Travel, Ebooks, and Real Books

09:27 Sun 01 Aug 2010
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Despite my techie nature, I’ve never been enamored of books in electronic format. I love the feel of books, and while I have no trouble reading large amounts on screens of various kinds, I don’t like the idea of doing so for books.

I like reading to be a focused activity, and the fact that books are monofunction devices absolutely makes this focus easier to achieve. Simply having the option of switching activities on a computer (or whatever computer-like device I might read ebooks on) makes focusing that much harder. That’s certainly true when I watch movies on my computer. I don’t want the same thing to happen with reading. Even though it’s clearly a choice, the very presence of that choice is disruptive.

Dedicated ereading devices such as the Kindle might be an answer to this, but I haven’t come across any I find compelling, and I have no intention of supporting any that use a closed and authoritarian model. On top of that, there’s my love of physical books.

Despite all of the above reservations, I find myself considering some other approach, because physical books take up a lot of space. I’ve always been willing to deal with this in the past, but have recently found myself running closer and closer to the practical limits of what I can carry while travelling. This is despite packing reasonably well (perhaps not up to Monika standards, but not bad) and exploiting quite ruthlessly the ability of my Jacket of Holding to carry almost as much as my bag.

I generally err on the side of carrying too many books, but on my recent trip to Italy miscalculated and only brought three, two of which I read on the way out. The way back required at least two as well, so I was a book short. Physical space considerations are what caused me to bring only three books, and so I’m forced to admit that if I had some ereading device (which could be my phone, not necessarily another piece of hardware) this is simply not a problem I would run into.

So I’m going to have to experiment, start investigating getting books onto my Nexus One and my iPad, and seeing whether acceptable software can be found. This is a step I’m still feeling wary about taking, a testament to how emotionally attached I am to the physical book form.

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2 Responses to “Travel, Ebooks, and Real Books”

  1. Ann Says:

    Yes, I’ve also been reluctant to give up ‘real’ books and am now forced to consider it for the same reason you mention: traveling. When we went to France, I brought six books and finished the last one when we got home. It’s especially tricky when traveling in countries where English isn’t the main language – finding English language books is often difficult. (Or at least finding ones that you’d actually want to read.)

    Watching Peter magically purchase and read books, no matter where we are, has been an eye-opening experience. He uses the Kindle reader on his iPad and iPhone, since they synch the last read pretty efficiently.

  2. Seth Milliken Says:

    Having now read a couple dozen ebooks, I’m still not entirely settled on how I feel about them, myself. For the moment, I’m coming down pretty heavily in favor. I’ve been traveling myself, and it’s been quite a boon to have a large library immediately at hand. I’ve also decided that any technical books I get from here on out will be ebooks.

    One of the greatest annoyances of ebooks to me is DRM. Not being able to share books is a real pain. Can’t lend, can’t borrow. Why can’t a DRM system factor lending into its pricing model? Physical books are routinely used by multiple people with only the first consumer paying (effectively, since publishers don’t see a cent from secondary sales). ebook pricing should account for the fact that with DRM they’re crippled this way, and thus are worth less. Make them cheap enough that people who would normally borrow don’t mind paying. $15 for a book I’d otherwise borrow? No way. $3? Sure. All of this is a moot point for you, of course, but as much as I dislike DRM, I’m not willing to give up access to vast numbers of titles.

    DRM together with multiple distribution formats also causes problems with cataloging. Collecting all of your titles in one place to survey as a whole is next to impossible. Either you’re disciplined enough to stick to one distribution mechanism and willing to accept a consequently limited selection, or you’ve got books spread out across multiple readers with different capabilities. Keeping track of everything in your digital library becomes a pain. You don’t have your whole collection immediately accessible for survey the way you do with meatspace bookshelves or a stack of books. I’ve thought about writing the titles of ebooks I’m in the middle of reading on index cards to stick in my backpack just so I don’t forget what I’m reading. A physical book provides a memento of where you’ve allocated your attention. Digital books get lost for lack of conspicuous visibility.

    And most readers have poor organizational capabilities. Why can’t I move books I’ve read to another area, or mark them in some way? Or manually rearrange my queue? Tag them? Bookmark collections based on saved metadata filters?

    Speaking of which, the poor, unstandardized, uneditable metadata on ebooks is pretty annoying. It feels like CDs and DVDs all over again. It’s a digital format, so put all the damn metadata right in the file in a programmatically accessible way already!

    Another mark against ebooks is that browsing quickly through a book is not very smooth in any reader I’ve used so far. I haven’t found an ebook experience analogous to thumbing through a physical book. And flipping back and forth between different sections of a book _can_ be easy, but isn’t always. Some readers are far better than others with their bookmark and annotation systems. I really like being able to type notes directly into the book, and you can get an automatic index of the text you highlight. Although it is discouraging that no reader offers a way to extract any of those notes and highlights.

    Being able to search is nice, and has really helped me out on a number of occasions. But rather than an unmitigated advantage, I feel like it primarily offsets the inability to apply spacial memory as you can with a physical book.

    I think as this tech matures, we’ll start to see a rich base set of standard, must-have features develop, but things are still fairly inconsistent at this point.

    Still, I’d definitely encourage experimenting with ebook reading, especially on the iPad. I certainly don’t find the other features on the iPad distracting while I’m reading on it in the way that I sometimes do on my laptop. Especially without multitasking, there’s just enough inconvenience associated with switching apps that I just don’t do it. And if I don’t have wifi available, all the better.

    I’ve done a fair amount of reading on my phone, but the screen is really just too small. I’m not quite sure what the threshold is, or even exactly what makes it unacceptable. I suspect it’s simply the frequency of virtual page turning.

    The iPad on the other hand has turned out to be a great reading device for me. One thing I really like is that when I’m reading laying down I don’t have to reposition myself or the book every time I finish a page.

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