1/16/2014

reading and e-readers

I've owned a Kindle for several years now, and I love it. But after an initial period where I tried to move all my reading to the kindle, I'm dialing back a bit. Any new technology not only enables us to do new kinds of things, but also changes how we act - our behavior patterns and habits (John Dyer has a great discussion of these things in From the Garden to the City). E-readers make some things much easier than paper books, but they also make some things harder, so that they tend to change how you read in subtle ways. This is not a bad thing, but it is important to be aware of it so that you can make conscious, informed decisions about how you read rather than just falling into the patterns suggested by a particular new way of reading.

Some things that e-readers are not very good at:
  • Reading books you want to have a relationship with. There are certain books that you read over and over again, that you curl up with, that you scribble in the margins, that helped you get through a difficult time, for which re-reading gives you a familiar, comforting sense of place - "I'm home". There are some books you live in and with - a Bible, a prayer book, etc. You can never have this kind of relationship with an ebook because it is disembodied. You can still underline and make notes in an ebook, but the personality is not there - in fact I've stopped making notes at all because I found them difficult to access (on my device anyway; it might be easier on a touch-screen reader), more time-consuming to enter, and not very helpful for those reasons.
  • Studying a book. You lose a sense of place in a book; cross-referencing what you are reading with a previous section might take just a few seconds in a paper book. In an e-book you will not do it because it is too hard to find the section you are thinking of. Ebooks do have full-text search, but even so it is more trouble and there is a nagging worry about whether or not you'll be able to get back to where you were when you're done cross-references, simply because there is no sense of place in the text.
  • Saving you money. It is true that e-books are generally a little cheaper than a new copy of a book; but not by much. And if you are really price-conscious, used copies of books can be had on Amazon for less than the price of an e-book almost all the time. The exception is public-domain texts, which I'll get to in the next section.
  • Owning a book. All ebook stores currently have very similar licensing: you are purchasing a non-transferable, revokable license to read the book; you are not actually purchasing the book itself. Your rights are severely limited compared to paper books: you cannot re-sell it or even give it away; you have limited (legal) choices about how and on what devices to read your books; your right to the book could even be revoked at any time (this is rare, of course, but Amazon has done it).
  • Having a conversation about a book. Because paper books have covers, other people can see what you're reading. This can be a conversation-starter around the house, in a coffee shop, in an airplane, etc. When I'm reading an e-book it could be Plato or a romance novel for all anyone else can tell (which, incidentally, is why romance novels are so popular as ebooks). This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're looking for.
They are very good, on the other hand, at:
  • Reading novels or any book that you intend to read straight-through, front-to-back. I do find kindle reading very immersive; it is easy to get lost in what you're reading and this fits well with novels which tend to draw you in. Long novels are especially compelling; Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books are a fantastic argument for a kindle. I find that this covers about half the things I want to read; but my reading tends toward the academic and for most people it would probably cover a significantly higher percentage.
  • Reading older public-domain texts that are hard to obtain, out of print, or only available in expensive editions. There is a lot of really good content that can be obtained for free or very inexpensively. Free versions, though, are generally very poorly formatted. Usually I prefer to spend a few dollars on a version that has better formatting.
I still love my kindle, but I'm putting more thought into trying to use it for the kind of reading it is good at, and not for the kind of reading it isn't.

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