The Great Format Debate

As someone who spends a lot of time reading books, I also spend a lot of time thinking about how I read. In today’s world, that thinking is dominated by the question of format; should I be going with print, ebook, or audio? It’s not a question that I have an easy answer for.

I should first make it clear, however, that I don’t think that there is an objectively superior format. I think all formats have their own advantages, and I don’t really care what format other people use (as long as they do use some format!).

For the longest time, I used print books exclusively and religiously. I loved the feel of them in my hand, and I loved collecting them onto my bookshelf and being surrounded by them. ‘A room without books is a body without a soul’ (Cicero) and ‘I cannot sleep if I am not surrounded by books’ (Jorge Luis Borges) were quotes that rang particularly true for me.

But then I moved to study in Scotland, and my 600-book library wasn’t something I could fit in my carry-on. I could only read the books that happened to be with me, and during vacations back home, I had to try and decide what I would like to read for the next four months before my next vacation. This started making me much more sympathetic towards ebooks.

So I got a kindle, and I started buying ebooks. After a while, the convenience of it overwrote all my previous hesitations enough that I stopped buying physical books entirely. As I kept reading more ebooks, I noticed that what my girlfriend’s mother had said rang true: when you’re immersed in a book, it’s the words that matter, not where the words are displayed.

I also discovered that ebooks were the solution to my compulsive book buying habit. That 600-book library? I’ve only read half of them, and at the time that I moved to Scotland, I was buying books faster than I could read them. Ebooks solved this problem because of their constant availability; living in Finland, I had a restricted selection of English books that I could find in bookstores, and ordering books was quite expensive. With ebooks, I had access to all books at all times. So, I made a deal with myself: excepting exceptional circumstances, I could buy any book I wanted, but whenever I bought a book I had to start reading it immediately. That solved my compulsive book buying.

That’s where I’m at today with ebooks. But I do still read physical books at times as well, and whenever I do, I’m struck by two things: I still love the feel of holding a book (during all those times between being immersed in a book); but, a kindle is much more comfortable to hold, and allows for a wider range of reading possibilities. At times, this makes me feel torn about my commitment to ebooks. But, the practical concerns are always so strong I don’t ever seriously consider switching back to physical books.

My past with audiobooks is a much shorter and simpler one. After I became open to trying ebooks, I also became more open to trying audiobooks. But I quickly noticed that I’m not the sort of person who can sit still and read audiobooks without doing anything else; whenever I tried, my mind quickly started to wander away, and I had to consciously try to refocus onto the book. So, I realised that I needed to figure out a mindless task that I could do while listening to a book. And that’s where I am today, still trying to figure out that mindless task. I did find that walking while listening to audiobooks worked for me; but I also found that I’m too lazy to go on walks consistently.

What about you? Which format do you prefer? Any recommendations on mindless tasks to do while listening to audiobooks?

Behind the Lines by Chris Fox (Ganog Wars Book 1)

Behind the Lines CoverBehind the Lines is the first book in a sequel trilogy to indie military science fiction author Chris Fox’s Void Wraith trilogy. In this book, the new Coalition of the three races featured in the Void Wraith trilogy attempt to find the rest of the Gorthians (the main enemy of the previous trilogy). In doing so, Nolan and his crew stumble upon a new hostile race, and become stranded on one of their planets. The book details their attempt to survive and escape.

I was hesitant to pick this book up, because I had greatly enjoyed the first book of Chris Fox’s previous trilogy (review here), but hadn’t enjoyed the other two books (review here). It was impossible to know where this book would fall between those extremes, so I hesitated; in the end, it was the curiosity to know where this book lay between those two extremes that made me pick this book up.

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The City & the City by China Miéville

The City and the City CoverThe City & the City is a standalone novel from China Miéville, which is set in the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which exist within the same space. This is not in any supernatural sense: certain streets are completely in just one city, while other streets are partially in both. Sometimes, one floor of a building exists in a different city from the floor above it. Nothing about it goes from realm of the possible to the impossible. In this setting, the novel focuses on Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad as he attempts to solve the murder of a mysterious woman.

It is quite difficult to pin down this novel’s genre. Of course, it’s clear that plot-wise it is a police procedural, but what the genre is setting-wise is much harder question. On the one hand, the setting seems to be constructed much like fantastic secondary worlds, but on the other hand, the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma seem to exist in a very realistic version of our Europe. Furthermore, that Beszel and Ul Qoma exist within the same geographical space seems absurd to the point of fantastic, yet the narrative clearly establishes its non-magical nature. Thus, if the narrative is a fantastic one (like virtually all of Miéville’s other works), it is hard to say where the fantastic lies. One might even be tempted to try and find it in the mysterious historical artefacts from the pre-Cleavage time excavated within the story, but even there, the stories about their magical nature never seem to go beyond being mere conspiracy theories. It is a very disconcerting effect; I feel convinced that the novel is fantasy, but I can’t point to any evidence for that. But maybe that feeling is what the term New Weird is used to signify.

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A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1)

A Game of Thrones CoverA Game of Thrones is the first book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, telling an epic story set (mostly) in the land of Westeros, where summers and winters can take anywhere from years to decades. But, at this point, with the popularity of the TV show based on this series, this novel really doesn’t need any further introduction, does it?

This is not the first time that I have read this novel. I read the first four books about a year before the TV show came out, and while I got the hardcover of the fifth book immediately when it was released, I never got around to reading it. Recently, I got a sudden yearning to be immersed in Westeros again, so I decided to re-read the first four books before starting the fifth one. Re-reading a novel, and this one in particular, always gives you a different perspective on the novel, so this review will be based on my memories of when I first read the book, as well as the further insights I gained through this re-read.

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Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris CoverElantris is a (mostly) standalone piece of epic fantasy by Brandon Sanderson. In the book, Elantris, once a city of wonder and magic, has fallen into decay, and those people who become Elantrians are locked up in Elantris and considered dead. The novel tells the story of three interconnected people living in this world: Raoden (a recent Elantrian), Sarene (Raoden’s wife-to-be and now widower), and Hrathen (a missionary of the Shu Dereth religion attempting to convert Sarene’s city).

Despite this being the first work of epic fantasy that Sanderson published, this is not the first such novel that I have read from from him. Having that perspective on this novel, then, I can’t help but notice that this being his first novel is clear from the book itself. This is not to say that the book is bad (in fact, it’s a really great book), but just that almost everything that Sanderson does well here, he does better in his later works.

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A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Memoirs of Lady Trent Book 1)

A Natural History of Dragons CoverA Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent is the first book, published in 2013, in a series of Lady Trent’s memoirs written by Marie Brennan. In this book Lady Trent, a preeminent dragon naturalist, sets out to begin writing her memoirs, beginning with her early life and her first expedition to study dragons.

I will begin with what I absolutely love about this book: I find the perspective it takes on dragons (a scientist attempting to study how they work) to be absolutely fascinating, and not one that I have ever read before. In fact, my decision to read this book was based purely on how good this premise seemed, and I was very glad to see that the premise is realised very well in the book itself. The narrative focuses enough on dragon biology and the relevant jargon to be fascinating and believable, but not so much that it would bog down the story.

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Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners Book 1)

Steelheart CoverSteelheart, published in 2013, is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners trilogy of young adult fantasy books. It tells the story of a near-future United States, where the presence of an unidentified orbiting object has given random people superhero-like powers; these people have become known as Epics. The protagonist of the novel, David, seeks to join a resistance movement in order to exact revenge on the Epic that orphaned him.

This novel is one example of what Sanderson calls his ‘burger and fries novels’, as opposed to his ‘steak dinner’ novels. This categorisation makes sense; in contrast to his epic fantasy works, which feature extensive worldbuilding, sprawling plots, and multiple points of view, this novel features more limited worldbuilding (being set in the near-future), a more streamlined plot, and just one point of view character. Beyond these elements, however, the novel is unmistakably Sandersonian. The novel thus provides a Sandersonian reading experience without requiring as much of the reader as Sanderson’s other works do.

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