I tend to frown upon people who would censor or restrict access to books beyond their own families. If I learn that they haven’t read the books they’re fighting, my figurative frown turns into a full-blown glare. So as I learned more about e-books, I realized that to live up to my self-imposed standards, I would have to read one before I could either praise or damn them. Well, I am reading one, and I’m here to report that while I have some serious criticisms of the e-book system as it currently stands, overall, I’m enjoying the experience. Since I went into this figuring that e-books are a gimmicky plaything, realizing that I’d like to read another one has been disconcerting to say the least.
Parameters of the experiment: I chose a title I’d already read once, so that I’d be less distracted by the writing itself and better able to pay attention to the reading experience.* I chose a Kindle e-book simply because the titles I’m interested in are in that format. Originally, I thought that I would wait until I finished the e-book before commenting on it. But by this point, I think I’ve found the important features of the e-book and I don’t need to make it to the end of the text to have opinions about them.**
The reading experience: I don’t own a Kindle or any other e-reader. It’s one thing to buy a $15 e-book to experiment with; buying over $100 of technological toy is another matter entirely. Reading the e-book on my iPod Touch hasn’t been nearly as weird as I feared. I thought having only a few words on the “page” at any one time would be annoying. But just tapping the screen is a barely noticeable motion, especially with a bit of practice. I haven’t noticed any eyestrain, but I read the e-book in fits and starts, and maybe I just haven’t read it long enough at any one time to have problems. Since the iPod has a color screen, the app allows you to read black type on a white background, as well as white type on a black background or brown print on a sepia background. I’m guessing these are meant to ease eyestrain. The fonts are adjustable, which adds to the convenience, since it’s faster for me to enlarge the font than to dig around in my bag looking for my reading glasses.
Nifty features: Where the e-book experience promises to shine is with annotations. See, I have the hardest time getting myself to write in a book. Much as I might want to make notes about a passage, highlight a key sentence, or argue with the author, I can rarely bring myself to mar the perfection of the “blank” page. Apparently I have no such qualms with electronic annotation. I’ve been getting into highlighting key points (no bleed-through from a highlighter, and I can change my mind and unhighlight passages if I so desire). I’ve even made a note or two; the notes are minimized until you want to read them. Although I can write with fairly tiny letters, few books leave you enough margin space to express your thoughts fully. Maybe there’s a maximum length for e-book notes, but I haven’t hit it yet, and since all the notes are typed, they’re perfectly legible.
There’s also a search feature. I haven’t used that much on this particular book, but I’ll probably be using it on other reference books. I’ve dreamed of being able to do a keyword search on my library and the technology is coming into existence. Whee!
Oh, and let’s not overlook the obvious: being able to carry an entire library around with you in only a few ounces. I went on a short trip this weekend, bringing along a print book—just one, because that’s all that would fit in my luggage. Alas, I just couldn’t get into it. But I’d also brought along the iPod, and there was The Twelve Houses right at hand. Saved!
Public/private, mine/theirs, etc.: There are some major criticisms of e-books and e-readers out there, and my mostly positive experience isn’t negating them. At least with the Kindle e-books, what you highlight is public but shown anonymously (“2 people highlighted this”), and that’s fine with me. Notes, however, are more problematic. As far as I can tell, with Kindle e-books, either your notes are all private, or they’re all public and tied to your Amazon.com username. I’d like an option to mark each note public or private as I choose. The world doesn’t need to know if something Sasportas wrote reminds me of someone, but I would like to share some of my criticisms with future readers of The Twelve Houses. I hope that this feature becomes more sophisticated; I look forward to using it more.
And that’s the crux of matter, isn’t it? There’s going to be a “more.” This despite the glaring flaws in the system. I’m not keen on having publishers set the prices. Despite the fact that e-books have no printing, binding, or distribution costs, often the e-book is almost as expensive as the paperback edition. When retailers set the price, as they still do for paper books, you could look forward to sales and discounts. I’m betting e-books will almost never be discounted.
I’m really uncomfortable with not actually owning my e-books. Why are e-books considered more like software than like books? What happens if file formats change and future devices no longer support my e-library? Will Amazon update my e-books for free? I suspect not. I also find the idea of Amazon storing my notes to be a little creepy. Although Google stores all my email, which is far more personal, and for some reason I’m fine with that. (Like Whitman, I contradict myself.)
All this applies, and I still find myself online searching out e-books I might want. This includes titles that I currently own paper copies of—now I can write in them! Yes, The Soul’s Religion—one of the few books I’ve ever written in extensively—is available for the Kindle, but is it reasonable to buy a duplicate copy just to make your annotations easier to find and read?
*The book in question is The Twelve Houses by Howard Sasportas. I gave away my paper copy a number of years ago because I didn’t refer to it enough to justify giving it shelf space. Well, that’s not a problem with e-books, now is it?
**The Kindle apps tell me that I’m precisely 27% of the way through the e-book. Très cool. Yet if I divide the page number I’m at by the total number of “pages” in the e-book, I’m at the 40% point. Perhaps this feature needs work.