Sunday, August 2, 2009

The State of eBooks and the Stone of Orthanc

“There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.” - The Smiths

By Steve Weddle

I like to think that Nicholson Baker and I don’t often agree. Turns out, maybe we do.

I first read his stuff when I was at LSU. We’d been assigned “Books as Furniture” in our non-fiction class. The essay was smokin’ hot, looking at all those books stacked up on coffee tables and chests in the Pottery Barn catalogs. Soon I was reading VOX, his phone-sex novella, which was, ahem, smoking hottier. Man, I would have much rather been reading that on an ereader. Some folks kinda move away from you when they see you’re reading that one.

But I’m not so sure I’d want to read it on the Kindle, and here I suppose I tend to agree with Mr. Baker. His recent “A New Page” in the New Yorker explores the Amazon device that costs a little more than the iPod Touch and does a lot less.

Mr. Baker takes a close look at the Kindle and ereading in general. He is, of course, a very bright man. You know this because he writes things such as: “Everybody was saying that the new Kindle was terribly important – that it was an alpenhorn blast of post-Gutenbergian revalorization.” Haha. I don’t know what the hell he just said. Something about the Kindle being important because you can read the Steve Gutenberg biography, I think.

Anyway, the Kindle is fantastically popular, because once you spend a few hundred bucks or more on the device, you’re able to buy $10 ebooks. I’m not certain I understand why this is popular. I generally don’t understand why things are popular. (Except that slap chop re-mix on the YouTubes. That’s gold, Jerry. Gold.)

So it’s nice that Mr. Baker takes the time and the New Yorker’s budget to fly around talking to people about why they love the Kindle. “Maybe, I thought,” he thought, “if I ordered this wireless Kindle 2 I would be pulled into a world of compulsive, demonic book consumption, like Pippin staring at the stone of Orthanc.” Again, um, no idea. However, if I were reading this article on the Kindle, I could just connect to Wikipedia and look up this Orthanc thing. Turns out the name Orthanc, according to the great W, “means both ‘Mount Fang’ in Sindarin, and ‘Cunning Mind’ in Old English, the language Tolkien uses to ‘translate’ Rohirric.” I had to wait to find this out until my iPod Touch was within range of a Wi-Fi network, by the way. Still, I feel so much better now that I have access to all of this information I don’t understand.

I think this would be a problem with the Kindle, this linking to the world of information. If I’m reading a book or article on paper, I’m much less likely to go from rathole to rathole, searching out answers to questions I only vaguely understand. I’m more likely to just sit down and work my way through a book, in linear fashion. The problem with the Kindle, one of the problems, is that it opens up the whole world to you, by way of being connected to everything on the Internet. You want to download the next book in a series as you’re finishing this one? The Kindle is for you. If you’re a curious person, though, I’d think you’d be as tempted as I am to clicky-click on a word to find out more. (My attention tends to scatter off like birdshot after a drunk neighbor.) I read ebooks on my iPod Touch, so I’d have many more steps to find the information, which, as I've mentioned, would only be accessible when Wi-Fi was present.

I don’t know how you are (Seriously, how could I?) but I’m more likely to finish a book on my iPod Touch than I am a print copy. If I get to page 20 of a paperback and I’m not sure about continuing, I’ll just set it down. There it is, over on the shelf. I can see it. It exists. I can go get it in a couple of days if I feel like it. I'm not afraid to set it aside, because I can pick it back up and start reading again. But on the ereader, it’s gone. I close that file and open another one and it falls back into ones and zeroes, as if it doesn’t really exist. The new ebook acquires the space of the older one. I have no second chance with that book. In a couple of days, if I’m in the mood for a thriller, I’ll be unlikely to go back into the list of files on the iPod Touch and search for that one. I’d be much more likely to notice it laid sideways on the bookshelf, waiting for me to pick it back up when I’m in the mood. So moving from one ebook to another is forever. I have to keep reading the ebook or it’s gone. I have a couple dozen books on my iPod Touch. Every book I’ve started there I’ve finished, except Shutter Island, which I’m currently reading. That’s far from true about the shelves in my house.

On the iPod Touch, I can read books in many forms, unlike the proprietary Kindle files on the Kindle. (Buy a book at the Kindle store and you can only read it on the Kindle or Kindle-licensed products.) I have Stanza (pictured), eReader, B&N eReader , and the Kindle reader on my iPod Touch. Each piece of software offers various reasons to use it. The Kindle software syncs up with the Kindle store, allowing me to buy Kindle books without having a Kindle. Stanza has great links to online stores with a good deal of free content.

And that’s what this is all about, finally. Content. Would you read a book on a small screen such as the iPod Touch? I tried with the first Palm I ever had, the Palm M125 which I’ll blog about in a couple of weeks. Reading on that Palm did not work. Reading on the iPod Touch does. As Mr. Baker says about the iPod Touch in his essay, “The nice thing about this machine is (a) it’s beautiful, and (b) it’s not imitating anything.” Now that’s something I can understand.

The iPod Touch is my music player, my blog reader, my email checker, my soccer manager player. I use it to check the weather, read my Word files and update my Facebook status. The thing is always with me. That’s the main reason I get so much read on it. It fits into my pocket. Whatever book I’m reading is always with me as long as it’s on my iPod Touch. And isn’t that what we want? Books that stay with us.


Anonymous said...

I think the Kindle's days are limited. It's a single-pupose device that performs a function that can be done on most smartphones and newer iPods or, if you've started kicking kids off your lawn, laptop or tower.

Nonna said...

I have yet to begin (or complete!) reading on an electronic device, Kindle or iPod or SmartPhone or whatever. I like the feel of a "real" book in my hands, the mad march through an exciting suspense--page by page--the sense of accomplishment when that 500 pager is finally completed! But then, I admit: I am OLD! We recently invested in DirectTV at our house and finally I can record a tv program; I NEVER learned to program one of those VCR recorders!!
So, just give me print books, a nice comfortable chair, glass of iced tea, and a day with nothing scheduled----I'll show you how to enjoy a book! But then, if reading ebooks gets as simple as recording on a DirectTV DVR, I might give it a try.....

Jason said...

I don't usually have the time to tuck myself away somewhere to sit down and read, whether it be a paper version or an e-version. I get my book time in via audiobooks, and instead of throwing away $7 to $10 per book (or more for the audio versions) I just stop by the public library and pick up a new book every week or so. It's all about personal preferences, right? I guess as long as you're absorbing books in some fashion it's a good thing.

Scott D. Parker said...

Like Jason, audiobooks are my #1 way of getting through a book nowadays. In fact, I get annoyed when I book I really want to read has no audio version. Thankfully, is usually on top of the ball.

Regarding e-reading, I have a Palm Zire and read on it regularly but not solely. I enjoy buying the latest issues of Ellery Queen, Asimovs, or Alfred Hitchcock's magazines via and reading the material on my Palm. I particularly enjoy having the stylus since I can highlight passages and make notes along the way (much as I do when reading a hardcopy book). And I can export said notes to a text file have them on hand.

I'd prefer an e-reader like the iPhone or iPod Touch that serves more than one purpose. The Kindle is a one-hit wonder that'll pave the way to better e-readers.

I am part of the bridge generation. I was born in a world without personal computers and learned as the industry evolved. I'm also a person who loves the smell of books, especially old books, but will be okay with reading things in an electronic device. It just won't be a Kindle. Hmmm, maybe it isn't too soon to ask Santa for an Ipod Touch...

Dave White said...

I have the Kindle on my iPhone and one book downloaded for it. I'm actually enjoying the book, but I can't bring my self to read for an extended period of time. It's a bit tough on the eyes, the battery doesn't last long enough for me to get any momentum going. I'm easily distracted by the Facebook App or the Twitter App or email or Sirius Radio App... Meanwhile, I read a print version of Prince of Thieves on vacation last week and read 500 pages in one day.

Anonymous said...

Now you got me thinking! I first entertained the thought of purchasing a kindle when I received a free Ebook in a contest. It was a book by Jon F Merz (@jonfmerz on twitter). While I enjoyed his book tremendously and purchased several more of his Ebooks, I found it to be rather inconvenient to sit at a computer to relax and read a book. Later, when Joe Finder's Paranoia (@JoeFinder) was free on Amazon, I wished that I had a kindle.

I do not have an iphone nor an Ipod touch. But the requirement on kindle that one complete a book or it is lost, is one huge drawback as far as convenience is concerned. If I read that correctly. I would imagine that such an expensive device would have a file open and file close setting as a computer would as well as a page marker for each book so one could continue where he or she left off. Did I get the wrong message here?

Btw, I couldn't post other than choosing the anonymous profile. But I am Merle Gornick :D

Steve Weddle said...

Howdy, Merle Gornick. Or, shaka.

Good question, and let me focus on trying to be clear rather than trying to be clever.

The file is still there on the Kindle or eReader. It's just buried in a list, the difference between looking at a list of files on your music player and the "cover flow" option that Apple uses to mimic the sitting on the floor, thumbing through the albums covers that we all did growing up.

If the book goes back to just being one in a list, I'll never get back to it. I just won't. If the paperback just gets set to the side, I'll probably see that again. So, the file/book doesn't technically delete itself. It just removes itself from my notice, which is effectively the same for me.

Jay Stringer said...

Interesting conversation, folks.

I have mixed views on the kindle, and ebooks in general.

The writer in me is open to new forms of getting the work out there, and new ways to earn a living through writing. The industry needs to embrace the technology and run with it, i have no hang ups about that.

But as a reader? I just don't get it. I mean, understand ipods. I might want to listn to any three minute song in my collection at ay given minute, so it makes sense to have my entire collection with me.

But books are already small and portable. It's sort of the point. And i can only read one book at a time, so i don't need a device that will store my whole bookshelf.

Colour me a mixed up kid.

Steve Weddle said...

Scott, I read many books on the Palm Zire. Color screen. Great resolution. What's not to like?

Dave, I don't think I could do the e-equivalent of 500 pages in a day. BTW, the Kindle on iPod/phone is also a great application because you can immediately get the first chapter of books to preview for free.

Jason, In addition to books on tape, er, CD, our local library also has Rocket eBooks loaded with novels. (

Nonna, Another plus for the print version -- in addition to closing the book and admiring your achievement in completing the book.

Mr. Winter, I agree the Kindle's days are numbered, but I wonder whether the Kindle 3 will have a color screen (battery life issues) and/or be able to do more.

Jay, You should just try to read an eBook on the iPod Touch some day. You'd like it. That fits into your pocket much better than a trade paperback.

And other thing that ink-on-paper books have going for them--the whole box-in-the-mail thing. I have nine books on the way from England. Anticipation. Seeing the box on the porch. Opening the box. Deciding which book to read first. Downloading onto the Kindle just can't compare.

Joelle said...

I have to agree with Jay. I am a paper girl. I love books. I only read e-books if I have no other options. Sad, but true. I am so busy looking at a screen while writing and doing the various business aspects of writing that I need to get away from it to enjoy reading.

I love that e-format books are an option. Anything that keeps people (especially the younger generations) reading is good. But I will never be one of the converts. Give me a paper printed book, a glass of wine and a bubble bath any day. (An electronic book device, a bath tub and me would lead to a funny, but ultimately sad end.)