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Early Experiences With E-Books

If e-books aren’t somehow on your radar at the end of 2010 you’ve probably been lost all year in that Labyrinthine monastic library from Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Amazon’s Kindle has dominated the e-book space so far, but there’s also Apple’s iBooks and the recently-launched Google ebookstore. And these are just the biggest players. Unsurprisingly there has been a lot of talk about what the e-book will mean for traditional publishing, book buying and authorship.

But I’d like to leave these big questions aside for now to explore my early experiences reading e-books. Halfway through reading my fourth e-book, I’m ready to organize my thoughts on what it’s like to read an e-book and how that compares with traditional reading. But first some context. To give you a sense of the type of books I’m discussing, I list the e-books I’ve read (or, in the last case, I’m still reading) below in chronological order:

So far I have purchased all of these books through Kindle, using the iPhone Kindle app to read them. I tried downloading a free version of Milton’s Paradise Lost using iBooks, but the iPhone app seems to choke on it, running so slowly that the poem is unreadable. I have also had trouble finding the books I want to read in the iBooks store. For example I couldn’t find any of VanderMeer’s books there. I hold out hope that this will change, but for now, the Kindle store has served me well.

The first thing many people say when I tell them that I’ve been reading books on my iPhone is, “how can you read on that tiny screen?” I haven’t had any issues with the size of the iPhone 3g’s screen or the resolution. I stare at a computer monitor all day and that takes its toll on my eyes. But I don’t feel any eye strain reading my iPhone’s screen, even after a day in front of my computer. By all accounts, the new Android and Apple models have even better resolution, so an already good situation only gets better.

And there are advantages to reading on such a small device. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading a brick of a book like David Foster Wallace’s Infinte Jest or Joyce’s Ulysses, you will understand what I mean when I say that’s it’s a pleasure reading a book that you can easily hold in one hand. Even better, you’ve also got an entire library of books inside this tiny device that’s always in your pocket. As long as you remember to bring your phone with you, you’ll never be bored on the subway or in a waiting room again.

In the Kindle app, turning a page is a simple matter of tapping the right hand side of the screen with the thumb of the hand that’s holding the phone. This is actually surprisingly easy. In fact I find that I flip pages unconsciously, making the reading experience flow as if you were reading a continuous pageless text. In this sense, it’s fitting that the first e-book I read was by Kerouac who wrote another one of his works, On the Road, as a continuous scroll.

But this pageless flow has it’s drawbacks. I miss the experience of intuitively knowing exactly where I am in a text by the thickness of the unread pages. Although the Kindle app provides a scroll bar at the bottom of the screen that indicates your place in the book, I still feel a bit lost. I have grown up with this physical feel for my progress through a book and it’s hard to leave this behind. I still find it easier to flip back through real pages to re-read a section or to flip forward to see where the chapter ends.

Then again the lack of pages works well with endnotes, which, in the Kindle app are hyperlinks. In City of Saints and Madmen, one of the stories is full of endnotes. You simply tap the link, which brings you to the endnote. When you’re done reading it, you tap the back arrow to return to the text. An e-book version of Infinite Jest would have worked so well this way. Flipping back and forth between the text and endnotes in that book was a source of frustration for me, though I’m sure Wallace intended it that way with his endnotes within endnotes. That said, I still had problems with the endnotes in City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve got fat fingers and when the endnote link was at the righthand edge of the page it was difficult to hit it without turning the page. It is possible for iPhone programmers to enlarge the active space around a button or link, so perhaps the developers of the Kindle app could experiment with this. However, this might not be possible due to another feature of the Kindle app: the ability to tap on a word to either leave a note, highlight it or look it up in the dictionary. Widening the active area around an endnote link may interfere with the active area of the word itself.

I haven’t used notes or highlighting yet, but I love the dictionary function. When you tap on a word, its dictionary definition appears in a little box at the top or bottom of the page depending on the location of the word in question. I have always been a bit lazy about opening up a dictionary, so I love this feature. Unfortunately, I have encountered several words that aren’t in the version of the “New Oxford American Dictionary” that comes with the app. Apparently on the actual Kindle device, you have the option of buying a new dictionary and using that as your default dictionary. I hope they add this to the iPhone app, because I would love to upgrade the dictionary to a non-American Oxford English Dictionary with more words. Depending on what you’re reading, this might not even be an issue.

The thing I dislike most about reading e-books is their poor typography. In his piece Embracing the Digital Book, Craig Mod, a designer who knows much more about typography than I do, covers all of my issues and more. I don’t have any problems with the font used in all Kindle books, PMN Caecilia, but I find the justified margins distracting. You end up with these awkward three-word lines with jarring space between the words. This could easily be solved with hyphenation. And I would prefer ragged right text like in a normal book. I’ll give Craig Mod the last word on this:>Physical books and e-books are both text at their cores. Book designers long ago established rigorous rules for laying out text blocks so they disappear to the reader. They took pride in turning the physicality of a book into a tool for efficiently and elegantly getting information into the mind of the reader. As any good typographer knows: the best typography goes unnoticed.

I encourage you to read the rest of his piece because, among other things, it includes a fascinating exploration of what e-books could really be.

Craig Mod also points to one of the features I hate about the e-books I’ve read: Digital Rights Management. I love sharing traditional books with friends – to me, this sharing has always been an important part of enjoying books. It makes reading social. Sadly I cannot do this with my Kindle library. I think the publishing business needs to reconsider it’s use of DRM. In the music space, companies like iTunes are making money selling digital music. People buy music on iTunes instead of downloading it for free because it’s easier to do. The same would be true for books. Although social media has emerged to dominate the web, the book world has taken a step away from the social by locking up it’s e-books.

On a related point, it would be nice if I could buy books from multiple sources. Although Kindle and iBooks will never offer this, Google Editions seems to be moving in that direction. Like the DRM issue, this could easily be a topic for another long post, so I’ll only say this: I love small bookstores with their own carefully chosen selection of books.

One final gripe I have has more do with the fact that I’m reading on my iPhone; I am constantly interrupted by incoming emails, texts and phone calls. I don’t mind being interrupted by a phone call since I don’t use the phone much, but the emails and texts really test my ability to focus. It’s somehow easier to ignore the vibration or chime notifications for these messages when the phone is in your pocket. This is probably more a question of retraining myself than anything. But with a paper book, it’s much easier to eliminate distractions like this.

There are advantages and disadvantages to e-books. Some of these disadvantages will likely be overcome. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy them, but, for me, they’re not going to replace traditional books anytime soon. Once I finish reading my most recent e-book acquisition, The Art of Fiction, I will crack open M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, a book that I purchased at a cool neighbourhood used bookstore yesterday.