The Reading Experience: Are Ebook Readers the Next Big Thing?

You may have seen this video that's been making the rounds the last couple of years.

The joke is that, back in the middle ages, the "codex" (a flat book, with separate pages bound between two covers) was a revolutionary new technology that took the Western world by storm, pretty much putting the scroll-book industry out of business. This happened, by the way, largely because of the Christian Bible, which people wanted to be able to peruse quickly and easily, and, probably, keep it all together instead of on umpty-jillion separate scrolls. (LOTS has been written on how the spread of Christianity helped popularize the codex -- here's one example from Catholic apologist, Jimmy Akin.) Very soon, the obvious advantages of this new form of book spread, making multi-volume rolled books a thing of the past. (Jews, however, to this day scorn the "new-fangled" technology of the codex in liturgical use, requiring each synagogue to have a scroll of the Torah, from which the sacred texts are read during worship.)

With the increasing proliferation of electronic gadgets designed especially for reading digital texts (ebooks), however, some people are beginning to question whether such specialty appliances will soon make "tangible books" a relic of the past, much as the codex supplanted the scroll many centuries ago. As a card-carrying "bookie," I've always pooh-poohed this idea, but I'm beginning to feel the allure of devices such as the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. I have perhaps a thousand old-fashioned "tangible books," and I will probably continue to acquire more, but I'm already starting to collect "ebooks," which exist only in digital form, needing some kind of electronic device to translate them into "type" on a "page."

Several things have recently influenced me to begin to look more favorably on what might be called "notional books." The most immediate and pressing is the fact that most of my several hundred books are crated up in boxes, gathering dust in a rented storage unit, and look to remain that way for some time to come. As a result, I have begun buying duplicate copies of the books I need (or want) for ready reference. (Half Price Books and various online re-sellers should thank me.) However, my current living conditions offer me limited space for books, so I'm already running out of room for these duplicates. One possible solution to the problems of both expense and space might be to borrow from a local library, but the public library doesn't carry a lot of the titles I use regularly, and there's always the pesky business of remembering to return borrowed books. On the other hand, the sort of things I like to read "just for fun" are readily available from the public library, and libraries are beginning to make such titles available in electronic formats, which you don't physically have to return (thus avoiding the expense of library fines). That, however, raises a new problem.

I have always been very picky about the typeface in which a text is displayed. As a kid, I was always excited to learn that a book I was reading included a colophon (a note that told you what typeface, paper, etc. was used to produce the book), and I loved learning the names of typefaces, and sometimes thought I would like to be a book designer. (That was many years before I became a graphic artist and typographer -- lots of fun, while it lasted, but in the end unsatisfying). Anyway, even if I am willing to forgo the pleasures of the look, smell, feel of an actual, physical book, I'm not willing to look at crummy typefaces (hideous Times New Roman! awful Arial!), nor lousy layouts, meager margins, or other horrors that a badly-rendered ebook might force upon me.

For this reason, I've been a bit frustrated with the free digital versions available of many out-of-copyright books widely available for download from websites such as the Gutenberg Project and Google Books. Many of these -- those available as PDF files -- are essentially the digital equivalents of bad photocopies of old books. The new EPUB format that Adobe has popularized is a big improvement, because instead of the separate page images of old document scans, you get just digital text with minimal formatting, which an appropriate software application can render in electronic type on your computer (or other electronic) screen, which can be a little easier on the eye and give  you some control over the display by letting you scale the size of the text at will. (Read a comparison of different ePub readers here.) Yet even so, you still have the inconvenience and discomfort of having to read from a computer screen (or, worse, from the tiny display of a smart phone -- eek!). That's alright for old books that you're lucky to find available in any format and may thus be grateful to read for free, but it's not a situation I'd be willing to put up with to read books I've actually had to pay money for and might wish to have frequent, ready access to. I've tried reading, for instance, Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, in Adobe Digital Editions (an ePub software application that runs on my computer), but I can't get more than about half a page before I wander off to do something else (Spider solitaire, any one?).

The fact is that reading from a computer screen is tiring to the eyes and inconvenient, which are just two more strikes against electronic books in their "ether only" format. This is where dedicated ebook reader devices are working to fill the gap between convenience and comfort, and I'm beginning to think they may make a convert even of a diehard bookie like me ("You've have to pry my tangible books from my cold, dead hands!"). This fall, several major book sellers are offering new and improved versions of "ereaders" that suggest that electronic books are the wave of the future, even if they will probably never make the codex a dead relic of the past. These new readers, such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Amazon Kindle, the Kobo Reader sold at Borders, and other, sport appealing features that are sure to continue to improve with time. EInk provides the matte finish, high contrast, and look (if not feel) of text on a page; built-in storage capacity allows you to store thousands of books on the device, while software allows you to read "volumes" you "own" across a variety of devices, and gives the user some control over the size and style of typeface. You can even highlight passages, embed notes (like scribbling in the margins of a "real" book), and lend your "notional books" to friends (if they have a similar device). The prices of the devices is coming down rapidly, and availability of decent professionally-prepared editions is proliferating, so a gadget like the Nook may be in my future.

I'm one of those people who are loath to go anywhere without carrying some reading material along "just in case," and I have to admit that I'm beginning to envy those who can tuck their entire library into their purses or jacket pockets. Sooner or later I'll undoubtedly find myself sliding an electronic book gadget into my purse alongside a paperback book or magazine; meanwhile I invite comments from anyone who has some experience with one of these new-fangled doodads.

UPDATE Sept 2012: This post looks mighty dated, just a couple of years later. Since Christmas of 2010, I've been the proud and grateful owner of a Kindle keyboard, with over 600 hundred books in my Kindle library. Contrary to my expectations, I quickly got used to reading on this "new-fangled doodad" and don't miss paper books at all, except when reading a reference work in which I like to flip back and forth (yes, I still buy paper books, too, occasionally). I don't think I would want one of the new backlit, full color Kindles (or other gadgets of that ilk), at least not for ordinary reading. But I love my Kindle so much that I actually worked the first one to death -- I'm now reading on the replacement that Amazon provided (for about half the price of a new one, since mine was out of warranty). But, guess what? Although the Kindle croaked, all my electronic books were safe in the cloud. And they always will be. You can't beat that.


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