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eBook Readers, or, How To Miss The Point

I assume that if you have any connection with the internet world and its culture (and I have not entirely decided if this is “culture” like a group of people and their shared common experiences, knowledge, and rituals or “culture” like bacteria samples; it depends on how close I’ve been to Craigslist that day) then you probably have heard about the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. You cannot visit without them assuring you that the Kindle is perfect for everything, which can be perplexing if, like me, you primarily use to purchase loose leaf tea.

And you have probably also heard of their competitors, things like the Sony eBook Reader, which is slim and brushed metal and has the advantage over Amazon of actually being carried in real-world stores where people go. My local Target has one on display, which you can fiddle with and realize how little desire you have to read Marley & Me in any form, let alone eBook.

It’s quite nice. It lets you get a visual idea of what “e-Ink” looks like. E-Ink being the little piece of technology that is making this whole market. It’s electronic and refreshes quickly, but is visible in sunlight and reads like print. (And snarkily, I pointed out that my original Game Boy could also be used in sunlight without eyestrain and wondered if it was pioneering e-Ink, or if these readers have just repackaged an old Game Boy without the Mario. But never mind.)

There are other variations. For example, someone just sent me off to look at “Cool Readers” which…appear to be Sony eBook Readers, but in colors. And it says they weigh less and other features. The colors seems to be the main bit.

However, they all same one thing that bothers me into writing articles about it. And it is, in a nutshell, this:

Revolutionary eInk technology mimics the experience of reading a paper book!

To me, this really seems to be the place that it all stumbles a bit. You see, it doesn’t directly mimic a book, because of course it’s not ink on paper. It’s pretty close, I’ll grant you, and it does read like ink on paper…but then you have to ask yourself, what’s the point? Why don’t I just buy the book? Ink on paper, bound together between two covers with glue, does a much better job mimicking ink on paper, if you see what I mean.

It’s strange: eBook Readers are trying to mimic the experience of reading a book, instead of trying to revolutionize and innovate the whole process. It’s as if cellular phones had instead strove to precisely mimic the experience of looking up someone’s number by flipping through a Rolodex, and then mimicked entering their phone number with a rotary dial and then getting a busy signal instead of voice mail.

Or if digital music – MP3s, or even CDs – had mimicked the experience of putting a record on the player, placing the needle, and then having to re-place the needle when it reached the center of the record and stopped playing.

Why mimic? Books are already doing the thing they do just fine. They’ve been doing it quite well for hundreds and thousands of years, in some form or another. Going from etched-in-stone to ink-on-paper, a long time ago, didn’t try to mimic the experience of reading off a tablet by then pasting the sheet of paper onto a heavy rock.

No, what we want is innovation and improvement. We want cellular phones that are easier and lighter and less clumsy and more mobile than a home phone. We want MP3s that are more useful than a record player. We don’t want to thread film every time we watch a film. We want the new thing to be new, not to be trying very hard to be the old thing.

There is a small company with an idea – which isn’t even into the proof-of-concept stage yet – whose name I have forgotten, and whose link I cannot find (I am sure someone will appear with it), who is attempting to create a laptop and eBook reader. It opens like a laptop. You can hold it sideways like an open book. It can switch between a high-resolution eInk display (and thus, readable in the sun) or switch to a very sharp LCD-sort of display, thus readable other times. Both screens are touch screen.

Now that’s a lot closer to what I want. That’s starting to get along the right track. Because now, not only can I read books in a comfortable manner, but I can flip it laptop-way-up and do some writing. I could probably open it completely flat and draw on it. Perhaps hold it up like a newspaper. I don’t know.

It’s new. It’s a good concept. And it’s innovative. And, like so many things in our modern world, what it’s mostly about is confluence: things coming together. My wife’s iPhone is a telephone, a GPS, a map, a translator, Google, a Mancala board, an iPod and so many other things. Confluences.

I want an eBook reader which not only lets me comfortably read my books – and by comfortably, I mean forgettably: right now, I cannot get immersed in something I’m reading in an eBook reader; I cannot forget I am reading it on an eBook reader – and I want something that also allows me to comfortably do other things.

What I want, in a nutshell, is an eBook reader that can give me comic books while doing all the other stuff. I want to be able to drag my finger across the screen to turn pages. Maybe zoom in on panels. Read it comfortably. Get new ones delivered. Go out and buy, for thirty bucks, a 500-issue back catalog of Spider-Man. You get the idea.

I don’t want Imitation Book. I have hundreds and hundreds of books, and they have never frustrated me into wanting to replace them with something else. However, I can be dazzled into accentuating my collection with something else, and I can even be excited into parting with money for it.

Apple is purportedly working on an eBook reader . I have hopes for that, in that if it’s a 6″x9″ creature with an iPhone like interface, I could see a genuine use for it. I have higher hopes for that dual-touch-screen wossname that I mentioned above.

But for now?

I don’t care if Amazon wants to serve me tea on a Kindle. Or if I can read about someone’s dog on the Sony eBook Reader. Or if I can get the Cool Reader in 195 Dazzling Colors to Thrill The Young And Excite the Elderly.

I want the cool next-step in the road.

Until then, I have a library of books overwhelming my house which satisfy me entirely.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

25 Comments on eBook Readers, or, How To Miss The Point

  1. Doesn’t the Iphone come with an ebook reader app?

    ebook readers like the Kindle need to come way down in price before I’d buy a dedicated ebook reader.  


  2. All very fine, but the list of desirables you end up giving pretty much amount to … making an e-book more perfectly mimic a book.

    You mentioned that you want it to: [a] be openable, like books are – a ‘one-page book’ is a pamphlet; [2] to be able to write in it – again, like real books; [3] have the ability to ‘thumb’ through it or ‘turn pages’ – again, like real books!

    So what you seem to want is an e-book that’s innovative and revolutionary … but just like real books.

    And I agree with you, that this is what e-books should strive to do, not to try and do everything else (that I can already do on my laptop/iPhone/PSP).

  3. I really don’t think anything can, or ever will, replace the paper and glue, old school book.

  4. This is the same old argument that’s been bandied about for years. Ah, the smell and feel of books. The experience cannot be beat. Nothing will replace it. Technology is a poor imitation.

    Most people just miss the point.

    I read books. Which format it is in, whether it’s paper, electronic, or audio, depends on what I’m doing and what my needs are at the time.

    In my living room, with a cup of tea or a scotch, most likely you’ll find me with a paper book.

    In my car, on a long trip or stuck in traffic, an audio book is perfect.

    When I’m spending a month in Rome or a week at the cottage with no internet or phone, my ebook Reader is what I need. My Sony Reader right now contains over 75 books and I haven’t even tapped the possibility of loading an SD card with more. Given that I read a minimum of three books a week, carrying that number of books with me would be crazy.

    I also don’t have the room for that many books in my house, so I use the Public Library. But sometimes I want to own that book because I know I’ll reread it more than once.

    Many ebooks, especially classics, are completely free, so I can expand my reading list without breaking the bank.

    The point is that I love to read, in any format it comes into. I’ve been reading in ebook format for 10 years, starting on a black and white Palm Pilot and, let me tell you, eInk is an improvement.

    Will I ever read exclusively ebooks? Probably not. Do I want an all-singing, all-dancing device that reads books as well? Those exist already, like the iPhone or the Blackberry. That’s not what need, nor what I want.


  5. Dean Stevenson // June 18, 2009 at 7:00 am //

    I will respectfully disagree.  However, I do find this piece to be a nice rant shrouded in the form of an article.  You were even able to get a little Apple fanboi “if anyone can do it right, it will be Apple” line of reasoning.  Well played.

    I’ll contend that the Kindle is a great advancement for true readers.  Yes, the eInk is intended to mimic reading a book, or anything else you may want to read.  It’s also meant to have excellent battery life.  I believe one would be hard pressed to argue it does not achieve these two purposes.

    Your rant article also seems to omit advancements that Kindle has brought to the party such as the ability to download books directly to the device or the ability to have the daily paper delivered to the device on a daily basis.  When was the last time you saw a book/paper do that without the help of a bit of blotter paper that hippie in Rice Village gave you?

    Furthermore, your rant article completely ignores the ability to carry around massive number of books on a device that weighs as much as a thumbed through copy of Ender’s Game.  That is innovation is it not?  Yet you insist on asking for features that a more closely aligned with those of a computer and not a reading device.  Sure, the lines will blur in the future but in the meantime, don’t the costs associated with your dream device outweigh the possibility of mass adoption of e-readers?

    I believe your article misses the point of the new wave of e-readers entirely.  The point is that people like to read and with these devices, they are starting to remember/discover that no amount of film viewing, web surfing, or gaming, is going to usurp reading’s ability to provide entertainment and mental satisfaction.  It’s not about the device, it’s about the content.

  6. You’re thinking of the horrendously named Pixel Qi 3Q. You can see some HD videos of it being demonstrated and compared to other screens here at Mobileread.

    For me personally, E Ink is less about mimicking paper and more about minimizing eyestrain (and increasing aesthetics) on an electronic screen. eReader devices let you carry hundreds of books in one small package, interact with those books (through searches,hyperlinks,  unlimited annotations, etc.) and obtain new books over the Internet without needing to drive to a store (or wait for books to be delivered), all without ever making me desire a break from the display I’ve been staring at.  Aside from the hundreds of thousands of public domain books I can throw on my Sony for free, there are lots of contemporary free eBooks too.  Tor gives them away from time to time (which doesn’t make up for their terrible lack of purchasable eBooks for most of their titles).  Night Shade Books is giving away Jay  Lake’s Trial Of Flowers as a free eBook download.  I wouldn’t be too excited about reading that on a computer screen, but with my Sony Reader I was able to forget about the delivery medium and enjoy the story.

    I agree that what we have now leaves much room for improvement. I don’t think somone’s crazy for not wanting a current generation eBook reader;  I know it’s a toy and I’m a little silly for having one and loving it.  While I’m not convinced that the Pixel Qi 3Q or your Gameboy would actually be all that pleasant to spend an afternoon reading on, I’m convinced that we’ll get the confluence we desire eventually.

    (And while this is little more than a baby step, and also stalled due to lack of funds, check out the Readius: an E Ink device that also offers cell phone capabilities and rolls up to go in your pocket.)

  7. Michael // June 18, 2009 at 7:22 am //

    The biggest stumbling blocks to eReaders are always going to be cost and ungradability. 

    With the average hard bound book $15 – 20 through amazon and a paperback $7-8, it will always be cheaper to just buy the book.  If the cost per book for the reader is $8-10 and the eReader is $300 on top of that then the average cost when you buy 10 books is $38-40, if you get 20 it comes down to $23-25, still a lot higher than just buying the book.  Perhaps if libraries were to have some way to allow a person to borrow an eBook so that it would only be on an eReader for a limited amount of time, like libraries currently do with real books.

    As for upgradability, with each new version of the kindle so far, a user has to buy a whole new device to get the newest features.  It would make more sense if consumers had the choice of buying a new one or for maybe 1/4 or 1/2 the cost of the new device, people that already own an older version of a device could upgrade their existing device to have the new features available.

    Currently if I want to read a book in electronic format there are already a lot of free alternative readers out there as well as a lot of free books already in electornic format.  Why buy a dedicated device when my laptop can do it already and a whole lot more.

    So until the average cost per book is the same or lower with an eReader than it is with real books, I will stay with the real books.

  8. I don’t want the smell and feel of books (well, I do, and I’ve got it, thanks to…books), I want an e-Reader that is innovative and stepping forward in ways that makes it silly to have real books, you see? Just like I want a cell phone that makes a land line rotary phone and a Rolodex seem a bit odd.

    That was my point. I want an eBook Reader that doesn’t mimic, so much as exceed.

    I’m hoping we start getting one soon, because the world of eBooks is expanding large enough as to be really tempting. The list of Free Fiction that SF Signal posts regularly is huge. Just that alone could keep me reading for ages. I read some on the laptop, but find that uncomfortable, of course. And I print off short stories regularly and read those happily enough.

    So, I find plenty of weight in FAVOR OF the idea of eBook Readers. Just not the current readers.

    Anyway, I’m hardly the only person who has, in essence, asked the question “Where is the iPod equivalent in the eBook reader world?” And I am simply contending that we are still definitely waiting for that to show up.

  9. If you can’t say to a friend “I just read this book, u wanna read it?” as you hand it to them – then it doesn’t mimic the experience of a paperbook.



  10. Is this maybe the device you were thinking of: 100$ Laptop?

    A big barrier to me is the price of ereaders like the Kindle, but if it were truly innovative — in the sense of totally re-imagining how we read — I’d fork out the dough for it. I love that these devices can hold a whole lot of books at once and that the books can be downloaded easily, but I need a more compelling reason to spend that much money on it. IIRC, Amazon just made a deal with newspapers, magazines, and textbook companies to move even more content to the Kindle. I don’t think paper books will ever completely go away, but we may be printing them off on an Espresso machine instead of producing them mass market.

    I don’t think it’s fanism to expect Apple to continue to be as innovative as it’s been in the past. Convergence is important, as the iPhone has proven.

  11. @Jesse Willis: At some point we’ll probably be able to send them the file between devices, just like we email files now. There’s already an app for the iPhone that transfers data between two iPhones by bumping them together called Bump.

    Who knew we could transfer a book to someone with a terrorist fist bump?

  12. Books are about the content. I don’t care what format they’re in, as long as the words are there. I read print books, and ebooks. I have a Kindle and love it.


    I agree, the technology isn’t quite there yet, except for e-ink, which is fantastic. Sharing should be enabled between devices, and DRM should just go away.

  13. Another meaty article on epublishing by JA Konrath, “Should E-Books Be Cheap?”

  14. Iian @ 2 sums up my feelings about this post. I like the device you speak of (I’ve seen stuff about it, too) and I think that if it went even farther by mimicing actual books MORE it would be the It thing. What I mean is, I’d liek to be able to make notes in the margins (or a revolutionary equivalent) and draw on the book if I like and have that saved. I’m thinking mainly of textbook users here, for which this would be emminently useful. Or anyone who does regular research (as I do for my fiction). I want my ebook reader to both emulate and revolutionize.

    I use my netbook as an ebook reader and it suits me just fine. It’s a multi-purpose machine, which I def. think readers should be, and if I fiddle with the brightness and contrast I don’t get eye strain. If I had a tablet netbook, that would be the perfect thing. But my ebook software would, again, have to allow me to make notes and stuff.

    I’m with you on wanting comics, though.

    On a side note: I’ve seen those Cool Readers and they’re pretty awesome. 🙂

  15. Janice in GA // June 18, 2009 at 3:30 pm //

    I’ve been reading ebooks since I bought my first Handspring Visor PDA years ago.  I’m also bemused by e-readers that mimic books.  I LOVED having an e-reader on my PDA, but the advent of smartphones killed the dedicated PDA, and probably rightly so.

    The things that I value about e-books are things that are NOT found in paper books:  the ability to change fonts, to change font sizes, to have auto-scrolling (I knit while reading), to carry many books in the palm of my hand.  Most readers like the Sony E-reader don’t have quite enough versatility to do all these things.  I think the Kindle, with its browser capability, might do a little more.

    I currently have 4 e-reader programs on my netbook.  I just bought a Sony reader when it went on sale for $199 at Borders.  I’m still a little undecided how much I like the Sony, since it’s JUST an ebook reader.  But the e-ink is a little easier on my aging eyes than my PDA is these days.

    And I think the display you’re thinking aobut it the Pixel Qi ( screen, which may be available in some netbooks soon.  That really looks promising.




  16. Janice in GA // June 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm //

    Oh, and apologies for the double post, but what make me LIVID are the WEB PAGES THAT TRY TO LOOK LIKE PAPER MAGAZINES OR BOOKS!!!

    Srsly, WTF is up with that?  Could there be a WORSE way of display a “free ebook”?  Not in my world.  I totally would not waste my time with that crap.

    :goes off fuming after looking at “The Digital Plague”:




  17. interesting post but you’re missing the point yourself. 

    e-ink is a reflective and non emitting – meaning that it acts like a ink on paper. This means that you can use outside on a nice summers day and be able to read it. You can’t do this with an ipod, netbook, laptop (excluding that interesting hybrid you mentioned). The tech is still developing and yes it would be lovely to have a reflective screen that does the full millions of colours needed to display comics in their full glory but you can’t yet. You can if you want spend £1000s. Though this will change and will get cheaper as the demand increases and the technology advances. 

    So no you can’t get all the comics you want and read them yet but give it chance. 

    Now let’s look at ereaders acting like books. Reading a book feels like it is automatic but that’s only because we have learned the conventions and have certain expectations when it comes to reading. American readers expect to have new paragraphs after a scene-break to be indented. UK readers expect the same paragraph not to be indented. Swapping those conventions would cause a reader some discomfort and confusion. Sure you’d get used to it but it’s not what you’d expect. 

    So what do you really expect from an electronic book? Do you think it should act like a book first and foremost. Because that’s what they try and do.

    They also have added advantages. You can change the font sizes for one. It’s not as easy as you’d think. Indesign/Quark can set-type in multiple and multitude of ways. A PDF is a master copy. Creating a reflowing text file that has all the formatting that you’d expect form a book is a time consuming and technical challenge. And that in itself is an evolving technology. 

    Think mobile phones. 

    My first mobile phone was a brick and it could make voice calls and send text messages. The screen was tiny and it was a simple back and white screen and didn’t need an operating system. 

    My current iPhone is a phone, video player, music player, mini-computer…. but phones didn’t start out like that.

    That’s evolution – changes through demand, usage, technology and the unpredictable x-factor. 

    Yes it’s boring to have an ebook look like a book but you wouldn’t say that if you were now free to read a book in large font at the touch of a button, a book that you couldn’t read before as it was in small print. You can hold an ebook easily and turn the pages, but can’t hold the 1000 page version of the hardback. 

    So just because it doesn’t apply to you doesn’t make it useful and an important technology. 

  18. Edward Milewski // June 18, 2009 at 4:19 pm //

    So are these things waterproof. I read while soaking in my tub. If the Kindle or any other e-book reader falls into the water is that it? $300 or more down the drain plus the library you’ve maybe paid for?I don’t see the point of paying out more money for a machine that allows you to pay even more money before you even have a chance to read a word. And I can always dry out a paper book and still read it.

  19. The current readers are to expensive.

    For the same price i can get a net- or notebook (i do not care that the reason for this is econmic of scale). It is just to hard to justify that purchase, except if you earn enough money or you really read tons of books, are constantly on the road or have storage problem for dead tree blocks.

    Today I would  not consider to buy any books i read for entertainment as an ebook.

    Text books are different. A 1500 pages programming language book is  fantastic as an ebook. You can easily browse it, search it,  copy text from it, carry it everywhere around on a thumb drive etc., but a dedicated reader, oh the money.


    And DRM, wtf. It does not work for music, it does not work for movies and it won’t work for ebooks. The publishers should accept it and try to spend their money and energy to find ways to let people buy ebooks.

  20. TheAdlerian // June 18, 2009 at 7:08 pm //


    I knew who wrote this before I even looked, at least once I got to this:

    “…but then you have to ask yourself, what’s the point? Why don’t I just buy the book?”

    Pete, attempt some teleological thinking and imagine what an avid reader might like about the device.

  21. What’s Mancala? Does it prevent one from responding to old friend’s email? Do antibiotics prevent it?

    What’s a “book”? You mean one of those old stinky things the dog likes to chew that harbor mold spores?


  22. retrocog // June 18, 2009 at 10:10 pm //

    Again, I’m waiting for authors and publishers to use the format to create a different experience.  I want inegrated music, illustrations that aren’t available in the print format, and perhaps clickable links within the text that will possibly point toward inspiration or science behind what I am reading.   THis will all be possible in digital format, and could very well justify the cost of a product that offers a bit more for your money.

    And, moving forward, I’d love to see tiered storytelling, with the concepts of an ARG applied to the digital reading experience.  A new entertainment.  At that point, bring it on.

  23. Jeff VanderMeer // June 19, 2009 at 10:25 am //

    The all-in-one thing leads inevitably to fragmentation and forms of madness not noticeable only because so many of us are mad in this way.

    I think Benoit makes the best points above.

  24. Jim Satterfield // June 20, 2009 at 9:30 pm //

    Textbooks. Anyone who is still in school and has to haul around several large textbooks (Typical calculus, chemistry, physics books etc.) can appreciate what a real color eBook reader could do for you.

  25. After reading this article and the comments, I still basically agree with the author.

    I want an ebook reader that does more than what a print book will do. And I want it to be part of one wonderful device-my everything device. This device will be a computer I can use for all my work, which includes my ebook reader, runs games, camera, video, phone and any application I might need.

    As much as I love the Kindle DX and other readers, I find the prices ridiculous to consider for simply a reader. Not only that, even if the prices were significantly lowered, I personally would not want another device just for reading books (though I could see how many would want that, but then it should cost approx $50 IMO and let them make money off the content).

    I want a very nice small laptop/netbook/tablet or whatever it ends up being called, and I would like that one device to be $500 or less. And I want it to do everything I could ever need. Many netbooks are getting there (and for $200-400, but none I’ve seen so far have a reader that can do what the Kindle DX does and more, not yet.

    I’ve played around with a number of free readers on my laptop, my iPhone (have free Kindle iPhone app and Stanza reader), and my XO laptop. All I have used so far show great promise, but they can and they will get better. They should have all the functionality of the Kindle DX and more (def links in ebooks). I expect uses I haven’t even thought of yet.

    A year and a half ago I wrote this blog post titled, Ebook Reader-Not a Kindle, Not a Sony-It’s an XO Laptop Reader  This reader (and the machine itself which is part of the OLPC One Laptop per Child education project) was ahead of its time. I expect the newer XOs linked in one of the comments as the $100 Laptop, may include an even better reader.

    I would like an adult version in some ways of the XO device. There are levels of innovation in that machine I haven’t seen anywhere else (MESH!). And I really want the aesthetics and intuitiveness of Apple products. I would like the most innovative device ever and one which includes an amazing reader. 

    I’m sure this device is coming, and then I believe ebooks really will take off. Once ebooks and ebook readers get to the place where they offer much more than print, ebooks will revolutionize the book industry (though I’m a librarian and do believe there will probably always be a need/desire for print books as well-at least in my lifetime 🙂 ).

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