Last year, during a teen book club meeting at the local high school, the subject of e-readers came up … who has one, who wants one, what do teens think, etc. But one of the teens shared something interesting: having an e-reader has changed what she reads. Why? Not because of the anonymity an e-reader lends, and only a bit because of the limited availability of digital downloads through the library. Instead, her reading choices have changed mainly due to (the lack of) browsability. Instead of being able to peruse the stacks, physically handle books, and look at their covers, she was stuck trying to determine her choices from itty-bitty thumbnail shots of book covers and too-laborious-to-access descriptions. To avoid all the trouble, this particular student began to read digitized classics because their titles, and covers, were recognizable. Her points made sense because — let’s face it — thumbnail shots of book covers leave much to be desired, especially if that is all one sees when “browsing” digital materials online.
Sure, there is a slew of research out there about how e-readers have begun to influence literacy in general, but what about book choice? How else have teens’ reading choices changed once getting an e-reader? So I hunted around online, inquired with some of my teen patrons, and this is what I found:
First, there is the growing theory that book covers as we know them are dead — and e-readers have killed them. For many of us, cover illustrations are part of our reading experience and, because we do often judge a book by its cover, book choice. How many of you have repeatedly closed the book you were reading in order to check out the cover and match the image in your head with the cover model? To check out the architecture or the setting or to gauge the atmosphere the illustration lends to the story? What happens when that experience is gone, as when using an e-reader? Sure, you can go online to find the cover, or link-link-link back to the first page on your device to see a pixelated (and possibly black and white) image, but that just isn’t the same.
Another thing to think about is how a cover becomes a memorable link to a book. Think of your recent favorite books right now: do their covers come to mind? Can you think of A Fault in our Stars without imagining a bright blue cover with clouds and black and white lettering scribbled across the front? Or think about Twilight … you imagine a dark background with a pair of cupped hands cradling an apple, right? The Hunger Games? Yeah. Are we risking the loss of the iconic cover?
Our teens patrons at the library provided me with even more insight. They tell me that seeking digital titles for their e-reader makes them feel out of touch with the materials, as if they are missing out on finding a book that really suits their preferences. To avoid this, one teen actually comes to the library to browse the shelves and jot down titles, which she then adds to her Goodreads to-read list; then she uses that list to create her digital e-reader wish-list. Most often from teens I hear that they use their e-reader only occasionally, but that they prefer coming to the library to find a book to read because they can handle the books and see their covers, rather than read something they aren’t familiar with.
So, what do you think? Will readers learn to judge a book without its cover? Are we losing an integral element of our reading experience? Have e-readers killed the bookcover?
— Dena Little, currently reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare