The last three books I bought, I bought electronically, and read them on a number of computers using various among the 'Kindle for X' programs available. They were a convenient and portable way of consulting some non-fiction material, and I'll do it again. I particularly liked the aspect of being able to keep well-ordered notes and bookmarks as part of my reading history. Some of my non-fiction paper books have their margins crammed with rather difficult-to-read notes, and bits of paper pasted in at the back with my index entries for various pet subjects not identified in the supplied indices. The electronic versions of these are an improvement.
But the reading experience itself wasn't always as good. I was never very far from distraction on my netbook or on my iPod, and that's the point Johann Hari also makes in his recent post "In the age of distraction, we will need books more than ever", quoting David Ulin:
Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction.... It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.
The point Hari makes is that "in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds", staking out the point that concentrating on what others have to say takes time and concentration: the empathy that narrative offers needs us to engage strongly with it, and Hari makes a case for books as a suitable technology for this: they help us withdraw from the present; they are an aid to the kind of reflective concentration that helps us turn a subject, an idea, more carefully in our minds to find a better relationship to us. He points out that the more a Kindle does -- the larger the number of bells and whistles it has, the less useful it is as a medium for reading itself.
Being connected can have more than one meaning, it would seem. It's valuable and exciting to have instantaneous access to whatever we want, and it's useful to have an ever expanding set of tools to do that with; but there is another kind of contact - written up in works like Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice, or Wayne Booth's The Company we Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. This is the contact of empathy, carried through in the narrative form. I cannot say for sure whether my empathy is engaged as fully with a Twitter stream or a Facebook update. My reading history, as it were, in those areas, is very poor. There are no great works, no great events I can share wholeheartedly in (perhaps I am doing it wrong). At any rate the kinds of interaction and sympathy I feel in conversational forms is far better mediated as a conversation.
But it does seem to me that there is something valuable in the longer form, in the lack of distraction, and in the deeper human contact I feel from books.
For me it is not a matter of technologies, or of convenience; it is one of attention and empathy. If electronic devices can approach this level of concentration and engagement, by simply allowing themselves to serve a simpler function, I think they will maximise their effectiveness, rather than leaving something unfulfilled: we can build other tools for other kinds of contact. In other words, the closer the Kindle comes to being a book, the better I will like it.