I haven’t written here in quite a while and was going to keep it that way, but an interesting post caught my eye today about eBook readers. I started writing a comment and as it often happens, discovered I had way too much to say. Hope I won’t bore you to tears.
I’ve been a long time proponent of digital reading. I started out with a (slightly darker) gray on (a slightly Plighter) gray display of an old Palm III. I read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (which I incidentally didn’t like very much) on that device straining my eyes to see the badly drawn fonts. When the old PDA broke, I moved on to a Palm Tungsten T3 and have been reading books on it since using the wonderful Plucker software. I read about a hundred books over the last 4 years, almost all of which were in digital format on and I enjoyed every minute of it. Most of the time when I’m reading I forget I’m holding a digital device in my hands and not a real book, except that I find it’s much more convenient to hold the PDA. The first thing I noticed about digital reading is that I could hold the device and turn pages using just one hand. I was taking the train to work at the time, which was so crammed I had to stand most of the way. I found that I could stand on the train squeezed between odd smelling passengers, hold on to a pole with one hand and hold the PDA in the other comfortably reading and turning pages with my thumb. Paper backs on the other hand, I can’t even figure out how to hold properly with both hands. If you open a paperback all the way, you ruin the book with an ugly crease on the back of the cover. If you don’t, you have to awkwardly hold it half open sticking your thumb in the middle and struggle to read the inner part of the pages. Perhaps I’m overly modern in my approach, but I fail to see the sentiment in holding, owning and reading paperbacks printed on the cheapest recycled grayish paper with the cheapest possible ink in a font that’s either too small or too large, but is never the right size. In modern terms, I’d say the user interface of the common paperback leaves much to be desired. Note, I’m not talking about a rare edition of a classic whose pages were manually arranged with love and caring. I’m talking about those pulp fiction books we all read and forget about a day later which are printed at a factory somewhere in China and shipped in containers for us to read. There’s no sentimental value in most of those books either in form or content and we don’t read most of them more than once.
I believe the psychological aspects of holding a book, smelling it (ew!) and turning its pages will last at most a single generation once a proper technology is available. One of the things I like best about reading from a PDA is the immediate access to more information about what I’m reading. Even when I read something as simple as a Vince Flynn thriller I sometimes use a dictionary or turn to Wikipedia for some more info on a term, a place or a person. This is one thing Amazon got right with their Kindle – it’s always online and you have full access to Wikipedia, a dictionary and other internet resources. The experience of reading a book is so much richer when you can instantly find out more about what you are reading. This is even more important for scientific or professional books. The ability to directly jump to a cited source and read the original material the author based her claims on is quite amazing as I imagine you know from reading stuff on the web. The feeling is only enhanced by the ability to do that while in bed or sprawled on a sofa.
A final point that came to me while writing this is that the digitization of books can help books evolve into a different non-linear media. The result might be similar to the hypertext we see on the web, but perhaps more akin to the Dungeons and Dragons books that were common in the early nineties. In those books you could choose the storyline by jumping to some page in the book according to the author’s instructions. Perhaps the Interactive Fiction style of games will return with a vengeance and allow us to be more active participants in the books we read.
I don’t believe paper books will disappear and be completely replaced by digital books. After all, the TV hasn’t completely replaced the radio and CDs and MP3 players haven’t replaced vinyl records. However, when new technology emerges, the old ones usually mutate and find the niche they serve best. After all, people watch TV at home but still prefer the radio when they are driving. They listen to old jazz records on vinyl, but take their MP3 player when they jog (which might be a bit inconvenient carrying a record player). In a similar manner, paper books and digital books will coexist each finding its niche. Meanwhile, I’ll be ordering myself a brand new Sony PRS-700 and hoping that somebody ports a dictionary program and a Wikipedia browser to it so I’ll be able to enjoy a truly enhanced digital reading experience.