the great e-reader debate: fundamental change

The first mistake I made in considering purchasing an e-reader was that I thought I was thinking about buying a device. A piece of technology. I’m a fairly techno-savvy person.1 I’m not a programmer or designer, but I know how to use the devices I have to their maximum potential. I actively seek out technology that will improve the quality of my life, even if it’s just an Android app.2

So it was only natural that when I wanted to increase the amount of open space in the apartment, I looked at all my bookshelves and thought, ‘This is where a Kindle would be helpful.’ After all, the reason I first bought an iPod was so that I could not have hundreds of CDs to find a place for around the apartment.

I thought about a Kindle, but obviously there are several e-readers out there, each with its own pros and cons. Some are in color, some are touch-screen. Some are more than just dedicated e-readers.

Forget all that for the moment. Let’s talk instead about how I was wrong.

I’m not talking about buying a piece of technology. I’m talking about changing the way that I read.

Now, I’ve been reading for 30+ years. It’s probably the top spot on my list of all-time favorite things to do.3 When you’re a person who reads, you’re never bored if you have a book, and books are easy to find. And sometimes free. They are entertaining. They are educational. They are troublemakers and peacekeepers. Sometimes they are all of these things.

But it’s not really the books that are these things. It’s the words inside them, words that make ideas.

The invention of the printing press resulted in an explosion of an educated populace not just because it made books affordable but because it made them portable. For the first time, ideas and arguments could be shared, word-for-word, amongst the common-folk. No summarizing. No interpreting. The book was and is a highly portable method for the transmission of knowledge.

It’s biggest drawback is that one must be able to read.4

Think about what happens when you read. Your eyes move from left to right5 and your hand or hands physically interact with the object. Maybe your lap as well. But for the most part it’s an eyes-and-hands affair.

There’s more than the left-to-right aspect, though. There’s top-to-bottom. Left-side page. Right-side page. These may not seem like a big deal, but it creates a physical orientation throughout the book. I can’t even guess the number of times I was able to look something up in a book I’d read because I remembered reading it roughly halfway through the book, towards the top of the left-hand page, for example.

With an e-reader, it’ll all be the same. The only distinction will be the progress bar. Will I remember that I was roughly 48% through the book? I’m not sure.

With books, you turn pages. The weight distribution of the book shifts from one side to the other as you move through the book. When I read whilst eating I sometimes have to place my phone on the light side of the book so it doesn’t close up on me. It seems silly, but I’d miss doing this.

With an e-reader I won’t need to weigh anything down. This isn’t a pro or a con, precisely, just something I’d miss.

I’m also curious about the form. Will a novel still feel like a novel? Will poems have the same line-breaks? The same spacing? What about pictures? One of my favorite things about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is the inclusion of several full-color prints, each book’s prints commissioned from a different painter. Will these be included? Some e-readers don’t even do color, so will they be black-and-white renderings?

Maybe these are minor concerns to some people, but I like books just as much as I like reading. Changing the format will affect how I interact with the material, which is how I’ve interacted with books for 30+ years.

There are other considerations. I carry a backpack with me most of the time, partially because I like to keep a book with me at all times. Sometimes I want more than one book on me because I don’t know what I’ll feel like reading. When I go on trips or vacation, by bag is always heavy because I’ve packed at least three books, often more. Even if I’m only gone for a weekend.

Each of these things will be unnecessary. My e-reader would have a wide enough selection to satisfy whatever reading-desire I might have. To return to the original problem that began this debate in my head, I could unload several shelves worth of books from my apartment. My ‘books’ would be kept on my computer, on my e-reader, or in the cloud. The open space in the apartment would be nice, I can’t deny that.

There is one last fundamental consideration: libraries.

I work at a library. I happen to be responsible for getting the books back on the shelves. But I’m not terribly concerned about e-readers robbing me of a job. Yet.

What I’m concerned about is using libraries. Most of the books I own were bought after I read them, having borrowed a copy from the library. This is another fundamental change I’d have to deal with. Yes, I could still get books from the library, but I wouldn’t read them with my e-reader. Some libraries are trying to figure out how to circulate e-books, and I’m sure it’ll happen in time. But for now, I either borrow an actual book from the library or I buy the e-book from wherever.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble each sort-of offer a solution to this. Amazon lets friends ‘loan’ books to other friends with Kindles. I’m not sure of the particulars, but it’s one approach. Barnes & Noble has a version I like even better: anyone with a Nook can go to any Barnes & Noble store and read any e-book for free for up to an hour per day. While I find this very cool, the closest Barnes & Noble to me is 20 or so miles away. Plus, I read for more than an hour at a stretch. Put a store in my town and let me read for two hours and maybe I’ll get a Nook.

But no one has really solved the library aspect of e-readers yet. Even at my library, we’re just starting the discussion of circulating e-readers. No one knows how to actually do it, let alone how to actually circulate the e-books.

So, those are the fundamental changes I’ve considered regarding e-readers. Tomorrow I’ll talk about problems of technology, if you’re willing to stick around.


  1. Though I hate that phrase.
  2. Side note: the more I use Android, the more committed to that platform I am. The iPhone seems sweet as hell, but Android phones let me conform the phone to me, rather than me conforming to the phone.
  3. Masturbation may have edged into the top spot during my teenage years, but only by a scratch.
  4. This will likely go away soon. ‘Books’ will read themselves to you. You’ll be able to download famous voices reading you your favorite books. And who wouldn’t want Morgan Freeman reading Leaves of Grass?
  5. Applies to most, if not all, Western languages. Arabic is probably the right-to-left language that occurs most frequently.

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2 comments on “the great e-reader debate: fundamental change

  1. I was totally against getting an ereader, then my mom got me one for Christmas. I’m like you. I like the way a book feels and smells. I like buying books. I like browsing shelves in bookstores. And I like libraries. I don’t want to pay any money for something electronic (like an ebook) because in my mind it isn’t real.

    But, I have to say, the amount of free books shocked me. You mean I can try to finish Ulysses without actually carrying Ulysses around? Awesome. There are endless amounts of classics that I can read (then buy the vintage/antique version of which I won’t touch). Also, when I buy a book, I will only buy real books.

    I guess, then, an ereader is like getting a shitload of free classics and magazines. So, I guess what I’m saying is, you can have one and still not go over to the dark side. Although I suggest asking for it for Christmas, because I know you’ll still spend money on real books.

    As for the library issue, do most people who frequent the library have ereaders? In my experience, only richies have ereaders, and those people don’t frequent the library anyway. Am I wrong?

    • Amazon’s Kindle is only $139, so it’s become way more affordable. I don’t think a lot of people in the library have e-readers, but libraries are interested in them. The biggest challenge to libraries is money. Since digital books cost less, save space, and never wear out, some libraries very much so want to figure out how to circulate e-books. Many college libraries are circulating iPads, which can be used as e-readers, and some circulate Kindles.

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