MIND MELD: The Pros and Cons of eBooks
We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see their responses…
I don’t read e-books. As a writer, I do a lot of reading on screen. I compose my own stories; I workshop my colleagues’ stories; I research online; I conduct my correspondence online; I hold virtual office hours online; I waste time reading online blogs. Being an editor for a magazine that accepts e-submissions makes the situation worse. Consequently, one of the things I’m looking for in a novel, anthology, or collection that I’m reading for pleasure is its non-electronic, paper form. I want to be able to sit down with a traditional book.
If I were neither a writer nor an editor, I think I’d be an ideal candidate for e-book reading. I like gadgets and I like reading. If onscreen fiction reading weren’t such an integral part of my work, I’d be better able to appreciate it for recreation.
At present, I don’t read e-books. I have yet to encounter a reading device that holds any appeal for me at all. The “page turn” speed is much too slow on the Kindle et al., and I don’t like the physical design of it. (I have a chronic arm injury that makes me extremely picky about devices that need me to hold them with my hands in a certain position or press buttons with my fingers or thumb.) I don’t enjoy reading PDFs or other documents on my laptop, and I can’t imagine attempting to do so on my Palm or phone.
I also care a lot about typography and design. I know which stories I read in Judith Merril anthologies because my copies of those anthologies have yellowing pages and green edges and a particular narrow typeface that I would know anywhere. I know which ones I read in Terry Carr anthologies because of the arrangement and design of title, author, intro blurb. I know which ones I read on Strange Horizons because of the distinctive color scheme and broad font. I love a book’s unique heft in my hands, the creased corners that once held my place or marked a passage another reader found particularly notable, perhaps an inscription from a beloved author or an ancestor’s fading “ex libris”, the weight of the paper and the scent of ink and dust. It all helps to anchor the reading experience in my memory. E-books lack those things, so if I started reading e-books, not only would I lose the tactile enjoyment of the experience, but my memory for what I’ve read (which is already shoddy) would probably fail entirely, and what’s the point of reading something if you’re just going to forget it? I need those mnemonics to recall which book a scene is in, or which year a story is from. Especially in my line of work, it’s very important to keep my literary history as straight in my head as possible.
An e-reader literally could not replace my library, even if I were the world’s biggest e-book champion: many of the books I own are so old and/or obscure that digital versions will never be released. Every once in a while I think about getting a barcode scanner to put my books into LibraryThing, but a significant number of them don’t have barcodes, either because they’re ARCs or because they predate barcoding (and, in some cases, ISBNs). I very much doubt that anyone will ever put out digital editions of Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies or the old Ace doubles or J.B. Post’s wonderful Atlas of Fantasy. Most of the books I get “new” are review copies I bring home from work, and it will be a while before most publishers make the shift to digital galleys, so even if I pledged to never again buy a new book in paper form, it really wouldn’t help to reduce the amount of paper on my shelves.
Comparing a reader full of e-books to a room full of paper books is like comparing a pocket shrine to a temple; we are still monkey-like enough to be awed by size and number, and a good library trips the same circuits in my brain as a house of worship. I thrill to books en masse. This is the one place where my environmentalism is overruled by my decadence. If I could, I would swim in my books like Scrooge McDuck in his pool full of coins. I also have no interest in keeping my books to myself, as one necessarily must with an e-reader. I want them out where other people can learn about me by looking at them, borrow them (with no worries about DRM!), rediscover old favorites, take risks with something new, and find inspiration for conversation. We throw parties where people come over and help us sort and shelve stacks of ARCs and books rescued from my office. I seduced my girlfriend by plying her with dictionaries; we pulled six or eight of them off my shelves and sat on my bed and read each other funny and fascinating definitions until the ice was broken. My children’s and YA books are organized in a single bookcase by maturity of content, with the picture books on the bottom and the teen angst at the top, so young visitors may read anything they can reach. I enjoy creating interesting juxapositions on my shelves: Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s magnificent but distant color photographs next to Weegee’s starkly intimate black and white portraits, the Bible and Qu’ran filed under Middle Eastern mythology and folklore, the humor alongside the porn. Friends offer to cat-sit while we travel so they can spend a weekend alone with our library. My largesse of literature is key to my self-image, and I can’t see any way that e-books could offer even of a fraction of the sociability that paper books do.
I would love to carry hundreds of books in my pocket and never again need to adjust a shelf to accommodate an odd-sized hardcover, but there are just too many things I dislike about e-books, and most of them can’t be solved with technology. I may eventually accumulate a digital reference library so I can search the text and annotate it without damaging it–really, everything in life needs a search function–but for the most part I expect to go on indefinitely playing Scrabble with physical tiles, and playing solitaire with physical cards, and reading physical, tangible, memorable, unique, delicious books.
I have read ebooks off and on since 2001 when I got my first PDA. It was a great way of getting some genre reading done when I might not necessarily was supposed to be doing that kind of reading. Ahem.
I read a lot of short fiction on it, and a few novels. The pro is that I always had something to read with me wherever I was, and I could buy stuff without going to the store. When I lived in Wyoming, ebooks were the only way I could find some texts. The downside of my earlier readers were that the screens were a little small to read on comfortably, and they could be hard to operate in a comfortable reading position. I like to sprawl out when I read. Turning pages can be hard in that position, unless the reader can be operated one-handed.
I do not currently own a dedicated eReader. My device of choice is my iPhone. I don’t even use ebook software now–there’s more than enough to read online for free. Because of the economy and my employment status, I’ve been cutting costs wherever I can, and sadly that includes books.
I don’t read texts straight off a website, however. I use an app on the iPhone called Instapaper. This application functions via a website and a bookmarklet on your computer. Any time I come across a huge chunk of text that I don’t want to read at my computer, I click my “Read Later” bookmarklet. This quickly adds the text to my account on Instapaper’s website, which then syncs up with my phone. Instapaper strips all the graphics and general webby cruft off a page and formats it just like an ebook–nice margins and text formatting, etc. The one thing it doesn’t handle well are stories or articles broken up over 20 pages (to maximize ad revenues I am sure). In those cases, I bookmark the printable version when they have one.
Thanks to Instapaper, I get a lot of online fiction read that I wasn’t getting read before. I have no problem reading stories sitting at a computer–I do it daily, after all, but there’s just a limit to how much time I want to spend on a computer.
I don’t own an eInk reader although I am a big supporter of the idea. I’m very curious about the Nook in particular, but my concern right now, beyond financial issues, is that I don’t want to buy a device before the technology reaches what I think will be full maturity. That device will be full color, the size of the Kindle DX, and allow for reading PDFs laid out like magazines always have been. Also, it’ll be generally platform agnostic without too much concern for DRM bullshit.
When something like that hits the market, I think it’ll be end of the print magazine as we know it, and it’s coming faster than you might think. I suspect we’ll see something along those lines within a year. In the meantime, my iPhone works well, and the stacks and stacks of books and magazines I already own are already on a pretty mature technology platform.
This one is very relevant to me, I’m afraid. As most people who’ve read me know, I’ve never been able to get novel-length manuscripts published. I have no idea why – I suspect I give off some sort of hormone that selectively repels literary agents and publishers, but not magazine and anthology editors. For this reason, I’ve had to put my manuscripts online on my website, and on ABCTales.com, where I’m known as demonicgroin, so people can read them for free.
Ebooks in the sense of formats requiring an Ebook reader, however, are something that I’m not sure will catch on immediately, for the following reasons:
- They don’t smell as good as books
- You can read books when the sun’s shining
- Paperbacks don’t run out of battery power halfway through chapter 2
- You can club someone to death with a sufficiently large Times Atlas of World History
The battery problem can be overcome, however, by only ever reading God-Emperor of Dune, which is so tedious that your Ebooks will consume very little battery power. And you can read Ebooks under the bedclothes.
I do anticipate, furthermore, a future in which we’ll have to upgrade our personal libraries every few years every time manufacturers bring out a new form of Ebook technology. If the Bavarian Illuminati plan it right, they could prevent certain books from ever being read again, just by making sure versions of them don’t make it into the next generation. The Communist Manifesto, mate? Never heard of it.
Ebook readers seem, to me, to be devices that will go the way the dedicated word processor did in the 1980s. I think the future holds a technology that is more similar to current internet browsers – i.e., a hand-held device offering a variety of remotely hosted applications, not just the ability to read a book. There are currently very few barriers to producing a device that is ‘a PC in the palm of your hand’ – the only two drawbacks are keyboard and display size. The keyboard problem could be easily solved by future generations of voice recognition technology, though this would lead to people irritatingly talking to their computers in public in the same way people irritatingly talk to their mobile phones today. I’m not sure about the display issue. The sort of ‘smart paper’ we saw in movies such as Red Planet and novels such as The Diamond Age might be a solution.
Yes, I certainly read eBooks. Even though I love the still dominant cellulose-based lifeforms (aka paper books), eBooks are much easier to carry – and that’s a big advantage over a traditional hardcover, for one thing. The only con I can think of is the screen glare – which, I’ve been told, is virtually non-existent in Amazon’s Kindle. Living in Brazil, I wasn’t able to buy one until a few weeks ago, when Amazon finally made the device available on a global basis. Currently I use both a Dell netbook (on which I’m reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Diving Into the Wreck) and the Stanza eReader on my iPhone (on which I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), but I’m planning on buying a Kindle early next year – a good friend of mine in Rio de Janeiro already did and he’s loving it, it’s working just fine. I still have a whole lot of reading to catch up with, so the “one device to carry them all” policy seems the best bet to me in the near future.
The big advantage of eBooks is that you can get them in your hands and in front of your eyes immediately. This fast gratification of intellectual impulse is one of the most profound benefits of the digital age. The big disadvantage of ebooks is that you need an expensive device, or your own laptop, on which to read them. You don’t want to bring your Kindle or your laptop along to the beach on a beautiful, windswept, high-tide day. Also, you need reliable batteries to keep your reading device working. In contrast, all a paper book needs is the easily available ambient light of the sun or a nearby bulb.
I don’t read eBooks, because I already spend as much as 10 hours a day online, reading and writing blogs, sending Tweets, uploading podcasts, etc. So a nice old-fashioned book to read can be a welcome break from this.
But as an author, I flat-out love eBooks, because they make it so easy for my would-be readers to get my books. I’ve sold almost as many copies of my new book, New New Media, via Kindle as in paperback. Which I guess is only right, since the subject of the book is, well, new new media.
I’ve never read an eBook. I don’t have an eBook reading device, and have no plans to buy one. I know that lots of people in publishing use them now, and I can hardly blame them – much better than carrying hefty manuscripts around with them all the time. But when I want to sit down and read a book, I want to sit down and read a book. It’s all part of the reading experience for me, and after spending all day in front of a computer screen writing, reading from a paper page is a delight.
I read nonfiction and magazines off of my phone. I have also sampled the Sony e-reader and would definitely use one for nonfiction. I wouldn’t use it for something that requires more concentration like a novel. A portable book is just always going to be more convenient. That said, I do read novels I need to blurb or back when my press was open reading them as submissions, which is initially a different kind of reading.
Personally I think that ebooks will top out at about 35 percent of the market.
From a writer’s point of view I would add that thinking about a book as a mutable object works both ways. We forget the physical book at our peril and we miss opportunities for innovation if we don’t think creatively about the possibilities of all forms. A PDF book is not a physical book is not a Kindle book is not a Sony eReader book is not, to be crude for a moment, a Word document.
I have never read an eBook, even when one was given to me for free. I grew up venerating physical books. The sensation of the book itself is an important part of reading: the smell, the texture, the imperfect process of marking your place with whatever is nearby. All of that _is_ reading!
I once went through all my old books, one by one, pulling out and indexing what I had used to mark my place over the years. I often just leave my book marks at the end of the book I finish, failing to recycle it for the next. I found business cards, take out menus, receipts, letters, notes. It was an archaeological dig of my life!
Which is not to say, I don’t believe eBooks are worthwhile. The benefits of eBooks — portability, price, weight and size — will come to outweigh these secondary benefits that a generation of readers like me won’t live without. Like any new technology, the children who grow up with it will view the last generation as daft for caring about that old stuff. So too will future reading generations come to prefer eBooks, at least until books can be printed directly to the brain, in which case their own children will mock them for carrying around their Kindle eXtreme 2125s.
So no, not for me, but go for it! I’m happy for you if you do!
I’ve just bought a Sony e-reader Pocket edition. I bought it not to read ebooks on but to read PDF and word files of books that I need to cover for my Best Horror of the Year. I’m hoping it will alleviate the agony of lugging around 20 pounds of books/magazines with me every time I go on a trip.
So far I read a story on the reader and found it very simple to use. Then I started reading an anthology and although the formatting took a bit of time, the experience itself was satisfactory.
Ask me again in six months and I may have more to add.
I do in fact read eBooks, but as of yet I do not own a dedicated eBook reader. I used to read eBooks on my Palm Tungsten device, but ever since that device died I’ve switched to my iPhone. I tend to use the dedicated eBook reader apps. Stanza is my favorite for the ease of its interface and the access it provides to my reading libraries, although I also have a few of the other reader apps installed, including the Kindle for iPhone app.
But even though I have the ability to read eBooks, I still do the vast majority of my book reading with print books.
Mostly because of the virtual character of eBooks, I still have trouble envisioning an eBook as an item worth purchasing for a significant amount of money. This is ironic, given that many of my own stories have been available as eBooks for quite some time.
As a result, I tend to download and read almost exclusively eBooks that are free, which usually means eBooks that are in the public domain. For example, I revisited all fourteen of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books over the past year on my iPhone and had a great time doing it. There are some exceptions to the rule – for example, I bought Ken Rand’s three books on writing – but mostly I will only download eBooks that are provided for free.
Why does the virtual character of eBooks make it difficult for me to pay for them? I think it’s because I have no idea if the platform I use tomorrow will allow me to continue to read the eBooks that I download today. I have some eBooks I could read on my Palm that I cannot get onto my iPhone. I don’t want to spend $10 or $20 on an eBook only to discover in a few years that my new device, whatever it turns out to be, doesn’t allow me to read the eBook anymore.
One feature I miss from when I switched from Palm to iPhone was the ability to turn any document into an eBook and easily read it on my device. A friend recently sent me a first draft of his latest novel for me to review, and I can’t figure out how to get it onto my iPhone. Anyone out there reading this who can point me to a good, inexpensive way to load .doc, .rtf. .txt, or .pdf files onto an iPhone, in such a way that they are enjoyable to read, let me know.
When the Amazon Kindle was first announced, it included one feature that almost made me purchase one. The Kindle offers a variety of daily newspapers, downloaded in full each morning, so one can read them throughout the day without needing continual access to the Internet. My morning commute takes me underground for a part of it, so if I’m reading the New York Times on my iPhone there comes a point when I can’t download the articles anymore. I’d rather have a device where the whole newspaper is downloaded at the start of the day so I’ll always have articles to read while waiting for further updates. (Since this is for SF Signal, I’ll note that the presence of newspapers on the Kindle reminds me of the newspads in John Varely’s immensely enjoyable novel Steel Beach.)
The eBook does have some major advantages over the print book, although most of these are obvious. When I am on my commute, if the train gets crowded, it’s a lot easier to pull out my iPhone than a book. Theoretically, I could carry with me a large library of books, just like I carry with me a large library of music, so I could read whatever book fits my mood at the moment. But for now, I still feel that a book just isn’t a book unless I’m holding a print copy in my hands.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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