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On Saturday I picked up a printed hardback novel I ordered from my local public library. When I got home I sat down to read. And read.

I read for five hours straight. On Sunday I woke early and read for another three hours without disturbing my sleeping wife.

Which is more than I can do with an ebook

Neither would have been possible with an ebook. I know, I’ve tried three specialist ebooks, Apple’s iPad 2 and an Android phone. None work for me when it comes to a serious reading session.

This undermines my plan to be a paperless journalist.

I’ve found I can’t read an ebook for one whole hour, let alone five. There are three problems, two are physical, the third may be a personal failing.

Blurry vision, headaches

First, my eyes go blurry after about forty minutes. They weep. I don’t mean I’m crying, I mean water fills my eyes and runs down my cheeks. On some occasions the ebook experience also gives me headaches.

When this happens my eyes stay blurry for some time after I stop reading. At least an hour, maybe more. I can’t drive or do much that requires good vision.

This doesn’t happen with printed books.

Sleep deprivation

If I read a printed book last thing before switching out the light, I can usually fall asleep minutes after hitting the pillow. If I read using a screen I struggle to sleep at all. I suspect the colour and brightness of the display has something to do with this. You may have another idea. Please share it if you do.

Butterfly concentration

My third problem with sustained ebook reading is I get distracted. This may be a failing on my part or it may be related to the discomfort described above. Either way, I find it hard to concentrate on an ebook. This isn’t a problem reading novels, it is a problem when I’m reading non-fiction.

I’m in a race to see whether I lose my concentration or my vision first. It turns out I’m not alone.

Backlighting blues

When I read a printed book in bed early in the morning, it doesn’t disturb my wife. When I tried reading an ebook early one morning, it woke her.

I should confess I haven’t tried a specialist ebook device in months. The technology may have improved. Perhaps I should try again. In recent weeks I’ve read books on an iPad – I took one loaded with a library on a recent trip.


15 thoughts on “Ebook readers make me weep

  1. Interesting, Bill. I haven’t noticed this effect with a Kindle, which I regularly read. If my eyes start to feel tired I increase the font size, which generally helps.

    I use an Energizer book light to read paper books in bed (it chews through cell batteries, though), and the Kindle case I use has a built-in light. Neither cause eye problems or keep my better-half awake – although I’m always conscious of the clicking noise when I ‘turn a page’. But it isn’t really any noisier than turning the page of a paper book.

    As far as concentration is concerned, I can generally only read for much shorter times nowadays (whether on paper or Kindle) than I used to manage in my teens and 20s. I don’t know what the reason for that is – old age, exposure to the internet, dwindling attention span or all of those. It’s been 30 years since I was able to read for five hours straight.

    My eyes start to swim after an hour or two in front of a PC monitor or laptop. I’ve never tried a backlit e-book reader like an iPad, so can’t comment on those.

    • I first started worrying about the effect of the Internet and all things digital on my attention span about ten years ago.

      My solution was the Digital Sabbath: https://billbennett.co.nz/2009/11/22/digital-sabbath/

      It’s like being a member of the Amish or an orthodox Jew for one day a week.

      In effect I try to completely avoid computers and other digital gizmos for a full 24 hours once a week. This is getting much harder now I have a smartphone.

  2. I have heard, anecdotally, that insomnia is a particular problem with backlit displays such as the iPad. The theory is that the brightness and proximity of the backlight breaks down melatonin, with is essential for sleep. I can cite no medical studies to confirm this.

    Theoretically, if the melatonin explanation holds water, then you should be able to rectify the problem by switching your text to white on a black background and turning the brightness down to the minimum you need to be able to comfortably read the text. I suspect that this may relieve your eyestrain problem too, as you probably simply have quite light-sensitive eyes.

    The newer e-book readers should be better for you as well, because they more closely mimic the properties of printed paper.

    • There have been some stories on this in the New Scientist (which I will try to dig out later).

      I vaguely recall one of the problems is the solid state lights used in modern screens has too much blue light – which causes insomnia problems.

      My plan is to stick with print for now and let other people do their share of the guinea pig work – Lord knows I’ve done enough over the years. Maybe I’ll be back in the ebook market when the devices reach their next generation.

  3. Another thing – If you consider that even a low quality laser printer draws the lines in the letters at (from vague memory) 800 dots per inch; current epaper is really a bit blurry in comparison, yes? Your eyes are probably trying to focus the whole time.

    That said, I’ve read some quite long things – in shortish bursts – on my phone. Font choice helped (sans serif for screen reading, high x-height, I also wanted it a little condensed to fit words across the little screen – ended up with droid sans) along with some line spacing and left-alignment. And, yes, also pushing the background colour a long way into amber did seem more restful for the eyes and might have helped with sleeping after.

    • Interesting. I built this site using the two droid fonts. And yes, I’ve noticed font and character size make a huge difference on my Android phone, but I still get that blurry vision thing,

  4. Wow, that microscope picture makes it clear I need to investigate a Kindle. Good job they’re not expensive.

  5. Kindle. Or a Kindle. Failing that, I recommend a …. Kindle. I have an iPad 1, an iPad 2, a Kobo, an iPhone 4 with Retina Display, plus tried a couple of no-name imported e-readers and a Kindle. The combination of Kindle software and the Kindle device itself leave the rest in the dust for serious reading. iPad is better for color books with lots of pictures but serious text inhalation – get a Kindle.

  6. Kindle, one month battery life, 3000 books, no back light, adjustable font and font size and even reads my books to me in the car when I just can’t put it down. Kindle wins hands down and I have managed 5 hours on it…just yesterday in fact 🙂 no eye strain but I id have to swap page turning thumbs from time to time 🙂

  7. Afraid to say I’ve crossed over to ebooks with ease, after thinking my love of dead tree books wouldn’t allow me. Also, the converse of you, the Kindle with my cover light, or backlit iPad has allowed me to read when I go to bed after my wife, because I don’t need to put the bedside light on.

    Mind you, I’ve written on how the iPad does have it’s problems as an ebook reader, here 🙂


  8. I bought my Sony Touch reader 2 years ago and haven’t looked back. I now read very few pBooks.

    My main hassle is that there is just so much digital reading available – but eReaders (eink screens) do not handle all PDFs well – and I have a lot of technical books or documents in PDF format.. So I now have an iPad for PDFs and this works well.

    The back lit iPad screen is harsh to read and I have learned what conditions are likely to be tiring. The iPad also has the disadvatage of providing distractions.

    So I have welcomed both forms of readers – they have certainly opened up the availability of material and I am now reading more. And reading books I couldn’t get before. And getting books so quickly – no longer having to wait for delivery, or even having to find time to get to a good bookshop.

    However, whatever format (pBooks as well as ebooks) I do have a problem with falling asleep – old age I am afraid. That may also explain watery eyes?

    Bill, new eReader models will be launched in the next few months here. I suggest you have a look at the new ones. I think the Sony, Kobo and Kindle are very similar technically and with what they provide (except for format – which can be overcome by conversion). The technology now seems to be mature enough so that a decision can be made solely on price.

  9. I have gotten into using a Moonpad2 ($100 Chinese tablet) for reading, and have not had any problems with lengthy sessions. This may be because most of the reading is technical, and involves lots of highlighting (I print research to a giant PDF, and do touch screen markups). But I have always used digital readers for fiction, since the first PDAs (Psions, Jornadas, etc). I am a 19th century novel fan, so have downloaded lots of really long tomes from Project Gutenberg–Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, etc. Screens have varied, starting with simple black and white LCDs without backlight. A lot done on airplanes. But, for me, reading is always multitasking, so perhaps that is a help. (Little Nell, take over the world on Pocket Risk, mobile computing notes, Angry Birds, Little Nell, funny cat video…) Also, of course, I am now up to trifocals and I sleep with earpugs, eye covers and a CPAP machine.

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