From the reviewer’s perspective by Bill Kirton

I wonder how much of a part habit plays when we’re reviewing books. I ask (myself) this question because I’ve been trying to work out why I find it more difficult to review ebooks than printed ones.

Let’s take reviewing itself for a start. There are the short but nonetheless considered reviews destined for Amazon, then the others for journals or websites where you have a commitment to provide copy at regular intervals. The Amazon ones are fine. They don’t need you to make copious notes; it’s enough to read (and, one hopes, enjoy) the book then write a hundred or so words about the general impression left by it, any particularly striking details, characters, etc. and the overall comfort of the reading experience.

Then there’s the longer, more demanding piece for a review site. I have to admit that, sometimes, the compulsion of having to write the review leads to me reading a book in a different way. I’m going through it as a reviewer rather than as a reader, looking at the mechanics of it, seeking individual threads and effects, and this can get in the way of both the pleasure of reading and the discipline of reviewing. Because even the most strictly formal, academic appreciation of the crafting of a book ought to take account of its subjective impact. The true joy is when a book moves or excites you in some way and, simultaneously, you can see how it’s done so.

So that’s my general overall sense of what reviewing is for me but why, at the start of this piece, did I seem to separate ebooks from printed ones? And where does habit come into it?

The specific habit I’m thinking of concerns the making (NB ‘making’ not ‘taking’) of notes. As I read, I like to highlight turns of phrase that strike me, effects that work, looseness or anything else that undermines the narrative impact, and jot down subjective responses to particular developments. It’s an instantaneous thing and so I tend to make such notes in the margins, underline the words in question, stick a bookmark to the page so that I can find it again quickly. I can only do this, of course, if I own the book. If I don’t, I’m defacing it; if I do, I’m adding to its value for me at least. I have a copy of Madame Bovary which I bought as a student when Flaubert was a special subject of mine at university, so that makes it over 50 years old. Apart from writing a dissertation on him all that time ago, I’ve since lectured, given seminars and tutorials, and written articles for academic journals on him. Surprisingly frequently, I’ve also reread this particular book for pleasure. I used it again most recently when I wrote and recorded a short story for a podcast. The remit was to describe meeting a favourite fictional character. (Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening with Emma?). In case you’re interested, you'll find it here.

The result of all this is the dog-eared volume in the picture. It's a sort of archaeological record of my responses to the novel and to Flaubert over five decades. There are marginal notes written by the post-adolescent me which are sometimes embarrassing but which just as often act as fresh correctives to my current curmudgeonly musings. They’re a record of my changing relationship with the book and my own development as a reader.

The point is that, while my Kindle has the necessary features to allow me to highlight text and add my notes, it’s a laborious process which kills the spontaneity of the impulse. The precision of my fingers on a Kindle keyboard is that of a hippo landing an entrechat. I could, of course, continue to use a pen and make notes on a pad beside me, but then I have somehow to link them to the specific point in the narrative to which I’m referring and, with no page numbers, that’s difficult. Whether I do that or use the Kindle’s own features, it alters significantly the rhythm of the reading.

It may sound strange to say so but the same problems don't occur with an iPad. I can't explain it but the page-turning function is so much closer to the traditional reading experience that it helps me to suspend disbelief. Clicking the side of the Kindle is alien. Also, with the iPad, a simple touch on the screen, the ability to select and highlight text then add a note if you want, replicates very closely the old-fashioned 'defacing the book' technique.

But the questions remain. Do I prefer my old system because it’s a comfortable habit or because it really is a more efficient way of working? Does that breaking of the rhythm make my reviews of ebooks and printed books different from one another? I’d be interested to hear whether others share this experience or see it as me making yet another excuse for being lazy.


Kathleen Jones said…
I feel the same Bill. There's no substitute for scribbling all over the margins! With Kindle I have to highlight the phrases and make separate notes on a pad - it's just not the same.
julia jones said…
I feel deeply relieved to hear you say this. Not that I'm a margin scribbler but I'm a page dog-earer. I also find that I remember where something is on a page - left hand, right hand, third of the way down - which make it fairly easy to riffle though the pages and hit the spot. Now I know all this can be done on my Kindle - and my partner Francis now ASKS to be sent review material electronically - but I'm not finding it easy to adapt. Not saying that I can't, merely that its hard.
Susan Price said…
Much as I love my Kindle, Bill, I have to agree with you - it's a clumsy beast for note-taking.
Personally, I'd have a paper notepad and a quick scribbly pen - and 'fold down the corner of the page' on my Kindle, so I could find the place if I had to check note against the passage in the book.

Pauline - is the Kindle Fire easier to use for note-taking?
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks all. Glad I'm not the Luddite I always feel - or at least that there's more than one of us.
Diane Nelson said…
Much as I love my Kindle, especially the Fire with its finger-sweeping-screen duplication of page turning, and the highlighting and all those what-have-yous, it's quite simply not the same experience with an eBook. It's not a 'keeper' in precisely the way a print book is.
Although, I must admit, I find my ability to mentally file away pertinent details about a story being reviewed somewhat enhanced simply because I do not have those handy crutches of margins, sticky notes and dog-ears right to hand when the actual process of reviewing engages.
Instead, I have word docs in folders with Google links, notes, maps, and whatever other references are required to place a work within a particular context. For me, it's 'academic lite' but it's a solution and one I'm refining.
That technology is here to stay and I'm willing to accommodate, if not exactly 'evolve'.
Lee said…
Bill, I have difficulty highlighting text on my iPad. It usually takes me several false starts to avoid 'under-/over-highlighting', i.e. fewer or more words than I want. Maybe I'm just clumsy - and I've very chunky fingers - but have you got any tips?

And regarding the general advantage of e-reading in this regard: the search function! So often I vaguely remember a word, metaphor, whatever - and unless you really do have every book bristling like a rainbow-coloured hedgehog, a search is usually lots faster.
Bill Kirton said…
Diane, I wish my memory could cope as yours does. Instead, I'm just aware of half-recalled snippets which might have been good or abysmal but which are just floating in a chasm with no reference points. Even if I try cross-referencing of the type you suggest, I forget where I've put the files.

Lee, you can't know how flattered I am that anyone should ask me for tips on anything electronic. All I can say is that I used to have exactly the same experience with my iPad but I now seem to be able to make it work. I think it's just a question of pressing down on the screen, waiting for the magnifier to appear, then sliding it to the exact point you need in the text. That's the best I can offer, I'm afraid.
Unknown said…
When I need to dissect a text for review or for resourcing I write my notes in a notebook which I may later transcribe to a Word document.

During grad school I was encouraged to take part in marginalia, but I couldn't do it. There are two reasons stemming from my childhood that prevent me from writing in books. First, I have a fine motor skill impairment which, early on, made handwriting painful, so by third grade I was typing assignments. Thankfully now, through therapy, I can write longhand without pain and do so when outlining or note taking for projects. The second instance stems from Catholic schools where we bought the textbook at the beginning of the year and sold it back at the end. A clean book was more likely accepted for resale. Also, probably still rooted in these early years, I can't stand seeing marginalia in used books I buy. Though, I did buy a copy of Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life with notes scribbled in the margins written in Chinese. Since I can't read Chinese it's become an artful meta-commentary on the book.

With Kindle for PC I can copy parts of text and paste it into documents I am working on and it creates (almost) all the necessary information for a citation, which I find to be a very helpful feature. I don’t mind marking up an electronic document as I can hide my comments. I understand that marginalia is a helpful method of cognitive distribution for writers/reviewers, but we all develop methods that best aid our creative processes. Many times these practices are hard to break even when easier methods are available because that’s the way we’ve wired ourselves. For example, my mom always says that I build a clock when someone asks me for the time, as such I could have said, “Have you tried using the Kindle for PC app? You can just copy passages out of books and paste them to Word documents. It could greatly simplify your reviewing process.”
Bill Kirton said…
I think you're confirming my suspicion, Bernard, that habit is a large contributor to what we find comfortable when we're performing various writing chores (even pleasurable ones). One point I didn't make when mentioning my decades of marginalia in Madame Bovary is that there are some striking changes in my handwriting over the years. I'm sure a graphologist would have a field day with it.

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