Monday, June 14, 2010

Rhetoric vs. Reality

I felt justified in my thinking when I read these "six takes from academics" on the e-book reading experience, from The Chronicle Review. Not all six takes are against electronic reading devices, but mind you, I'm not entirely against them, either. But some of these folks offer observations that fit with some things I've been thinking, or raise issues that have concerned me, as well.

My sister recently called to ask me what I thought of e-books, and about this new Kobe eReader coming out at Borders in particular. She had gift certificates to use there, adding up to a good sum, and this thing was going to be much cheaper than the Kindle. She explained that she's been buying tons of books lately, and not books she felt the need to display - ie, paperback fiction, perhaps even at the level of Nora Roberts (not that there's anything wrong with that). I said I could see her point, and that I've assumed that these devices could be useful for folks like her, who read a lot of throwaway fiction. (This is not to say the writing is bad in such novels necessarily, but just that the editions readers like her purchase are not made for display, ie they're mass market. And the term "throwaway" is not literal - library donations, selling to Goodwill, and more are all likely.) She liked the idea of being able to increase the font size, so when she cannot use her glasses, such as when she's having her hair dyed (I know, I know), she can compensate for her poor vision with the device. She is not looking to mark up these books at all.

But then the conversation went somewhere that I found troubling. She pointed out that people she knows often borrow books from each other. My other sister wanted her to bring the third book from some trilogy when they meet for vacation, and a friend recently asked to borrow another book of her's. She did not mind, however, that she couldn't share books on these e-readers, generally speaking. (You can do limited lending on B&N's the Nook, I believe). Here she was part of this reading community, and yet she was still thinking more of personal convenience rather than community needs (ie, lending). My frustration was balanced by talking to my mother, who had pointed out to my sister, she reported, that she herself would never bother with such a device as she reads three books a week, and does not want to pay for them, in e-form or p-form. She goes to the library, and this system works very well for her. Ain't mothers so often right? This is a classic case of not overthinking a system that works.

So after this rare family discussion on something so near and dear to my (professional/blogging) heart, I then read these "six takes," and first up, a provost and professor of classics from Georgetown has all kinds of interesting observations on the technology not quite being there yet. He articulates his points so well. Two in particular:

1) He lists some books he's bought for his Kindle, and confesses: "I've read chunks of all of them on the Kindle at odd moments, but not a lot of any of them yet."

2) of the Kindle store: "...still feels like the old B. Dalton, with best sellers, schlock, and not much selection. It has no Nabokov, and only three Sebald volumes, for example."

He feels the devices mean well, but they have not caught up to match the sophistication with which he reads, and even the way those of us who are not professors read.

The rest of the takes are mixed, but on the whole, the message is that the technology just hasn't gotten there yet, despite the assurances of all the sellers. Some take issue with the selection of e-books available, as noted above, while others express disappointment that publishers have not found a way to use the technology more creatively. As these are all academics, they almost all express frustration with not being able to interact with books in the way they are accustomed, even just putting in simple notes. Could this just be a learning curve?

I suppose what I liked about this article was that you didn't see some underlying message of technology = superiority. It did not seem infused with some corporate interest. These takes are honest grapplings with this technology, with assessments that are negative and positive.

But most of all, I loved that all the folks take their books and their reading so seriously. Perhaps it's time to do something similar with other types of readers?

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