Recently, my friend Mike wrote a post about why he hasn’t purchased an e-reader such as the Nook or Kindle. Since this post is a direct response to his, I would highly recommend reading his first.
Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Done? Cool. Let’s move on.
I should say up front that I actually agree with most of his points, but only under the premise that the entire discussion relates to academia. Although he doesn’t come right out and say his decision not to buy an e-reader is based on its utility for academic study, he alludes to the fact that someone asked him “a few months ago about seminary and e-readers.” There are numerous reasons why e-readers aren’t quite there yet for academic work (and maybe I’ll post about those later), but even academics read more than just academic work. If you read for fun, now is the time to buy.
Consider Mike’s six points from the perspective of a recreational reader. He lists two points in favor of e-readers: size/portability and search, whereas he lists four in favor of physical books tactility, reading speed, annotation, and ownership.
Size/Portability: If I’m reading a book for fun, this is a clear victory the vast majority of the time. All other things being equal, books are heavy and take up space. These may be their two primary disadvantages. They are the quintessential piece of inert clutter.
Size/Portability Verdict: A clear win for e-readers.
Search: I’m not even sure search makes sense outside of an academic context. I can’t think of a single time that I’ve wished that I had the ability to perform a textual search of a novel I was reading for fun. Of course, for academic work search is absolutely critical. This is actually one of the reasons I believe Michael was only considering an academia in his discussion.
Search Verdict: Because search is pointless for non-academic reading, I will award this as a point in favor of physical books.
Tactility: If we’re talking about right now, today, I would say this is sort of a toss-up, and Mike sort of intimates as much when he indicates that there’s a big difference between a well-bound book and a poorly-bound one. I certainly appreciate the feel of a high quality binding in my hand while reading, but I also appreciate the feel of a high quality device in my hand. My iPhone feels better in my hand than the vast majority of books that I own. I don’t think e-readers are quite up to Apple’s level of quality hardware design yet, but they aren’t that far off.
Maybe a better way to approach this is on a per-book basis. Sure, you can sometimes buy the latest bestselling piece of fun fiction in hardback, and it will probably be a better tactile experience when reading. However, you’re going to be paying $20 or more for it. You can get the vast majority of those books in electronic form for half the price, and the tactile experience might be just a little bit worse.
If you’re an avid paperback reader, then think about all the times you’ve gotten a cramp from trying to hold a paperback book with a poorly glued binding for hours. The idea of a Nook or Kindle with no binding starts to become quite enviable. Sure, you might pay a couple bucks more than you would for the paperback version. Of course, if you’re buying a paperback then you’re probably not all that interested in hanging on to it forever, so it’ll just end up cluttering up your bookshelf at the end of the day.
Here’s the kicker: Library books. Many libraries are now lending electronic books. This means your options at the Library are an e-book on your personal e-reader or a hardback with the dustcover taped to it that may have been heavily used. Now, there are several possible advantages. Last January I was at a Reader Privacy event at UNC where there was some discussion of how people sometimes left fun notes in the pages of their library books. You might get a library book that’s got some fun writing in the margin. Then again, you might hate what the previous reader thought about the book. However, if you get the e-book, you definitely won’t get any of the negatives like a book that’s basically falling apart or one that has a few key pages torn out of it.
Tactility Verdict: The best possible tactile experience is definitely a well-bound hardback book, but unless you’re only reading well-bound hardback books I think e-readers are probably better on average.
Reading Speed: When I was in 8th grade I came across some book that purported to be able to double my reading speed with just a few months of training. The premise of these improvements was based on self-discipline and learning to train yourself to read in a particular way. The book also talked about electronic techniques such as using backlit paper that highlights text based on a timer for you. I imagine that this sort of thing will eventually be standard software on several e-readers.
Still, that’s the future. Right now, there are some studies that show reading a physical book is still faster. Mike points this out in his post. I was personally concerned about this as well since the e-ink screens in the Nook and the Kindle are a bit slow to update. However, everyone that I’ve spoken to feels like the difference in reading speed is negligible. Also, if you consider only fun reading, then you might find that you can finish books faster simply because you can now carry one with you all the time.
Reading Speed Verdict: This is a wash in my book. It may eventually become a win for e-readers though.
Annotation: Annotation isn’t quite as pointless as search is for fun reading, but it’s still not all that useful. I don’t annotate my academic books that much, but I have found it to be quite useful in that context. I can’t recall ever finding it useful to annotate a book that I was reading for fun. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some people actually do find annotations in fun books to be useful.
There are several important differences between annotations in physical books and those in e-books. One key difference is that with a physical book your annotations are limited in size based on the margin space available. Another is that annotations are easier to notice and skim in a physical book. Then again, you can (or will be able to) search your annotations.
At the end of the day, annotations depend heavily on what you want to do with them. If you’re making notes for a book report or book club, then you might need the extra “space” that you get with electronic annotations. (Also, the ability to perform textual searches on your annotations would be nice.) If you’re just marking passages you would like to be able to find easily, then there are probably other things (like electronic bookmarks) that would serve your purpose for e-readers.
Annotation Verdict: A victory for e-readers, though this is admittedly not something I would really take advantage of for fun reading.
Ownership: As Mike points out, ownership is extremely important. People want to be able to lend, borrow, resell, and give away books that they buy. When the Kindle first came out, ownership figured heavily in my first thoughts in basically two ways: I didn’t want all my books controlled under DRM and I wanted the ability to access them programmatically.
DRM stands for digital rights management, and it limits what “owners” of a book can do in an attempt to ensure that sellers, such as Amazon, are being paid for each copy of a book that people read. Essentially, this is an attempt to prevent people from downloading and reading e-books for free. Unfortunately, DRM causes way too many problems for legitimate purchasers of content in the process of attempting to distinguish legal uses from illegal uses. Check out this comic for a frighteningly accurate representation of how DRM works in the real world. In fact, DRM allows companies to do some things that would make great authors like Orwell and Kafka roll over in their graves, like tracking everything you read. I can’t understate this point. It is just critical, and the privacy concerns for DRM-enabled e-readers could be the subject of numerous posts. This EFF guide gives some more details. Some companies are realizing that DRM isn’t worth it, but most e-readers still support DRM heavily. This remains a major strike against them in my opinion.
The second concern I mentioned was that I wanted programmatic access to my e-books. I know most folks don’t care about this sort of thing, but I would like to be able to write programs that can take text from my e-books as data. It’s not that I have a particularly great idea for a program that I would go out and write right now, but I know that if all programmers have access, then several of them will probably write something awesome and share it with everyone else. This is why companies like Twitter develop extensive open API’s that any programmer can use. This is a huge part of why open source software works. The effects of direct programmatic access to a computing device (or a lack thereof) is a huge discussion that could span multiple posts. Suffice it to say that until programmers have more access, e-readers will be less innovative than they could be. Again, this remains a major strike against e-readers.
Ownership Verdict: True ownership of a book still requires having a physical copy of that book.
So why would I say that it’s time to purchase a Nook or a Kindle despite this rather mixed review of Mike’s attributes? More importantly, why would I recommend an e-reader despite the critical ownership and privacy concerns? To put it simply, not all books are the same. There are many books that don’t merit the care and attention of academic material. Also, ownership isn’t everything. There are many, many books that I could enjoy reading without actually owning them. In fact, the only books that I would want to have a physical copy of are (to steal some beautiful wording from Allison) “books to make a library of.” Here’s her full quote:
These are books that we aim to make a library of. Making a library is not putting all your old college textbooks on a shelf. Library making is the thoughtful acquisition of high quality books worthy of multiple readings and thoughtful reflection. Books whose readings will not go out of style, and whose premises, plots, and social commentary transcend writing styles and generations.
Books like these are things you would (as Mike says) bequeath to your progeny, but they aren’t the only books that I read. Will my kids really need a complete set of R.A. Salvatore books? Will they really want my copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done? At what point is a book worthy of being passed on to the next generation? Surely not every book falls into that category, and I don’t even think that’s really a knock on those books. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail may be a great book, but it’s not a timeless book to be cherished from one generation to the next. Books that explain new and important concepts are eventually expendable because that concept becomes well-established or obsolete. There’s simply not as much need to explain it to people.
Once we fall into this sort of dilemma, it’s time to consider the economics of the situation. How many books of this fun-to-read or important-but-not-timeless category do you have to read in the next year to make the purchase of a Nook worthwhile? Don’t forget that both the Nook and the Kindle had huge price drops this past summer.
Let’s assume that you’re getting a wifi-only Nook, since you want to use it at the library and the Kindle doesn’t support that. The cost is $150 bucks. This New York Times article talking about the price of e-books uses David Baldacci as an example, which works well for me because his books may be fun to read, but they certainly aren’t timeless works of fiction set to be handed down from generation to generation. The average price of one of his new hardback books is $26 buck, whereas the average price of is somewhere between $10 and $15 bucks. Based on these prices, you would only need to purchase and read 10 to 15 e-books to make up for the cost of buying your Nook. Every e-book you read after that is pure savings to you.
So, the question boils down to this: Are you going to read three to five books per year over the next three years that you’re pretty sure won’t stand the test of time for your children to cherish them?
That’s the breaking point for me. I usually read between 20 to 25 books per year (plus a ton of other stuff on the Internet). Most of these books aren’t pop fiction, sci-fi, or fantasy (such as R.A. Salvatore). Last year I read about 27 books and six of them were fantasy books. (This year I’m not doing nearly as well.) Still, I’m still pretty sure that I read at least five books every year that aren’t worth passing along to my children, and it is probably more like fifteen or eighteen. (How many book did you read this year because your parents bequeathed them to you?) In fact, it would be a huge burden for my children to lug around a physical copy of every book that I’ve ever read. These things take up quite a bit of space. I have stacks and stacks of books around my place for which I don’t have shelves. Sure, I could curate a library, but that means getting rid of physical books that I’ve purchased, so why not preemptively purchase a digital version of books I’m pretty sure aren’t timeless but are still interesting to read?
Even the folks that don’t think it’s worthwhile right now have to admit that technology moves pretty quickly. At some point, the prices will stabilize. We may even have advertising subsidized reading, which could be great for pop fiction. At some point, e-reader feature sets will become more clear. We don’t even know if we want color yet, and we have to consider the possibility of text-to-speech or other features in the future.
Physical books are going to be around for the foreseeable future, probably many, many generations. They have an aesthetic all their own. However, at some point, every reader must decide if it makes sense to start getting e-books. They will have to consider the economics of the situation as I did in this post. They will find a breaking point where it just makes more sense to get an e-reader and start getting some books in an electronic format. I’m not saying that e-readers are perfect. My idyllic reading experience is still probably reading a timeless, though-provoking hardback from my family library with a cup of coffee out on the porch of a cabin by the lake. But how often does that happen? Usually, I’m lying in bed desperately hanging on to my last ounce of consciousness to see what happens in some piece of pop fiction. I think a Nook will suffice.