Phones & Reading

By Jay Caspian Kang:

For the past five years or so, I’ve read books on my phone. The practice started innocently enough. I write book reviews from time to time, and so publishers sometimes send me upcoming titles that fall roughly within my interests. When a publisher provided a choice between a PDF of a book and a physical copy, I would usually ask for the PDF, because I didn’t want my house to fill up with books that I might end up not reading. But what was at first a matter of clutter-free convenience became a habit, and now I encounter nearly every written work, regardless of its length, quality, and difficulty, on the small screen of my iPhone.

I use a variety of e-reading apps: Amazon Kindle, Apple Books, Libby. The last three books I downloaded onto the Apple Books app are Rachel Cusk’s novel “Second Place”; Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 classic “Under the Volcano,” which I bought because I wanted to see if I would enjoy it more than I did when read it twenty years ago; and Gary Indiana’s essay collection “Fire Season.” According to the little readout beneath the cover image for each book, I am nine per cent through the Cusk, a distressing three per cent through the Lowry reread, and a hundred per cent through the Indiana, a book I found liberating, both for its style and for its freeing expression of unpleasant thoughts.

The e-reading apps have their merits. At times, they become respites from the other, more addictive apps on my phone. Switching to a book from, say, Twitter, is like the phone-scroller’s version of a nice hike—the senses reorient themselves, and you feel more alert and vigorous, because you’ve spent six to eight minutes going from seven to eleven per cent of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” Or you might feel a sense of pride because you’ve reached the sixty-per-cent mark in Elton John’s autobiography, “Me,” which isn’t a great work of literature but at least is better than Twitter. The book apps also seem to work as a stopgap for children, who are always lusting after screen time of any sort. My seven-year-old daughter has read hundreds of books on the Libby app, which lets you check out e-books from public libraries you belong to. As a parent, I find this wildly preferable to hearing the din of yet another stupid YouTube short or “Is it Cake?” episode coming through her iPad’s speakers.