I Read an E-Book (And I Liked It)

by Patrick on February 25, 2009

I was going to hold off on this post for a few days, as technically, I’m not quite finished with the ebook I was reading, but as everybody’s talking about the Kindle 2 today, I think it’s time to say my piece.

Of all the blog posts I’ve written, this post about Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of the Kindle has caused me the most distress.  I posted it because I felt that Oprah had a reputation as some sort of savior to book people (indie book people really loved her and felt betrayed by her endorsement of the Kindle), and I wanted to poke a hole in that.  The responses branded me as a head-in-the-sand, troglodytic old fogie.

What bothered me about this was that, well, I’m not really any of those things (although I do walk like an old man).  I’m all for interesting new technologies, things that make life more fun or easier.  What I was objecting to in the post had everything to do with Oprah and the specific product she was endorsing.  My problem with the Kindle is pretty simple — it’s a closed system.  You can only buy your Kindle and your Kindle books from Amazon.  The blog Condalmo has pointed out better than I can why this model won’t work.  For those who are too lazy to click through and read it, the gist is this:  imagine if Sony had decided that its Walkman would only play “Sony Certified Cassettes.”  Would that ever have worked?  Of course not.

There are other problems with the Kindle, which smart people like Seth Godin and Cory Doctorow (who is actually a big fan of Amazon in most cases) have pointed out:  the ebooks are loaded up with nasty DRM, meaning you can’t share them, can’t manipulate them, can’t really do anything with them except read them on your Kindle (and maybe your iPhone if you already have a Kindle and download the app).  All the glorious potential of the ebook is being completely wasted on a device that offers only one-way input and little or no transfer of files.  On this topic, the strangest responses to that Oprah post I wrote were from authors trumpeting the Kindle as a great achievement for the free movement of information.  Really?  The ebook is a great leap forward for this, but not when you drape in DRM and restrict it to a single device and sell them at one single store.  This model is a bit like the old “company store,” where you have only one choice of where to shop.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll all be paid in Amazon scrip?  Even Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on selling MP3s for the ipod and the iphone.  I’ve started buying my music from Lala.com, where I can listen to a song for free before deciding to buy it, and where the songs are ten cents cheaper and don’t have DRM.  It’s just as easy as the itunes store, they have Radiohead songs (yes, songs, not full albums) and a program moves the music right into my iTunes library, where I’m free to do whatever the hell I please with it (That’s how ownership works, right?).

(As a side note, I also think it’s odd whenever I hear authors celebrating the impending death of independent bookstores.  I immediately know a few things about these authors:  1.  They likely have never published a book.  2. If they have, it is probably self-published.  3.  They’ve had their self-published book rejected by their local bookseller, but Amazon carries it.  4.  This book is likely about the end of the Mayan calendar.)

To sum up, I get what makes ebooks great.  I can see the benefit of having a great, easy-to-use ebook reader, and by most accounts, the Kindle might be this.  But it isn’t perfect, and I think there are real doubts about whether it will become “the iPod of books.”  Which brings me to the real point of this post:  I read an ebook on my iPhone.  And the experience was great (with a few caveats).

A few pieces of background information first.  I’ve had a few ebooks on my iPhone for the past couple of months, but they weren’t books I’d been dying to read, so I never read them.  I downloaded them mainly to test the experience, but of course that didn’t work.  The only way to really “test the experience” of a book is to read it.  So that’s what I did.  I downloaded Cory Doctorow’s book Content (which is freakin’ brilliant, by the way), and decided to read it using the Stanza application.  I wanted to read it more or less as I would a physical book; that is, I would read it on the train to work, in bed before falling asleep, and occasionally at lunch.  Whether this was the right way or the wrong way to think about ebooks, I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like the best way to try this experiment.

Content was a good choice, as it contains several articles explicitly about ebooks.  For now, I’d like to ignore the content (ha!) of the book for a second, and just talk about the experience of reading it.  Here’s what I found:  for the most part, it was just like reading a physical book.  I was wrapped up in the arguments of the book, completely oblivious to the medium on which I was reading it.  Yes, the screen was small, but so what?  I turned the page more often, which by the way, involves flicking your thumb.  In fact, I was kind of into how small the object was.  As John Stewart screamed on the Daily Show the other day “You can read with one hand!” (It should be said that I have Ted Williams-esque vision, so I might not be the best test-case for this.)

The process of obtaining the book was also easy.  I opened Stanza, went into one of the shared libraries of free books, and downloaded the book.  Twenty seconds later, I was reading it.  Can’t beat that.  (And just to get this out of the way, I feel no guilt whatsoever about reading Doctorow’s book for free.  He has written quite a bit about why he gives his books away online, so I won’t regurgitate that here.  I do own his book Little Brother in physical form, and I wrote a shelf-talker of it for the store.  I also chose it for our first online-only book club, and I’m writing about him here on this blog.  I think he’s in the black with me, but I suppose you could look at it differently.)  Everytime I opened Stanza, the menu would appear briefly before returning me to the page I’d left off on.  It was pretty great.

I’m not sure I can gauge whether it made me read any differently.  I felt like I was flying through the book, but that might just be because Doctorow’s a bad ass writer who knows how to string sentences together.  Perhaps the easy-turning epages made me read faster, but I doubt it.  I’m willing to chalk this one up to the author’s talent and leave it at that.  I didn’t find myself jumping out of the program to check out Facebook or Twitter, though, which was interesting.  A big complaint about multi-tasking devices as ereaders is that they offer too many distractions.  This is certainly true, and I imagine if I’d received a call or a text (nobody ever really tries to contact me, see) I would’ve stopped reading to respond…of course, this is true of reading a physical book, too.  I also didn’t find myself switching from book to book like some crazed literature schyzophrenic.  I read the book I was reading, and that was it.  I didn’t want to read anything else.  From other people’s accounts of why they like ebooks, this seems to put me in the minority.

The negatives of reading the ebook were pretty small, but there were a few.  This is going to sound kind of dumb, but I really didn’t like that people on the train thought I was watching an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” or playing a really slow videogame.  I wanted them to see that I was reading, to show off, and I couldn’t.  I found myself tempted to say to people “I’m reading, you know.  A book.  It’s good.”  But I didn’t, because that would be weird.  I don’t love that there aren’t page numbers (if you click the screen, a little menu appears at the bottom that offers the page numbers within a specific essay, but that’s it), but that’s not the end of the world (I think it might drive me nuts in a novel, where there aren’t as clearly defined break points as in a collection of essays).

Did I miss the feel of the book in my hands?  The smell of the paper?  The beautiful cover art?  No.  Maybe my answer would be different if I were reading a novel like Little Bee, which has an incredible cover, but I just didn’t really miss all of that other stuff.

I did feel like the ebook could be doing a little more for me.  For instance, if you check out The Stack, you’ll see that I’m still reading The Rest is Noise.  I blame this on a few things (getting my hands on In the Drink, a book I’d been searching for, and then getting completely wowed by Emily Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal) but really it’s because I just don’t know what much of the music in the book sounds like.  If it were an ebook, and somebody were really crafty about it, they could embed MP3s in the book at the appropriate times so that when I’m reading about Stravinsky, I can get a little snippet of “Rites of Spring.”  That would be a great use of the new medium, and when we start seeing ebooks used this way, that’s when they’ll really catch on.  Until then, I suspect that the Kindle will sell because it has the easiest purchasing forum (Raise your hand if you’ve visited the Sony ebook store.  Am I staring at a room of full pockets?) and because some people love to be the first to have a gadget.  In the end, I suspect that a more open device, one that can read books in any format from any source, will rise up and crush the Kindle.  Who will make such a device?  I wonder.

[Edit:  For a good take on what the ebook means for independent bookstores and the particular pressures of the changing market, check out Rich’s post at the Word Hoarder.]