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Kindles, Nooks & e-readers: Imaginary Libraries or iPods for Books?

Jordan Gamble | Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ostensibly, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook are like iPods for books. You load them up with digital goodies that you can use but aren’t supposed to share. It is an enormous, real-but-not-real library of content that can go pretty much anywhere at any time. The imminent release of the Apple iPad, with its purported e-book capabilities, makes the comparison even more apt. So far, though, I’ve only used the Kindle.

The Kindle seemed to combine many good things — no more paper, lots of books and immediate access to them. But e-readers have definite drawbacks. First of all, the Kindle, even before you start buying books, is pretty expensive: The first version, which I have, was $360. With the Kindle box in my lap, all I could think was, “Dear God, that is a lot of money.”

The Kindle’s “revolutionary” purpose is to make entire libraries of books easily accessible, the same way the iPod did for music. The iPod can condense days of songs into a device the size of a credit card. Before the iPod, you simply couldn’t carry around all your music anywhere. You needed a Sony Walkman (cassette tape or CD), car stereo, boom box or maybe a little radio — but those didn’t always make the music private, and people still had to bring several different records, tapes or CDs if they wanted to have a variety of music. The iPod and other digital music players make entire collections portable and easy to organize.

The problem with the Kindle is that most books are already portable in the first place. Gone are the leather-bound tomes of past centuries, those unwieldy vinyl records of the book world. And because books — most of them, anyway — take more than four minutes to finish, it’s not as if the average person will really want or need 1,500 of them (the Kindle’s average capacity) stored up “just in case.” The typical recreational reader will probably be carrying a trade paperback, which is not burdensome, heavy or susceptible to extreme heat or a little bit of water.

Even if they are carrying a mammoth “Harry Potter,” it is still one book, and the reader will probably be reading it continuously until the end, not switching back and forth between “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Deathly Hallows” on a “Best of HP” chapter playlist.

Another problem with the current crop of e-readers is their embrace of access over ownership. You can read the books, you can make them travel with ease, but you can’t line them up on a shelf to display with pride (or smugness) and you especially can’t share them, because they only exist in your access to their content, not as physical possessions.
Buying books for the Kindle is a farce of shopping — you pay money for it, you use it but you don’t really have it.

This separation between content and physicality is annoying for someone who likes to flip through a book with ease, to write down notes in the margins with a pencil or to keep a mental picture of a particular passage in order to find it later just by moving to “about here” in the book’s pages.

Maybe later versions of the Kindle or other e-book readers will find a way to mimic the hands-on experience of book reading. But right now they are woefully inept in the ease-of-use department. Pleasure reading may not need lots of pencil marks, but serious, close reading for class often needs lots of annotation. Textbooks end up looking like a treasure map in code, with weird acronyms and zig-zagging lines and the occasional highlighted phrase (if you don’t plan to sell the book back to the bookstore, another thing you can’t do with digital “property”).

The Kindle does offer ways to interact with the digital text, though. There’s a way to bookmark pages, and when connected to the wireless network, you can even highlight words and connect instantly to an online dictionary. But when it comes to making that treasure map of clever phrases, obscure allusions or main ideas, the going gets tough. You can make notes, but it involves scrolling through the page, highlighting a line, choosing “add comment” from the menu and then typing out the note on the tiny QWERTY keyboard. The notes are nice and neat, but they don’t come with arrows or brackets or circles or underlines.

Even though the content is all there — the words, the author’s name and the copyright date — the experience is somehow diminished. No rustle of pages, no eye-catching cover art, no worn binding or old-book smell. The iPod doesn’t take away from the experience of recorded music. If anything, I think having that much music so easily available has made me appreciate the songs more, not less. But the e-book reader takes all the physicality out of the reading experience. The world on the page already forms in my imagination — but I think it’s one step too far to make the medium of the page intangible, too.

Contact Jordan Gamble at jgamble@nd.edu. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.