Monday, January 09, 2012

Should you switch over to e-books?

You already know the big reasons to get an E-Book - which I can
summarize by saying I'm reading the brand new 900 page Stephen King book
on something that weighs less than a paperback, and it cost less than
the paperback will when it's released months from now - but maybe you're
still not sure about buying one, or at least not sure about making it
your primary way of reading books. I'm very much considering making a
nearly-complete transition, as a result of the trauma of my last move. I
still haven't been reunited with the couple-dozen wine cases full of
books I painfully packed up and moved to my friend's basement, and the
idea of accumulating more of that weight of *stuff* is awful to me. Like
my laptop carries every album I've bought in the last 2 years, my Kindle
Touch currently holds 50 novel-length books, and could hold hundreds and
hundreds more.

It feels good to be travelling light, but if reading is as important to
you as it is to me it's a huge step, and you don't want to make it
lightly. I want to lay out some very real cons that you may not have
thought of, but then also provide pros you might not have thought of to
counteract them.

But first I want to deal with an invalid con: "I just love the
look/feel/smell of books" Do you really? Or do you love them because
they are *associated* with the texts you love? If you had never heard of
Catch-22 and there was an empty notebook with the cover art and cover
text, would you buy it and revere it? We're fond of books as objects
because of the words they contain. But once there's an alternative it's
easy to see lots of things you don't like about them: much of the sf I
like to read gets covers that are terrible paintings of spacey stuff
that has nothing to do with the contents. Paperbacks are kind of damaged
by reading them even once, especially big ones; they get dirty and can't
be cleaned. They often have garish promotional material all over the
covers, and university library books often have writing inside. And for
people with asthma, being in a room full of books is the worst thing.
Basically most modern mass produced books are not that beautiful as
objects, and there's nothing stopping you from buying the ones that are
to keep around as ornaments, like turn of the century cigarette cases.
If you love reading you'll embrace whatever is the most direct route to
wonderful books.

My Kindle Touch is not particularly beautiful, but it does what it needs
to do which is stay out of your way and not feel like a computer. With
the e-ink display the e-book is just about as pleasant as reading a
paper book (though the contrast isn't as high, so it's somewhat like
reading on light grey paper) It doesn't hum or pop things up, and it
lasts for at least a month on a single charge.
Ok now for the real ones, focusing on the Kindle Touch since it's what I

CON: You don't own the book in the same way. sells books encumbered by digital rights management, meaning
it can't be used on non-amazon devices, can't be copied freely, and will
probably not be readable in 10 years. That sucks, and hopefully will go
away some day like the DRM on the iTunes store, but I can understand why
they do it at least initially, since books are insanely easy to pirate.
The lower price helps a bit, and some books are set up to be able to lend to friends 
lend books out to friends with Kindles (although only 2 out of the 8 in my library
I looked at), and unlike lending real books,
you can be on the other side of the country, and it comes back to you
automatically. It's also the case that if a book you bought is
accidentally deleted, or your Kindle is stolen, you can get it from
Amazon again.

PRO: Public domain books are free and instantly available.

Do you like Edgar Allen Poe, Somerset Maugham, PG Wodehouse, Arthur
Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, HP Lovecraft, L Frank Baum, Lewis Caroll,
Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau,
Voltaire, Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, or any other author who wrote before
1920? Well now you can can carry around *all* of them with you for free.
Amazing when I think about the hundreds of dollars I spent buying books
by these authors. There are also tons of free modern books, by sf writer
Cory Doctorow and many many people you've never heard of, plus lots of
great sales. One more point is that many public libraries now have
e-book collections. My library in a medium big town has thousands of
books, including very new ones, basically equivalent to a large airport
bookstore. Holds on popular books take longer to become available than
the corresponding paper copies, and the terms of borrowing are not quite
as good, but there's no picking them up, and no remembering to return
them - it's literally impossible to get an overdue fine, they just
disappear from your device.

CON: Whenever you connect to the wireless network, your books could be
taken away by, or even invisibly altered.
In a feature that people didn't even know existed, Amazon has the power
to pull a book that you bought right back out of your Kindle, as it did
oh so ironically with 1984 and Animal Farm in the summer of 2009:
It hasn't happened again since, and it may be a good thing that it
happened relatively early and there was such a big shitstorm about it,
since that provides some protection. They've promised they won't do it
again. But since it's a corporation, that promise is worthless, and
they're unlikely to do the only thing that would make it better: make it
technologically impossible for them to take books back. Even more
frightening, if this capability exists it means it is very possible for
them to reach into your E-Book and alter the text of books after the
fact, much like Bush's Whitehouse invisibly altered transcripts on their
web page. It's already apparently common practice for authors to tinker
with the text of their book as sold on Amazon, such that people who buy
it subsequently will get a slightly different version.

PRO: The wireless connectivity means that it can act as an emergency web
device, and on my Kindle Touch the keyboard works quite well, if I
needed to send an emergency email or look up an address. Of course with
the e-ink it is incredibly clumsy to use the web, which I actually like:
it discourages the rampant multitasking I tend to do when I have a web
browser in front of me. It very much replicates the quiet, focused
feeling of sitting down with a good book.

CON: Your reading habits are being logged.
This is troubling. There is a file on your Kindle which logs the time of every page turn, and even your geographic location if yours has 3G, and this file could potentially be uploaded to Amazon:
According to the hackers on the MobileRead forums, there is no evidence so far that the file is ever transmitted to Amazon. But that could change as easily as a tiny update to their code. I really hate the idea that my privacy in this most intimate activity could be invaded.
However there's hope on the horizon,
since someone's already found a way to jailbreak the Kindle Touch. I'm
putting it out of my mind for now, but crossing my fingers that it will
only be a matter of months before I can take control of my device and
make sure it's not acting as a spy sending whispers back to the corporation.

PRO: Books are searchable, quotable, and enlargable.
It's very cool to not only be able to carry around all your books with
you, but to quickly find exact passages. I foresee a new era of annoying
people by reading them my favourite bits. When you select a passage, not
only does it stay highlighted, but it copies the text onto a file that
is easily copied off the Kindle when connected. Bookmarks work great,
and this is going to be very helpful in the years to come, you can
instantly change the text size by pinching with two fingers, as well as
other text attributes. You can blow the text up huge!

CON: You can't read it during takeoff and landing.
I had a lot of trouble with this one, since it makes no sense. Even if
cellphones were a threat to airplanes, a Kindle with the wireless turned
off couldn't possibly pose a threat. When you're not turning pages, it's
practically a dead hunk of plastic. But I look at it two ways. First,
it's the airline's rules so they can do what they want. We are a guest.
Second, even if the flight attendants and pilot know what an e-book is,
do you think every person around you who is dying to use their iPhone
will too? Some idiot would definitely cause trouble. I just look at it
as a proving to myself that I can survive without entertainment for 20
minutes, and in fact so far it's always turned into a chance to meet my
seatmate, which has been nice.

PRO: You can read with one hand.
This is huge. This is something I've wanted my whole life. No matter how
big the book is, you can easily read it with only one hand free. In fact
I only have to graze a fingertip, knuckle, or nose across my screen and
it turns the page. I can read while eating barbecue chicken wings. I can
read while brushing my teeth. I can read while holding onto a subway
pole in a crowded car. If I'm a bit careful, I can read in a bath. And
this one really hit me: I could potentially read while running on a
treadmill. I don't plan on running on a treadmill, but that's cool.
If those cons are things that are important to you, I can completely
understand if you would not want to put all your eggs in the e-book
basket. But now that they cost less than an ipod nano, I think it should
be well worth considering along the lines of a Netflix subscription:
it's a bit creepy, sometimes frustratingly limited, but a great service
if you're into the content. But if you choose not to get one, please be
aware that it is much too late to take a philosophical stance against
e-books, in hopes that people will take you for a mysterious, supercool
free thinker.


Liz said...

I will preface by saying: I am passionately in love with my Kindle. And the app that lets me read my kindle books on my phone. I read most of the Wheel of Time while travelling this summer, and did not carry a single massive book anywhere.

Still, I don't think I'll ever stop buying real books for social reasons. First of all, I love displaying my carefully curated library in my living room, and seeing other people's libraries. I like being able to 'discover' shared interests that way (oh! You read too!). Second, there is no way to press your ebook into someone else's hand and demand they read it immediately. Sure, you might be able to put a electronic copy in their queue somewhere, but it isn't the same.

Otherwise - a good review.

(Another love for ebooks: seeing the parts that people highlight! it's so interesting (as a non-highlighter))

Jim Davies said...

I'll tell you why the con of not owning books doesn't bother me: according to my ethical code, once I legitimately buy a book, I automatically own any digital copy, however I choose to get it. So, for example, when you buy Stephen King's new book, you can immediately get a PDF of it from bit torrent, just to save as a backup. Then, even if Amazon takes it away, you have the backup, which (according to my ethical code) you still legitimately own, and can read on any device.

If you break your kindle, when you get a new kindle, all of the books you bought will be there. If your house burns down, try asking Penguin for new copies of all of your paper books. Good luck with that. In this way, your ownership is a bit more robust than with paper books, which can be lost, burned, or worn out.

So when you buy a Kindle book, the only thing that's fragile is your ability to read it on the Kindle in the Kindle format (you can read the torrented PDF on the Kindle).

To me, that's really not much risk.