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Pretty Good Hat

e-book Ambivalence

I’m ambivalent about e-books. (eBooks? E-Books? Electronic books? Too branded, too formal, and too anachronistic, respectively. I’ll use “e-books” for now, though I don’t much like it, either.) Mostly unsorted and partially thought out, these are a few reasons why.

  • The new book options in my town consist of Barnes and Noble and Amazon, but we have a fantastic, unparalleled and world-class used bookstore. The shop also has a great coffee shop I regularly visit for weekend downtime. Whenever possible, I am happy to buy there. I love to support this place, and it’s a core community institution, but the used book market being what it is, they don’t always have what I’m looking for.
  • E-books offer instant gratification. This probably isn’t a good thing, fundamentally, but it makes me fleetingly happy.
  • I like reading on the iPad. The book goes everywhere I go, it’s easy to capture notes, and I always have plenty to read, whether it’s on the iPhone or iPad
  • I also like reading paper books.
  • Paper books are part of an ecosystem of reading, sharing, trading and re-selling that e-books are not – and by design, due to digital rights restrictions.
    • Paper books are visible on the shelf the way e-books never are, which appeals to the recovering academic in me as well as the eager reader who picked up Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Annapurna from my dad’s bookshelf. Will e-books motivate my own son to read in anything like the same way?
    • At least as currently “managed” for digital rights, e-books don’t allow me to trade them at that fantastic local shop, or to lend them beyond the narrow parameters allowed by the different publishers and reader software. They are quite effectively closed to conversation, discovery, and re-use.
    • E-books can’t get lost in a box, left in a coffee shop or destroyed by a spill (though the more-expensive iPad certainly might).
    • Were I still an academic, e-books might aid note-taking and writing substantially over paper: Copying passages for quoting, managing references, and finding notes or noted excerpts.
  • Typography on e-books is getting there, but just can’t reproduce the effect of a well-typeset book on nice paper. The recent support of some comics and graphic novels by Amazon’s kindle & app has greatly expanded the world of e-reading for me, too.
  • Books require paper, ink, manufacturing, trucking, warehouse space, a whole supply chain. Are e-books with their reliance on cloud datacenters more sustainable, or ultimately, in the long run, less so? I’m not sure how to reconcile the two different kinds of costs.
  • The selection of e-books available from my local public library is awful, but the web site for the e-book borrowing is even worse. It’s really truly terrible.

The future I imagine is one much like the state of music downloads that Apple precipitated with iTunes Plus – DRM-free media readable by any supporting application or device (though the book industry is so strongly committed to its DRM that I’m not holding my breath). In the meantime, one of the conditions that persists is having my reading distributed across physical books and several electronic platforms. This, by the way, is one of the things that continues to make me fussy about the state of all my media, and the separation between these platforms only exacerbates the problem of sharing and finding (also, enjoying) when one’s collection is a mix of digital and physical media (“media” – what an awfully impersonal way to describe the albums and books that I love and that carried me through the highs and lows of life so far).

And the Incomparable does e-books the next day

I put up this post and then, the next morning, put on the Incomparable podcast on e-books in the car on the way to toddler drop-off and work. What a great conversation, and not just for the gratifying agreement that the monster-truck-rally-sounding “Overdrive” e-book lending system is a disaster.