Will e-books ruin literature for students?

Will e-books ruin literature for students?

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When one of my classes required that I read several classic novels, it seemed to be a perfect opportunity to take my new Kindle for a spin. Not only were the e-book versions more convenient, not even requiring me to leave bed in order to purchase my texts, but they cost less than print editions. Win-win, right?

Unfortunately, wrong.

As I began to read, I realized that the Kindle versions of the literature I was reading were not the same as they might be in traditional print. At first, I only noticed a misplaced comma here, or an incorrectly spelled word there. These were annoying, but forgivable mistakes.

Then, part of a sentence was missing. Finally, an entire page was gone. I couldn’t finish the story because of the extent of the errors. I thought there was no way such imperfection could be standard, but the next Kindle-formatted book I tried was much the same. Its inaccuracies weren’t so extensive as to make the book unreadable, but the small errors I encountered in the spelling and punctuation of the novel soon made it too annoying to read. I resigned myself to a trip to Barnes and Noble to buy hard copies of the texts on my reading list.

“If it’s a simple misspelling or grammatical error, it’s usually something easily observed by the reader,” said Kevin Skidmore, a Boise State professor in the communication department. “The real problem is students often don’t read well enough to pick up on it.”

As many textbooks become available in electronic formats, students are bound to become more frequent consumers of the electronic versions of their class texts.

“E-books are just a five-year or so advancement,” Skidmore said. “We really don’t know if they’ll be used more or if these kinds of problems will be addressed.”

Realistically speaking, however, it would be silly to assume students will ignore such a convenient technology and stick to heavy, expensive print textbooks. But what effect might that have on students’ abilities to learn course material? If textbooks are, as classic novels appear to be, rife with errors in their electronic formats, can students be expected to learn the covered material as thoroughly?

Is it fair to hold students accountable for information that may be missing or obscured by errors? Surely many students aren’t aware when they purchase their books that they might be studying subpar
materials.

“It seems like the conversion would be A to B,” said Alan Heathcock, an award-winning author and member of Boise State’s English department. “I don’t know the technical aspects of converting, but people have told me the Kindle version of my book had errors, and those aren’t in the print version, obviously.”

According to Heathcock, however, the implications go further than students’ abilities to learn their
course material.

“I think the downside is that the standards of what quality literature is might somehow be lowered,” he said. “It’s changed the way we curate literature. We used to have these very high standards of quality for literature, and I think the biggest fear for a lot of people is that that just isn’t there anymore.”

I was, at first, inclined to disagree. Small errors don’t negate the fact that a great piece of literature is, in fact, great. But if we become a society of readers willing to overlook such error, will the quality of our materials continue to decline? Are we responsible, then, for demanding a higher quality to defend not only our ability to learn course information, but to protect the legitimacy of literature as well?

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