Tuesday, September 15, 2009

E-books: Bad for your health?

My first reaction to e-books involves a physical concern. I have spent a lot of time staring at a computer screen in my life, especially over the past few years as I have had jobs in the graphic field as well as online writing tutoring where I read essays on my computer for hours. (My roommate is tired of hearing my complaints that my hand hurts from writing notes in class, since I have not written more than a check in at least two years!) Throughout these positions, I started to notice constant headaches. After a while, I decided to suck it up and see an eye doctor who explained to me that my eyes were working too hard because I look at the computer screen so much. Subsequently, when I deviated from that computer screen concentration, my eyes could not easily focus on other objects. Essentially, my eyes were confused. So, I got glasses, which I try to wear when I look at the computer for a long time or read.

Thus, the idea of reading a book, an entire book, on the computer (or a computer-like device) sounds… painful. Physically. I cannot claim to understand the way the eyes work in relation to paper vs. computer. However, the way I see it—on paper, my eyes see vast amounts of what I will call pixels for purposes of comparison; whereas, on the computer, the pixels are limited. The eyes and brain have to work harder to formulate images with less pixels, resulting in headaches. It made sense to me.

In a piece we read for E-Publishing, “Free(konomic) E-books,” author Cory Doctorow countered my thoughts as he blatantly says: “[…] the problem with reading off a screen isn’t resolution, eyestrain, or compatibility with reading in the bathtub […].” After being presented with this idea, I had to do a little googling about the effects of computer screens on the eyes. I read that it is less the computer screen and more the environment. How revolutionary! Commonly, the lighting in the room is unnatural and inadequate, the reader may be too close or too far from the fixed computer screen, and/or the reader is so involved in the computer screen that s/he forgets to blink! The latter is hugely understandable to me. I problematically look to the brightest object in the room… If I am in a dark restaurant with bright windows, I must look out the windows. So, when I am staring at a computer screen, I think I forget to give my eyes a break. Likewise, I undoubtedly stare at a computer screen for a longer amount of time than a printed book (computers are SO much more than a reading device), which makes it hard to compare printed books to e-books. Although my sources are not scholarly, these points about computer screens and headaches make more sense than my previous theory about screen resolution.

After thinking through my physical problems with e-books, I guess I will relinquish my position that reading via computer is bad for your health. My eyes will continue to work hard, but I just need to remember to give them breaks and blink! Overall, I suppose that I will give e-books another chance before writing them off completely.

1 comment:

  1. An issue raised by Catherine here is the difference in the way we read off a screen as compared to off the pages of a book. This is an essential difference of print versus e-publishing that we as publishers will have to deal with; not only in regards to the physical difference for our readers, but the way we design and lay out our product.

    Someone once desribed to me the difference between laying out a print publication versus an online one like this: for print, you're adding color or darkness to a plain (generally white) page, whereas with online publication you are working with light being projected towards the reader, and removing aspects of light to show letters, graphics, etc. I don't know how accurate this is, but I feel it's something to consider.

    I've not had a lot of experience with the Kindle or similar e-readers, but they don't seem to be as much projecting light (like a computer screen or cell phone) as merely adding print to a blank screen (what reminds me of an etcha-sketch). Of course I only really get a look at Kindles when someone near me on the metro is using one, but if this is true, do we need to take into account a difference between online materials (online journal, etc) and handheld ones (kindle)?