A Sordid Tale Involving a Book Conservator and an ebook Reader

“The ebook reader is devil spawn, the product of an unholy union between book and machine.”

Jeff Peachey–July, 2009

Last week, in a stark reversal of previously held convictions, I purchased a kindle 2 ebook reader.

Initially inspired by a number of upcoming talks I will be giving concerning the future of books and conservation, I have been reading and thinking about ebook readers for a while, especially in terms of how they might augment, change or supplant paper books.  This machine is emblematic of the societal changes regarding the distribution, consumption and value of books.  It can also evoke ire in those who are firmly enamored with paper books.

So I am slightly ashamed, after wrestling with the dilemma to purchase one or not for a few months, that  I realized, with an intensity almost religious in its conviction, that I wanted one– immediately.  Purely in the interests of research, I told myself.  Last Monday, at 9:17 am I logged on to Amazon and purchased one.  I’m even more embarrassed to admit I succumbed to the same day delivery option for Manhattan.  Who in their right mind would wait 5-9 days for free delivery, I reasoned.  I wanted this machine now.  During the day, I was embarrassed yet again, by how excited and eager I was to get my kindle. At 2:26 that afternoon the machine arrived.

After charging the battery, my first thought was to make some sort of case to  hide protect it.  This proved more challenging than initially envisioned.  A number of designers and computer case makers have fabricated various holders, hinged book-like portfolios and envelopes, but none of these seemed satisfactory, since I found the machine very comfortable when held naked.  I ended up making a slipcase  lined with Volara, which works for now.

The next step was to inform some of my friends and colleagues that I had bought this reading machine.   Not surprisingly, I received a variety of responses, ranging from “WHAT!”  to “WHAT THE…!” to “ARE YOU CRAZY?!!” to “OH_MY_GOD!”  After downloading a number of free books, I settled on my first purchase; “Erewhon”, by Samuel Butler.  It is a novel describing  a future civilization that only has knowledge of machines through reading about them in books.

I must confess that I like the kindle, but have only used it for a week.

THE BAD

*It is another expensive portable electronic device that I have to remember to recharge.

*I keep wanting to scroll, but the machine can only turn pages.

*The page turns are much faster than earlier versions, but still pretty slow, and still accompanied by a split second seizure inducing reversal of text and background.

*ebooks themselves seem overpriced to me- around $10. Since there is no production, distribution and minimal storage costs, $5-$7 would seem more in line with the profit margin on paper books.

*There is no secondary marketplace for ebooks.

*Rapidly “flipping” through to find specific pages is difficult.

*It is strange to read everything in the same font- Caelicia.

*It is strange to read everything on the same “page”.

*The formatting and kerning are quite variable and often very bad.

*The footnotes on the books I have are not in hypertext, so it is awkward to first go back to the table of contents, then to the notes, then page through each to find it.

*The 6 inch screen seems small in relation to the size of the machine. Not that many words-per-page even with a small font size.

*I still find the machine itself a little distracting to the reading process.  Maybe it is just a matter of me getting used to it. It invites me to fiddle with buttons and check the web.

*Occasionally the screen glares in a strong light source.

*The “text to speech” voice is annoying and virtually unlistenable.

*I wish the background of the screen were a little whiter.

*Many books and  journals are not available.

*I don’t like the idea of an ebook readers.

THE GOOD

*It seems well made, the buttons have a nice inward click.  Easy to hold with one or two hands.  Good ergonomics.

*Lighter than an average book of the same size. And obviously, much lighter than 1,500 books.

*Purchased books are backed up by Amazon, and can be shared on other formats, like the iphone or computer.  Even bookmarks and notes are shared.

*It is very convenient not have to think about what book to take when I go out.

*The choice of five font sizes is invaluable for the over 40 crowd.

*It is fantastic to use while eating, lying flat, taking up half the table space of a paper book.

*The eink is clear and easy to look at for long periods of time. Better “print” quality than many common mass market paperbacks.

*There are thousands of free, public domain books available.

*It it a wonderful size for reading in the car or on the subway.  It is very easy to turn the pages on a packed train while standing.

*The battery life is great. I’ve used it constantly for a week, and haven’t turned it off, only recharging it once.

*The free 3G web browser works reasonably well for mobile optimized websites.

*It will help clear up scarce bookshelf space.

*An average book downloads in less than a minute.

*I imagine it will be perfect when traveling- no worries about running out of books, and a lot less weight.

I will avoid the already somewhat tiresome “is the kindle better than a book” debate for now, at least until I’ve had a couple of months to use it.  Suffice to say, there are many issues.  But the ebook reader itself may already be heading towards obsolescence.   A couple of ebook blogers are nervous that the tablet computer, which Apple will possibly introduce later this week, may replace their traditional ebook reader, and are growing anxious and defensive about it. Technology races onward.


12 thoughts on “A Sordid Tale Involving a Book Conservator and an ebook Reader

  1. ampersand duck

    This is really interesting. The only thing I like so far about the Kindle is the fact that it has made up its own name and doesn’t seem to be claiming to be a book itself.

    I like the idea of e-books, have even tried a few things on my iphone, but the question in my mind at the moment is not so much whether they are valid ways to read — obviously they are, albeit still a bit primitive — but whether we shouldn’t be looking for alternative words for book-like things that aren’t physically book structures?

    I have a very broad notion of books, and it includes artistic deviations, but they all must have a notion of bookiness about them as an object. When we start getting into on-screen/online claims to bookiness, that’s when I think humans should get brave and or creative in coming up with new terms for reading structures and implements.

    What do you think? I’m very interested in your response.

  2. Jeff Peachey Post author

    I think you are correct. In some respects, the kindle is removed from a book. We “read a book” but we “read on a kindle”. Also, their non-bookness may be the reason that I find it difficult to get past the fact I am reading on a kindle, and get into the actual reading. A paper book quite forcefully, and precisely, delineates the physical space of reading. But this may be the associations and symbolism we have built up over the centuries.

    As for new content delivery devices, I don’t know.

  3. kevin

    I think one of the challenges/dissatisfactions with e-readers is they are trying to mimic physical books. That makes sense as physical books are a known, comfortable, and successful technology, but I’m guessing the e-reader as a physical book mimic is a transitional technology. Moving from scroll to codex changed how people read, and I imagine moving from codex to screen will change how we read. But, we are still early in that transition.

    (I am, however, eagerly awaiting the forthcoming set of Peachey tools for the Kindle!)

  4. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Tools might be a real challenge! I don’t even see a screw on it- the whole thing is pressed together.

  5. joel

    There is something amusing to see at the same time eBooks are giving the physical book a run for the money, machines like the expresso make it possible for physical books to be available in a quantity and selection that we have never seen before.

  6. MCRumph

    I know that the e-readers are here to stay, though I think the dedicated device will see the grave before the book itself (vis a vis devices like the new Apple Itablet) but I would please ask you to change your language from e-book to e-text, since it is the text you download and read whereas the book is the medium. I know this too may be a losing battle, but one I will continue to fight. I am going to be doing a post on bookbinding and will certainly include a link to your website. Also, you might be interested in bookfuturism.com. Really enjoy your site.

  7. bethhellerconservation

    I imagine a Peachey kindle tool would be one that enhances the use of the kindle rather than one that is used to repair it. Perhaps a reading stand for use on the breakfast table, or a small green kindle visor that minimizes glare.

    Or, when the kindle breaks, maybe the case and innards could be made into tools themselves? A very large burnisher?

  8. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Yep. Also, it is odd how book people have been leapfroged over for cases for the knidle, nook, etc. In the Barnes and Noble near me, the nook display has cases by kate spade, Jonathan Adler, Jack Spade, etc.
    Jeff Peachey, Kustom Kindle Kase Konstruction.

  9. Jeff Stikeman

    Hi Jeff.
    I have a friend who has a Kindle, and was ashamed to drag it out in front of me, because she knew I “collected books”.
    I reached for it, having not seen one previously, and said “ah, cool!, lemme see!” like some sort of schoolyard kid spotting a new iPhone. I was a little surprised at myself for being so eager, and felt guilty that my books at home were going to find out. ..but I realized I have been compartmentalizing for years. There is “reading”, and then there is “collecting” (plus, I’d imagine for you, “conserving”). Any collector will tell you that of the books he enjoys reading, he likely has a few copies. One is the first edition perhaps, in a solander case maybe. Don’t touch it, don’t even open it. Don’t look at it out of the corner of your eye lest you steal its soul. Then there’s the shelf copy, maybe a second printing, no d.j. or something, but still a sweet kid to keep around. Then there’s what you might call a working copy, some reprint in a decent size, maybe hardcover, but definitely well read and thumbed, maybe marginal notes. Finally, a portable reading copy, for the subway or other unspeakable places, a Penguin paperback, well thumbed and shameful. Your dirty little secret.
    The eBook is just a version of the last, and no threat to the first.
    I see no threat to collecting or conserving from eBooks. If anything, they will clarify the divide. It’s not like conserving or collecting rare books isn’t already a niche.
    As long as a collector is willing to pay a thousand dollars for a book, someone will find (or make) new thousand dollar books.

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