eBooks: Friend Or Foe?

As I mentioned fleetingly in my last post, Hard Times by Charles Dickens is the first eBook that I’ve read on my Kindle.  It’s a very different experience to reading an actual book, or “pBooks” as I’ve recently heard them called (excuse me while I repress a shudder).  I have to admit that reading the novel’s first chapter on the Kindle felt utterly soul-less.  It was like looking at a snapshot of a puppy compared to having the warm and furry real-life version cuddling up on your lap.  I’m aware of how mad that sounds, but I’m afraid that’s how I felt.

At first, I thought that I’d made a terrible mistake even owning this strange device: I was trading the magical sensory world of the paper book for this flat, dreary alternative!  I confided my fears to a colleague who is also a fellow book-lover and Kindle-owner.  “Of course it’s soul-less!” she replied cheerily, “But you get used to it.”  This made me feel a little better; it was apparently fine for eBooks not to be cuddly.  What they offer is an alternative reader experience, which suits some people enormously and is quite simply not for others.  The book-lover must accept this fact and move on, either embracing the eBook’s differences or acknowledging that they’re not comfortable with them.  But I do think it’s important to at least give them a try.  Otherwise how can you judge them fairly?

I have to say that overall, having persevered, I did enjoy reading on the Kindle, once I’d got used to it.  Being a bit sad, I like to check out the notes at the back of the book if I’m reading a classic.  I can’t bear thinking that I might have missed some crucial little detail.  Being able to click on the endnote number and being transported straight to the relevant information was much easier than trying to find the note in a paper version.

Choosing the right font and text size to suit me was also a real bonus, which helped to break down Dickens into manageable chunks.  The progress bar at the bottom was a nice feature too; when reading a paper book I like to see how many pages I’ve got left and how many I’ve read.  The light weight and slim size of the Kindle also made it much handier to read in bed, or while eating a meal, or even while cooking, without your page flopping closed.

It’s much easier to look more objectively at eBooks having now read one on an e-reader.  Analysing my experiences here has been really useful in coming to terms with the digital phenomenon: halfway through writing this review I realised that my previous rejection of e- anything and horror at the thought of print books ever dying out was a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t want to like eBooks.  I love books: I love the feel of the paper; I love the thrill of picking up an amazing novel in a second-hand bookshop and finding a personal inscription inside the front cover; and I love looking at libraries packed with bookshelves, with covers of all sizes lined up and ready to reveal their secrets.

Still, I wanted to try reading an eBook because I was curious.  What was all the fuss about?  I’m glad I did, and yet I find myself feeling sad that, actually, it would be convenient to have all my books compacted into one place, rather than sprawled across several walls.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that I think that paper books and eBooks can live in harmony, and that there’s a place in the world for both.  In the grand scheme of things, losing print books would not be the end of the world, yet I would be terribly sad if they were completely replaced.  And I’m not the only one: author Jonathan Franzen recently declared war on the eBook.  He says that he loathes them and believes that they damage society.  I don’t agree, but it’s good to know that there are other paper-lovers out there who will fight, if necessary, to keep beautiful books in print.  You can read a report of his full rant here.  Writer Ewan Morrison, on the other hand, believes that the eBook phenomenon is just a bubble which must eventually burst.  Again, I’m not sure if I agree that eBooks are just a phase, but it’s a fascinating article: read it and join the debate here.

I didn’t lose much by reading Dickens on the Kindle, and I gained some extra features, so overall I would have to say that I support the coming of eBooks.  But us humans are irrational beasts.  Despite all their benefits, if eBooks were to disappear (and I very much doubt they will), it wouldn’t bother me to go back to paper only.  If there was a fire in my home I would still look to save an armful of books before reaching for the Kindle.  Perhaps my perception will change over time: who knows?  Printed books have been around for centuries, and they’re not just going to disappear overnight, but perhaps an update in their format, for better or worse, is long overdue?

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carol Hunter
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 22:50:05

    It was so useful to read this evaluation of the Kindle. I was having a similar debate just this afternoon with members of another book group I belong to. One question that we couldn’t answer has also been cleared up – what to do about end notes and appendices. I am currently reading Claire Tomalin’s substantial biography of Dickens. A wonderful read but I have long since given up with the post-it notes marking each relevant section at the back containing expansions of the many numerical annotations spread throughout the book. It must be great being able to click on the reference and be transported to the precise endnote. I too pondered the ‘cuddliness’ of books against the glass/chrome (whatever)structure of the Kindle. I too love the dog-eared nature of a second hand book, the occasional personal notes etc…but hey, I’ve got loads of them on my creaking shelves, enough to last a lifetime! (and let’s face it, I’m already half way through mine). So, in a nutshell, I could be persuaded to add an eBook reader to my library. I’m not supposed to say that out loud as I am a librarian….shhh! There is of course, the whole paper, trees, rain forest argument. My bet is that by the end of this year I may have capitulated……as I did with the mobile phone I was never going to own!

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Feb 04, 2012 @ 23:14:56

      Thanks Carol. I really did find the referencing links to be one of the best features about the Kindle. You can also make notes and bookmarks, but I’ve got the new version without the keyboard which is a bit of a pain if you want to make even a short comment. You can do it but it’s more time-consuming. I’d recommend anyone considering a Kindle that likes making notes to get one with a keyboard! But it doesn’t bother me too much.

      Why we find an inanimate printed book any more friendly (alive, even) than an inanimate eBook I have no idea, and yet there’s no getting away from it. That’s a good point about the environmental issues – definitely something I forgot to include, and a point which is hard to argue with. Although I suppose you could look at what environmental resources are used up in the creation of each e-reader…

      I swore blind that I was never going to join Facebook… it will be interesting to see how the eBook fares this year. You should definitely check out the Ewan Morrison self-e-publishing article about the eBook bubble.

      Reply

  2. bjcott60
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 23:07:18

    Another excellently written article, thank you. I have great empathy with your sentiments I too love the printed form and although I use digital text at work my choice for leisure reading would always be a printed book.

    My knowledge of Kindle is limited is the cost of the Kindle now a factor? Are the books free or do you have to pay for them? If you do have to pay for them how much? Have you downloaded any books, if so how did you find the experience ?

    You might like to check out the Project Gutenberg free ebooks at http://www.gutenberg.org/ it would be interesting to know if you could use this library on your kindle.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Feb 05, 2012 @ 10:38:27

      Thanks for the Project Gutenberg link. I can see already that this is going to be a great resourse! I can indeed download the books for use on the Kindle (or any other e-reader, it looks like) – in fact I could have downloaded Hard Times for free! Their only disclaimer is that the books are free in the US because their copyright is expired, and to check relevant copyright laws in other countries. UK copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death, so I assume that downloading a British author from Britain will be fine, but in terms of downloading an author of a different nationality from Britain (or anywhere else outside the US) I don’t know whether it’s ok to do so or not. Am I over-complicating things?

      Regarding the cost of a Kindle – depending on what type of books you’re likely to buy and what type of person you are, overall it’s probably cheaper to buy lots of print books than it is to buy a Kindle and eBooks. New release eBooks are just as expensive as print books but classics and self-published works are usually a lot cheaper – I paid £1.99 for the Penguin Classics edition of Hard Times but I could have paid a bit less for a different edition. My Kindle was £89, and the Kindle with keyboard is £149. All well and good if you invest in one e-reader to last a lifetime, but I suspect that next Christmas (if not sooner) many people will be paying out to upgrade to the latest model. I don’t intend to upgrade until this one falls apart, but then again, who knows how amazing the next lot of new features will be?

      So yes, eBooks are generally not free, but you can shop around for free ones. On Amazon I believe that the publisher suggests a price but that Amazon has the final say. Please someone correct me if I’m completely wrong. Downloading to Kindle is really easy – just save the downloaded file to your computer, then you can either email the file to a special email address which links to your Kindle, or, as I do, connect your Kindle to your computer, open up its documents folder, and copy and paste the file straight into that. Hopefully that covers everything!

      Reply

  3. 69point23degrees
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 16:38:59

    Hi,

    I’ve got a friend who was recently working for a publisher, adapting books for the ebook format. She said that they were putting new line breaks in poems by Byron, Donne, Milton and Wordsworth, among others, in order that they would fit on a screen. It seems to me that something like that is a serious issue.

    If that kind of vandalism can be avoided, I think the two things can co-exist, but as with vinyl and MP3, the physical version might ultimately only be of interest to enthusiasts.

    The other interesting thing my friend said was that all the people working on these ebooks hated the idea. They all loved books, but they didn’t want the market to ahead of them.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Feb 06, 2012 @ 07:19:43

      Now that is sad. Also completely illogical – a) because, as far as I can see, the type of person who is going to read poetry on a Kindle will not be the type of person who will appreciate any extra line breaks, and b) because you can change the layout of the screen so that you can read in a landscape format if you need to.

      I agree that the physical version of books might eventually go the way of vinyl, but then again, think of how many years vinyl records have been manufactured. Then think about how many years printed books have been produced. I wonder whether books are so well-established within our culture that they won’t go without a fight…

      I can completely see that. I too would be quite interested in working with eBooks, but would feel terribly guilty if I did so about encouraging the eBook market over print. I feel that to a degree now with the Kindle (but I console myself with the thought that I didn’t buy the Kindle for myself, so that part was out of my hands).

      Reply

  4. 69point23degrees
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 10:28:58

    Well, I don’t know. It depends on what you think of when you think about a book. I would think that the kind of mass market for paperbacks that existed at the end of the 20th Century was a pretty recent thing, and that in the 19th Century it was only a small minority of people who would have had books in the house at all. Dickens used to distribute his novels as a kind of newspaper to get a wider audience, and Penguin didn’t start making classics etc. available to the general working man until the 1930s. Having a record player in the house was probably quite widespread from the 1950s onwards?

    But when I made the comparison, I didn’t mean to be negative. I don’t think mp3 will ever replace the physical record, although it has been the death of CD and MiniDisc. I love vinyl, and I’ll always buy it. So I think there will always be enthusiasts for the physical book too, perhaps just fewer of them. Maybe in a perfect world a lot of the trash publishing would go digital, which would make browsing a lot easier?

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Feb 07, 2012 @ 15:10:37

      Hmm I take your point! I guess I’m not really a vinyl collector but am a book collector, so to me I would feel the loss of print books (if it ever happened) more than I do the decline of vinyl, but of course that is coming purely from a personal viewpoint, so I can see that I am biased! It’s difficult to pin down one definitive reason why print books and vinyl are so loved isn’t it? Some people wouldn’t give a damn if everything changed to eBooks, just as so many people have accepted the transfer from vinyl to cassette to CD to mp3 to ipod.

      Reply

  5. Bridget
    Mar 31, 2012 @ 19:20:51

    I felt very similarly about ebooks until I got an iPhone, which has an app called iBooks on it–and now I feel the need to buy myself an iPad so I can read my downloaded ebooks on a bigger screen! Like you, I didn’t want to like ebooks. I still infinitely prefer an actual book, but the iPhone does really come in handy when I…a) don’t want the book to flop closed while I’m eating or doing something else and b) when I’ve forgotten to bring a book somewhere with me, but have my phone. Plus, with iBooks you can actually turn a page as if it’s a real book: http://www6.pcmag.com/media/images/223913-apple-ipad-wi-fi-ibooks-page-turn.jpg So even though you can’t feel the paper, you almost can…

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Apr 02, 2012 @ 08:25:45

      iBooks does look like a good compromise between books and ereaders! It would be nice to physically turn pages. The worst thing about ebooks for me though is the dodgy formatting you find in a lot of them. If they could just get the text to look like it does in a properly edited book, that would really make a huge difference for me! It will be exciting to see how the technology develops over the next few years.

      Reply

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