eBook? eGads!

I don’t want to make too big a deal about it, but I got a Kindle for my birthday and I found the impact on me to be a little scary.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noted that eReader devices and their associated eBooks are becoming quite popular. Over the last couple of years, they have emerged to become a significant element in the rapidly evolving cyborg that is modern western culture. The price had recently come down on the latest generation of these devices and thus I felt I was ready to satisfy my intellectual and geek curiosity. I let my wife know I would be interested in one. So, on the day of my birthday, she “gave” me the one I had chosen and ordered the week before.



Its a Book on a Screen. Get Over it.

So what? What’s the big deal?

Reading is important to me. I read not just for the decadent escapism of a good book; I read to satisfy my need to understand who I am and how the world works. It’s hard to describe, but I read for sort of the same reasons a bodybuilder works out … for the fitness it provides. I feel ‘flabby’ if I’m not reading — unfit intellectually and spiritually.

When I was in my teens, I read fantasy and science fiction books. Isaac Asimov, David Niven, Harry Harrison and JRR Tolkien were among my favorites . Then, in my early twenties, after reading Douglas Hofstadter’s amazing Godel, Escher, Bach , my appetite changed to a craving for psychology, natural history and sciences. As I read more on these topics, I followed references and reviews and I found myself increasingly gravitating to books written by the great thinkers of our time. I sought out authors who could explain nature and human-kind through writings in science, natural & human history and philosophy. Lately I begrudgingly find myself developing a taste for well written literature that explores elements of the human condition ( such as Neal Stephenson ).

What I have read over these years has significantly molded who I am and my perspectives on how the universe works. I have steadily collected a library of hundreds of books.  Scattered at home and in my office are the seminal works by Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Steven J. Gould, John Keegan, Jared Diamond, Robert Wright and others. These works have shaped my understanding, have structured my thoughts and have helped to dispelled the fog of my ignorance.

Almost like a child with a security blanket, I have kept my books close to me all these years. I never borrowed books — I almost always bought them so that I could keep them. For example, I can lift my head up from this computer screen now and can see dozens of books (“my” books) on the shelves of the family room. There they sit stacked and scattered sedately on the shelf. Some have been with me for 35 years. Just glancing at them brings back into focus their key messages and the feeling of wonder I felt when I first read their pages. Once in a while, I pull one out read a passages to my sons when we are discussing a pertinent topic. Most of the time they just lay there quietly. But even so, it brings me a gentle pleasure knowing that I can walk over and take one down and once again be bathed in their knowledge.

LCD?  Thou Upstart!

So, how would a cold electronic slate stand-up to the majesty of the printed book? Was it silly to assume that a skinny, inorganic doodad would somehow matching the stately presence of a well bound codex? Was I just wasting my money on a fad? There is only one way to find out. I decided that I was going to give this a fair shot, but I secretly thought it going to be a short lived experiment.

First, it is important to say that Amazon has done a decent job with their latest generation eReader. Its design and functionality has a lot going for it and it is priced reasonably ($139). Many have written reviews on the Kindle hardware and user experience ( so I won’t). Suffice it to say that the reading experience is surprisingly good.

To ease my transition (and give the doohickey a fighting chance) I also ordered the nice leather cover with the integrated light. This addition nearly doubled the purchase price, but aesthetics are important. It made the glass and plastic device feel more like a ‘real’ book.

Kindle cover

eBook in a Book's Clothing

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. eHyde

Soon after firing up the device and using it for a while, I noted a curious change in how I read.

I didn’t just buy an eBook at the eStore, download it onto the eReader and start reading linearly, as I did a regular book. Combined with the power of the public Internet, the Kindle gave me access to dozens of important books I was interested in, but would have never had taken the troubled to find or to buy. It is not well known, but the copyright on many books expire about 70 years after the author’s death. At that point, the intellectual property reverts to the public domain. That means there are no royalties to be paid and anyone can copy and publish the work.

Amazon provides a good number of these older public-domain books for download on their website for free or for a nominal amount (a dollar or two). But other brilliant projects such as gutenberg.org, are taking on the job with a passion — digitizing huge libraries of older books and making them available for free download. The size and diversity of their catalog is stupefying. I have downloaded (for free!) seminal scientific and literary milestones including Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, Newton’s Principa Mathematica, the complete works of William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, chunks of Encyclopedia Britannica, books of poetry by Robert Service, The Koran, etc. etc. Say what you will about the deleterious impact of the internet on our culture, Internet + Gutenberg Project + eReader = boon to literacy.

On the Kindle, you can search and annotate the eBook’s text. You can share you annotations using social media. You can pick-up reading where you left off on your PC or your Smart Phone (it syncs everything up). You can change font size. You can highlight an unfamiliar word and get a pop-up dictionary explanation in just one second. You’re not just passively reading, you’re busy doing stuff.

In three months, I’ve downloaded more than two dozen books (and several audio books to boot). However, having a book does not mean reading a book. Since early October, I have managed to read only five eBooks cover-to-cover (note the soon-to-be arcane reference to covers):

Einstein: His Life and Universe Walter Issacson
The Einstein Theory of Relativity H.A. Lorentz
Two Years Before the Mast Richard Henry Dana Jr.
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Anabasis Xenophon

I have started reading a dozen others (where ‘started’ is anything from ‘skimmed a few pages’ to ‘read a chapter or two’) .

That being said, it was easy to read the five books on the Kindle’s eInk screen. I didn’t suffer. I got as much out of them as I would have if I read them in paper form. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I liked it.

Now for the scary stuff. The Kindle has turned me into a distracted and impatient reader. Over the course of a few months, my reading has changed from a slow stroll down a leafy lane to a game of over-caffeinated hop-scotch. No more do I reach over to the bed table and select from a stack of 3 in-progress books, one of which I will advance a dozen or so pages before I drift off. Now, I grab my eReader, peruse the twenty or so eBooks I have downloaded and then jump into one for a little dip. If it is boring or I don’t get a buzz off one, I pop back up and then dive into another one. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Interested in reading a bit more of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography? Hop in and scan a page or two. Are his musings too arcane?  No problem, let’s see what Darwin had to say about animal husbandry in 19th century England. The device remembers where you were and takes you back to the location you last left off. Had enough Victorian discourse on pigeon plumage deformation under artificial selection? Time for something a little more timely. Let’s check out the front page of the New York Times (yes, the Kindle has WIFI and a web browser built in). Etc. Etc.

Reading is no Longer A Spectator Sport

So what does this all mean?  What conclusions do I draw from the experiment? Is the eReader/eBook a good thing or a bad thing? It’s tough to say.

As Melvin Kranzberg said, technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.  In this case, Mr. Kranzberg is right on. eReaders and eBooks are not neutral. What they are doing is changing the nature of the medium.

With almost 10% of books sales now e-books, the marketplace for the written word is just starting to feel the change. Traditional media such as newspapers and magazines have struggled to try to monetize their content on the web now have found a possible channel for electronic distribution through eReader devices (eBook readers, general purpose devices such as iPads). Venerable brands like the New York Times and the Economist may yet survive the inexorable implosion of their print businesses.

It is not just the distribution channel for books that will undergo change, but the concept of a book as a static lump of text is also up for grabs. Neal Stephenson is in the midst of a fascinating experiment of writing a book as an on-line only serial novel. Together with Greg Bear, he is writing the core story with chapters released every month or so. Readers ‘subscribe’ to the book and download chapters as they are published. Specialized apps are available for all the major Smart Phones, pads and eBook readers.  But here is where it gets interesting. The authors are also producers in the sense that they are working with artists, film-makers, game designers and us, the end-readers, to create a rich interactive social-world where the story takes place.


Don't just sit there reading, get busy

Check out the Mongoliad for more information.

This and other social-media based projects may be pioneering a change to the very concept of a book. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

It is trite to quote Marshall McLuhan famous aphorism, but the old man couldn’t have been more right. The medium is the message.