Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reconsidering Digital Readers, Thanks to the Amazon Kindle

Back in October, I criticized Library Journal editor John Berry's "Escape from Reading" for, among other things, oversimplifying new media as a form of "liberation" from reading books. Berry's personal dislike of reading is what seems to fuel his flawed argument, and it's fair to criticize him for letting his own bias obscure what could have been a thoughtful column. Yet after writing my entry, I realized that when it comes to the subject of digital books, I've been guilty of the same problem. With an occasional exception, my attitude towards e-books and e-book devices (hello, Sony Reader!) has been consistently negative, even though I had never actually used an e-book reader, or even done that much with Google Books. My problem is the opposite of Berry's--reading books is one of my favorite forms of mass media consumption, and I love buying books and managing my book collection at home. The experience of reading and buying physical books has left me disinclined to explore e-books, and that personal preference has colored my opinion of e-books as a viable option for the general public.

Hopefully, that's now beginning to change a bit. On New Year's Eve, a friend let me try out the Amazon Kindle that he had received as a Christmas present. And though I only used the Kindle for a few minutes, my impressions were generally positive. At just over 10 ounces, it weighs less than an average $14-16 retail paperback, and I found that it was fairly comfortable to hold aloft. The menu interface wasn't spectacular, but navigating to and from different books was simple after some trial and error. Most significant, in my opinion, was the screen. Amazon boasts about its "electronic-paper display," and that's understandable, because it really is quite sharp and paper-like. When I held it up close to a floor lamp, there was virtually no glare. Combined with adjustable font sizes, the Kindle's display is extremely readable.

Does that make it (or the Sony Reader) an adequate replacement for physical books? For some people, the answer may be yes; the Kindle has gained popularity (and remains sold-out), and e-books were a definite bright spot in what was otherwise a pretty glum 2008 for book publishers. My friend mentioned that the Kindle would be a supplement to his reading habits. He's going to read physical books regardless of technology, but having the option to buy relatively cheap e-books might entice him to make purchases that he wouldn't normally consider. This, I think, is a healthy approach. The Kindle still has significant limitations, including its price and how it renders periodical and web content. It's disappointing that its e-books are in a proprietary format (in other words, work only with the Kindle). Additionally, as my friend noted, it and other e-book readers still can't provide the same type of spontaneous reading experience where one can, say, peek ahead to the end of a chapter or flip back and forth between pages rapidly. It is possible to do those things on an e-book reader, but not in the same way.

Nevertheless, reading from and using a Kindle was enjoyable, and it was silly for me to have envisioned a soul-draining experience. It still is far from perfect, and the digital rights questions about e-books in general--such as the lack of resellability--remain valid. But there is a lot to like, and considering that the device is still in its 1.0 version, there are certainly possibilites for reaching heretofore untapped markets (consumers with disabilities and college students being two examples). For me, it's offered a personal reminder to try to not let preconceived notions and opinions overdetermine my thinking on the subject.


Gavin said...

But can you bring it into the bathtub???

Chris Martin said...

*laughs* Yeah, I know. I know that's been one of the standard (and half-joking) points raised against digital readers, but it's valid. On the whole, books still have more versatility.

Luke said...

Yeah, I want a Kindle.