The E-Reader: Jury’s Still Out
About a month ago, I purchased an e-reader. I experimented with the touchscreen technology and found it wanting. I also thought that the Nook and Kindle Fire were overpriced. Having limited my options, I chose the simplest e-reader available on the market, Amazon’s $79, button-controlled Kindle.
As with many new technologies, there was a honeymoon period. I quickly downloaded free books like Shakespeare’s Complete Sonnets and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. I bought new books directly on the device (more on this later) and read them at a furious pace. Each time I advanced a percentage point closer to completion, I felt this strange rush of accomplishment. Reading on my Kindle felt like a game: I wanted to keep progressing, finish the book, and move on to the next one. I even gushed (yes, gushed) about the size of the device – how I could put it in my coat pocket and take it anywhere.
Once the honeymoon period ended, I viewed the device with fresh eyes. While there are many things that I like about the Kindle, it has its flaws. Yes, the Kindle is portable and easy to use. It’s perfect for trips on the subway or long-distance travel (you can bring all your books with you on one device). Only, something was missing: the experience of reading the book object.
I am not a book fetishist. Many of the people who decry the e-reader do so on the basis of their almost irrational love for the book as an object. Refusing to acknowledge this love, most fetishists invent arguments against e-readers that have little basis in reality.1 The fetishists though are right about one thing: current e-reader models cannot replace the experience of reading a real book. Active reading, something Mortimer Adler describes as ” thinking” which “tends to express itself in words, spoken or written,” is difficult to do on an e-reader. Worse, for a device that prides itself on convenience, note-taking in an e-book is inconvenient. A book ought to be a repository of all our thoughts and feelings on that book. E-books lack, even inhibit, this degree of reader engagement.
In its defense, the e-reader does some things better than an “old fashioned” book. First, it makes it easier to access the things that you have noted or highlighted. How often have you highlighted passages, only to ignore them later due to the overwhelming volume of things that you’ve highlighted? An e-reader allows you to see all the passages you highlighted in one place, making review far easier. Additionally, reading endnotes has never been easier or more enjoyable. With the push of a few buttons, you can toggle seamlessly between a note and your place in the text. Both of these features make e-readers dream devices for writers of research papers and readers of dense, academic prose.
Room For Improvement
The e-reader, while not a novelty, is still a device deep in its infancy. Amazon and Barnes & Noble have created devicesthat are designed to help them control the book market. E-readers, in their current incarnation, are really good at two things: helping Amazon and B & N control the publishing market and making you buy more books. While I’ve written and tweeted extensively on the first issue, it’s the second that I find more fascinating. For people who love books, and especially for people who love buying books, e-readers are possibly the most evil devices ever invented. At your fingertips is the entire Amazon book marketplace. If you have an Amazon account, all you need to do is click on a few screens, and voila! you’ve purchased and downloaded a new book onto your Kindle. The entire process takes seconds. It took serious self-restraint (an the obligatory glance at my bank account) to dissuade me from buying tens of books, so simple is the entire process.
However, the push to get e-readers onto the market also means that the e-readers available just aren’t very good. Electronic ink prevents eye-strain, but it’s struggled to replicate the experience of reading print. Some books have clearly been rushed into electronic format and as a result are full of weird formatting, duplicate words, and sometimes astonishing typos. As I already mentioned, the touchscreen technology is often frustrating to use. Taking notes is a gigantic headache (although accessing your notes later is not). Simply put, e-readers today are just not as convenient or as beautiful as they should be. They lack the elegant simplicity of an Apple product and the functionality of products that have been on the market for years.
There are a few things that the next generation of e-readers should have. First, they need to make it easier to interact with the e-book. To facilitate note-taking and active reading, e-readers should come equipped with voice recording software that will allow the reader to dictate notes, thoughts, feelings, and ideas as she reads the book. This makes active reading both easier and more fun. More importantly, it will allow the reader to interact with an e-book in a way that they can’t with a regularly bound and printed book. Second, screen technology must improve. Third, the entire reading experience must become simpler and more intuitive. Current e-readers are relatively easy to use, but new e-readers must make this experience even easier. Is there a simpler technology than a book?
1 For example, some argue that e-readers are monopolozing the market (this is true of publishing, but not true of the market for booksellers) and thus putting out of business respectable booksellers. I’ve shown that this is true for chain bookstores, but not very likely for niche stores.