May 19 2013

Three years of electronic books

AmazonKindleIt is customary to write reviews of things when they are fresh and new. This blog post is a little different in the sense that it is a review of 3 years of electronic book usage.

My entry to e-books was with the Kindle: a beautiful, crisp display, fantastic battery life but with a user interface which lagged behind smartphones of the time. More recently I have bought a Nexus 7 tablet on which I use the Kindle app, and very occasionally use my phone to read.

Primarily my reading on the Kindle has been fiction with a little modern politics, and the odd book on technology. I have tried non-fiction a couple of times but have been disappointed (the illustrations come out poorly). Fiction works well because there are just words, you start reading at the beginning of the book and carry on to the end in a linear fashion. The only real issue I’ve had is that sometimes, with multiple devices and careless clicking it’s possible to lose your place; I found this more of a problem than with a physical book. My physical books I bookmark with railtickets, very occasionally they fall out but then I have a rough memory of where they were in the book via the depth axis, and flicking rapidly through a book is easy (i.e. pages per second) – the glimpse of chapter start, the layout of paragraphs is enough to let you know where you are.

There are other times when the lack of a physical presence is galling: my house is full of books, many have migrated to the loft on the arrival of Thomas, my now-toddling son. But many still remain, visible to visitors. Slightly shamefaced I admit to a certain pretention in my retention policy: Ulysses found shelf space for many years whilst science fiction and fantasy made a rapid exit. Nonfiction is generally kept. Books tell you of a persons interests, and form an ad hoc lending library. In the same way as there beaver’s dam is part of its extended phenotype, my books are part of mine. With ebooks we largely lose this display function, I can publish my reading on services like Shelfari but this is not the same a books on shelves. The same applies for train reading, with a physical book readers can see what each other is reading.

Another missing aspect of physicality, I’ve read Reamde by Neal Stephenson a book of a thousand pages, and JavaScript: the Good Parts by Douglas Crockford, only a hundred and fifty or so. The Kindle was the same size for both books! Really it needs some sort of inflatable bladder which inflates to match the number of pages in the book, perhaps deflating as you made your way through the book.

Regular readers of this blog will know I blog what I read, at least for non-fiction. My scheme for this is to read, taking notes in Evernote. This doesn’t work so well on  either the Kindle or Kindle app, too much switching between apps. But the Kindle has a notes and highlighting! I hear you say. Yes, it does but it would appear digital rights management (DRM) has reduced its functionality – I can’t share my notes easily and, if your book is stored as a personal document because it didn’t come from the Kindle store then you can’t even share notes across devices. This is a DRM issue because I suspect functionality is limited because without limits you could simply highlight a whole book, or perhaps copy and paste it. And obviously I can’t lend my ebook in the same way as I lend my physical books, or even donate them to charity when I’m finished with them.

This isn’t to say ebooks aren’t really useful – I can take plenty of books on holiday to read without filling my luggage, and I can get them at the last minute. I have a morbid fear of Running Out of Things To Read, which is assuaged by my ebook. In my experience, technology books at the cheaper / lower volume end of the market are also better electronically (and actually the ones I’ve read are relatively unencumbered by DRM), i.e. they come in colour whilst their physical counterparts do not.

Overall verdict: you can pack a lot of fiction onto an ebook but I’ve been using physical books for 40 years and humans have been using them for thousands of years and it shows!