Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Books, E-books, and Reading

My Kindle, as Appian's The Civil Wars
I’ve been chewing on this one for most of a year now, Readers Mine, so I figured it was about time to ruminate publicly. As you may know, I am an avowed bibliophile, and have been since my early teens. Over the years I’ve managed to compile a respectable library, and have developed into one of those people who, in the words of Anna Quindlen, “believe that decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” Let’s be clear, though. I’m not a collector. Oh I have a few moderately valuable editions, and some signed copies, but they came to me through accident or happy opportunity rather than careful acquisition. Above all, I’m a reader, so my library is as much mass market paperback and ex-library editions as anything else.

All of that is to remind you that I am a lover of books not merely as communications technology, but also as things, as objects to be possessed and treasured, touched, held, and smelled. At the same time, I am a reader, so the idea of having the equivalent of my library accessible through one, lightweight, hand-held device that I can carry with me pretty much anywhere is a heady proposition. So I waited, and watched e-readers – and the Kindle specifically – go through a few generations, and kept an eye on the development of e-books in general, and finally, last year, I bought my Kindle. It wasn’t an unprepared plunge. By this point I’d dipped into Project Gutenberg and Google Books, and even had the opportunity to read a book on a first-gen iPad. I find computers and other back-lit screen devices adequate for short pieces, but when I get the chance to curl up for a weekend and really read a novel or two, or get so hooked in one that I say to hell with it and stay up until 3am to finish it, the back-light really begins to hurt my eyes. It seemed that the Kindle’s (and now Nook’s), non-backlit, e-ink display was the way for me to go.

And it was. Crisp, print-like text, light (particularly when compared to the iPad), and capable of storing approximately 3500 books, the Kindle is a device built for readers like me, who are apt to spend hours on end reading. To be fair, I was also not looking for a device that lets me play Angry Birds or surf the web, or play my music. I just wanted an e-reader, pure and simple, and that’s what the Kindle is. Financial concerns also entered into my decision. Not so much the cost of the device (though I waited until competition had begun to have its effect, price-point-wise), as the cost of content. Look, as far as I know, it is impossible to obtain hardcopy formats of the complete works of Jack London, H. P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard, Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, A. Conan Doyle, etc, etc for $5 or less apiece. I have all of the above on my Kindle for about the price of a hardcover book. Literally over 1000 books, plus stories, poems, essays, etc, for the price of one. Not only that, but many of these writers’ works are hard to find, even when you’re just looking for Haggard’s Alan Quatermain adventures. I’ve always wanted complete collections of these guys, and now I have them. Of course, the price is reflective of their (mostly) public domain status, but still.

Beyond the classics, I’ve read histories, classic and modern SF, how-tos, PDFs (which the Kindle isn’t so hot with), poetry, and even used a Kindle version of the Bible for a recent class. I really like the device. Reading on it is a joy, the battery-life is fairly long, and the thought of having so much content right there in my hand still makes me a bit giddy. I’ve read on the Kindle in waiting rooms, on vacation, at home, over lunches, and my Kindle travels with me to class every single day, slipping into my backpack without adding any appreciable weight, and insuring that I never unexpectedly find myself without something to read. It’s fantastic. That being said, e-books are not going to replace books for me. They comprise reading material in addition to, but not in place of, books. When favorite authors publish a new book, I still want it in hardback. Add to that the usual discounts offered by Amazon and Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble on new releases, and hardcovers generally aren’t much more expensive than e-editions. Yet. I still want the sense of physical possession that books bring, especially with favorite writers, and e-books just don’t cut it when it comes to that.

Of course, I have to face the fact that this likely springs from the fact that easily 95% and more of my reading life has been through books. It is a format I am intimately and unconsciously familiar with. When I want to find a specific passage or quote in a book, I can often find it because I remember where it falls, physically, in the book, and so open the book to the appropriate section without need for a look at the index or table of contents. My brain and body have been programmed through years of practice to be a surprisingly efficient search tool when it comes to books. Plus, whether I buy a book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Got Books? I only need one “device” to read it: the book itself. (The real revolution in e-books will occur when there is one standard file format, or all e-readers come with the built-in ability to reformat files so that I can read all my e-books on one device, no matter where purchased.) Younger generations, particularly those who will grow up with e-books, will undoubtedly develop similar technology-specific skills as those I have for books.

In the end, go get an e-reader. It’s totally worth it, though I recommend doing some research and test-drives to determine which one is right for you, and whether you want a dedicated device or something more like a tablet. It turns out the magic isn’t in the device, anyway. It’s still in the words.

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely. I usually go with the cheapest format, be it kindle or an actual book. I use my kindle most when on the treadmill, you can hold it and turn pages with the same hand.