Ebook Devices, Part I: Do You Want One At All?

As a general rule, I am a late adopter of new technologies. For the most part, I don't get on board with new standards in media until they actually stop producing content in the obsolete formats (audio cassettes, VHS, what have you). So it was a little disconcerting to be on the leading edge of a new type of gadget, which is what happened to me when I received an ebook reader for Christmas last year. ("It's like a Wii for nerds," I explained to my sister-in-law as she craned to see just what I found so jaw-dropping astonishing about the package I had just opened.)

The devices, of course, have absolutely exploded in 2010, which means this Christmas is probably going to be the year that many readers/gift-givers who weren't comfortable getting out in front of the trend finally get their first such device. Indeed, I suspect that if there is someone on your gift list who (1) loves books and (2) doesn't yet own an ereader device and (3) has not declared themselves philosophically opposed to such a thing, then you have probably already ordered them a Kindle for Christmas, and this series is coming too late to be of any help. Sorry about that.

But, just in case you or your book-loving loved one are still on the fence about whether or which ebook reader to buy, I have a few thoughts. More than a few, actually, which is why this post is the first of a three-part series:

  1. Do You Want an eReader?
  2. The eReaders My Family Didn't Get, and Why
  3. A Comparative Review: Barnes & Noble Nook vs. Sony Reader Touch

(If you don't have time to read/wait for the whole thing, here's the executive summary: If you think you'd like to have an eReader and you'd like my advice on which one you should buy, get a Nook. But be prepared for some annoyances.)

So: First up: Do you really want an eReader?


There is a camp of people who think that eReaders are the best thing since Gutenberg, and there is a camp of people who swear they'd never consider forsaking books of the dead-tree variety.

I think both camps are wrong.

eReaders are great for some things. They are markedly inferior to simple paper-and-ink books in many other ways. The best discussion of the limitations of the format that I have seen is this talk by Classics Professor James O'Donnell. It's kind of long, but worth listening to if you're interested in the utility of these new technologies, particularly in an academic context.

For additional discussion of the significance of emerging technologies for the experience of reading, I recommend Alan Jacobs' Text Patterns blog at the New Atlantis.

I believe that an eReader would be most useful to users in the following categories:

1.  You travel a lot (and/or move frequently).
Books are much more portable in digital format than ink-on-paper, which makes packing a breeze. (But you can't read your eReader during the take-off and landing portions of a flight.)

2.  You buy a lot of newly-released books at full price in hardcover and read them front-to-back.
I tend to buy most of my books on the secondary market, which means that I can still get an ink-on-paper copy of most books I want to read for less than I would spend for a digital copy. But if you need to be on top of the latest releases in whatever area of publishing interests you (as long as it's not too obscure), you can save money in the long run by getting most of your books digitally.

Plus there's the instant-gratification thing of not having to go to the store or wait for your package to arrive.

3. You're in a field where you need to read a lot of documents that you download in digital format.
Most scholarly journal articles, for example, are available these days as full-text downloads if you have access to the appropriate databases. Over the course of a graduate degree, one could conceivably save enough money on printing costs alone to justify the cost of an eReader.

4. You like gadgets.
A shiny new eReader is a fun digital toy. If you're into electronic toys, by all means, enjoy.

*   *   *

Despite the utility of an eReader, I find that I still buy most of my books in ink-on-paper format. These are my  principal reasons:

1.  Transferablity.
This, for me, is the single biggest liability of the digital book revolution. I place great value on the capacity to loan, sell, or give away my books, and am willing to pay a premium for the right to transfer books to others after I have used them. The Nook's "LendMe" feature is a pathetic joke that only illustrates the limitations of the owner's transfer rights. 

During the early months of my eReader ownership, I was also worried about transferability between devices -- what if I build up a digital library, but then my device fails? Am I locked into having to buy the same brand device forever in order to keep my content? This is less of a concern now than it was then, especially with the evolution of computer/smart phone apps to correspond with pretty much any type of eReader device, but I am still careful about buying books that I might have trouble accessing in the future.

2.  Navigability.
One of the things that O'Donnell points out in the video above is that eReaders are actually a giant step backwards in terms of the convenience of finding your way around a text: they are more like SCROLLS than CODICES. If you're just reading straight through a book from front to back, it works just fine, but for just about any other use of a book, an ink-on-paper version works better. See this AP article about the limitations of travel guidebooks in digital format for just one example of how this is so.

I never noticed how important it was to me to be able to flip forward and backward in the book I'm reading until I couldn't do it. Finding a particular passage in the Bible or Book of Common Prayer takes FOREVER on my device compared to an ink-on-paper product.

You might think that the ability to search an eText would be a navigational advantage, but it really doesn't come close to making up for the disadvantage of unflippability. When you combine the primitiveness of the search function built in to the typical eReader device with the slowness of the refresh rate of the E Ink display, you end up with a tool that is far less useful than even a mediocre index in a printed book. 

*   *   *

I do like my eReader device. It is very useful for some things. (I never would have guessed this in advance, but it turns out the main thing I use mine for is knitting patterns. Probably in itself not a good enough reason to buy a device, but it has been quite handy in that respect.) And I enjoy the gadget-ness of it, and the opportunity to learn by experience about the promise and perils of the evolving technology. But I don't think ink-on-paper books are going to disappear any time soon, and I am glad for that. 


Peter Onigan said...

Transferrability is the biggest downside I've found. It annoys the heck out of me not to be able to share a book I've liked with someone else. The schemes companies have introduced of only allowing lending for a fixed period seem ridiculous. The only scheme we've found acceptable is shared accounts, but there are only so many people you trust well enough to share an account with.

An issue we've found problems with is figures in books. The range of issues include: poorly copied figures, poor resolution (inability to expand), figures that were bisected across pages and missing figures. It appears that copyright issues are holding back the inclusion of some figures (sometimes all of the figures). We've started looking very carefully at copyright pages where the absence of figures is sometimes acknowledged. I want to see books labeled as 'abridged' if they are missing figures.

I've liked my reader for casual books that I plan to read straight through, once. For reference texts or for more substantive works, I'm not sold. I also will miss bookshelves to browse through and learn about a person's interest.

Betsy B. Honest said...

Interesting stuff. I look at them askance sometimes in the bookstore and wonder....

I'm not philosophically opposed to them but esthetically I am a bibliophile. I like the way books smell, etc.

I'm also a late adopter so there's no doubt in my mind that I will own one of these someday.

Methinks when the public library is on board somehow, I'll be too.

Rachel said...

PTr -- yes, yes.

Figures are not something that I personally have had trouble with, but I can easily imagine how that would become an issue. I have some serious misgivings about the Google eBookstore, but I am at least pleased to see that they have a return policy, whereby you can request a refund if the book you purchased is defective. A considerable proportion of digital books ARE defective, so it's a good thing they are prepared to deal with that reality.

And I wholeheartedly agree about the value of bookshelves as a testimony to the interior life of the owner. Fortunately, I highly doubt those will go away in our lifetime.

Rachel said...

My public library makes a very limited assortment of books available as ebook downloads -- not enough to justify buying a reader, but enough to make me glad I don't have a Kindle (which isn't compatible with library programs). I'm interested to learn more about the economic models of library licensing of ebooks -- maybe I'll do a library school paper on it sometime in the next couple of years.

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