On books, audiobooks, and eBooks

When it comes to new communication technology, I can be labeled as both an ‘early adopter’ and and ‘early abandoner’. I got a Facebook account very early on, and now don’t do anything with it. I similarly got a Twitter account and abandoned it. I finally broke down and got a cell phone a couple of months ago under pressure from my family after I was in a few situations where having it would have been really helpful, but I use it only for emergencies and have given out the number to just a handful of people. In the three months since I got it, I have received about three real calls and a half dozen wrong numbers, which suits me just fine.

I think it is already pretty clear that I am a bit slow when it comes to new technology, adopting new things only when I absolutely have to. It is not that I am pathologically averse to new technology. It is just that so many new things come along that I prefer to wait until I feel that it serves a real need before I put in the time to learn the new tool. For example, I was quite happy with a pocket diary to keep track of my appointments until I got in a position where other people needed to make appointments on my behalf. Then I got a PDA (first a Palm and now an iTouch) so that I can sync with an online calendar that others have access to.

The only thing that I adopted fairly early and stuck with is my blog.

All this leads me to the topic of new book forms. I did listen to an audiobook a couple of times when I was driving long distance and it was not bad but the books that I listened to on it were lightweight humor. I usually read more serious non-fiction and that requires me to go back and re-read portions or jump to the index to find related things and audiobooks don’t seem to be suited to that. Even with fiction I like to flip back to refer to earlier points and you can’t do that easily with an audiobook.

Now we have eBooks. I tried out a Kindle that was loaned to me a few months ago (before the new version came out) because my university is embarking on an trial run to see if they might be good for students to use, so that they can have all their books in one portable device and not have to lug heavy textbooks around. My experience did not convince me enough to buy my own.

There are some good features to the Kindle. The screen was easy to read. You can also change the font size. Purchasing a book and downloading it from Amazon was very quick. Because it is small, about the size of a normal book, and yet has so much capacity, you can basically carry your entire library with you wherever you go.

But the reading experience was not as much fun as I would have liked, though some people really love it. There were also disadvantages. You cannot flip though the book easily, or jump to a page. I was reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin about how much of the human body originates from our fish ancestors and the book has lots of figures that are important in understanding how organisms evolved. The figures were hard to see and the labels impossible to read, and could not be enlarged, making it pretty much useless. The newest Kindle has a bigger screen that seems to partially solve this particular problem.

On balance, I did not like the Kindle. I prefer the tactile feel of a real book. After I returned the Kindle, I bought a hardcopy version of Your Inner Fish and enjoyed it much more.

Furthermore, with the Kindle you cannot lend a single book to someone without lending your entire library. This is a real drawback. There are many books that I have bought after I was first loaned a copy by someone who felt I would like it, and I have lent books to people as well. Furthermore, this will dry up the second-hand books market where you can find great old books that are otherwise unavailable. Almost every year, I give away a load of books to the university second-hand book sale and I like to think that others are going to enjoy what I once enjoyed. What are you going to do with all the old books on Kindle once you are done with them?

The new Kindle is also very expensive (about $500) and it locks you into only purchasing books that are offered in digital form by Amazon.

Users had a shock recently when they discovered that Amazon can unilaterally delete books they had already bought.

“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. “As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”

Furthermore, because the font size can be changed, there are no page numbers (these being replaced for each page by a numerical range of numbers that did not relate to anything that I could tell) so I cannot cite a specific page of the book. This is a real drawback for academic use since I quote passages from books a lot and like to give the page numbers to readers so that they can see for themselves the full context of the quote.

I think that before eBooks really take off it needs to be the case that the eBook readers should be much cheaper (even free), and should be able to read digital books from any source.

The old-fashioned books have some real advantages. As Lawrence G. Smith, author of Cesare Pavese And America, says (thanks to Progressive Review for the quote):

The book has existed in its present format–essentially sheaves of paper between a binding of some sort–for over two millennia. It has done so because it is a perfect artifact of information technology. It is portable, permanent, nearly indestructible, easily shared. It suffers no damage near magnetic fields, and when opened its boot-up time is instantaneous–just open it and you are reading; close it and reopen and you are reading immediately once again. It uses no electricity and never crashes. When you are reading its pages, they never go blue or black and you never get a message “fatal error; system shutting down.”

Maybe I am just too old fashioned and stuck in my reading ways, the way I continue to subscribe to newspapers. I can see that printing and distributing books, like newspapers, involves enormous costs and a lot of waste since publishers have to guess how many copies to print and how to distribute them. A purely on-demand printing process, where a book is published and bound and sent to the person who ordered it might reduce that.

POST SCRIPT: Bronze age Luddites

Reluctance to adopt new technologies has a long history.


  1. says

    I think the single strongest argument against the Kindle is one of the things that seems to have bugged you and Mr. Schneier the most. If there’s anything we don’t need, it’s more of our media (books, music, movies) being swindled away by giant mega-corporations and dispensed only on proprietary devices with insane DRM “protection.”

  2. says

    I’d think on-demand printing from traditional publishers, even black & white on cheap newspaper material, would be prohibitively expensive. A serious newspaper or textbook printing press can be 3 stories tall, use probably hundreds of gallons of ink and tens of thousands of watts of electricity, and requires a staff of 6-10. Economy of scale: that only pays off because they run such huge batches.

    Perhaps there might be a niche for publishers equipped with industrial laser printers to automate most of the on-demand process. But I kind of doubt that too since so many end-users have their own printers already, and if the source is digital then they already have the option to view it on a device or print it.

    I know in my department, plenty of profs find journal articles online (ACS will soon be almost entirely web-based), and then print them to the department color printer if they want a paper version to read on an airplane or such. But it’s a huge timesaver to be able to search for those articles digitally in the first place.

    I’m hoping Organic LED technology soon drops in price so we can get flexible, low-power, beautiful full-color displays. Combined with a standardized digital format for novels and other prose, that would open the door for digital reading that I’d actually care about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *