually sequentially). Add beach reads. But books that would engage readers in analysis and evaluation of what’s being read, or stimulate an “overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth once wrote about poetry — for this, online is woefully inadequate. We’re not primed culturally to dawdle online, to re-read, to mull over, to savor, to compare a novel against another with similar subject matter or thematic intent. As to nonfiction online, we tend not to question motives, bibliographic sources, or authorial associations, even though we know that misinformation is harder to identify and correct on the internet than in print, especially when a suspect book goes, or may be funded to go, viral (talk of epidemics!).
Reviewing — whether fiction or nonfiction — should mean appreciating not only a book’s content as timely and significant, but how style and structure inform or reflect that content. It doesn’t matter (it once did) whether a book is self- or commercially published if it encourages understanding of the human condition in a memorable way. And when it does, for some wonderfully primitive reason, you want it to have and to hold.