Digital Reading

I’m a convert. I’m an evangelist. And…I’m a skeptic. I’m rapidly going digital in practice and preference, and yet I’m wistful about the things my Kindling leaves behind.

Several years ago, I was working overseas for a number of months. It was then that I realized how much I missed my reading materials. Sure, I could still order books from Amazon, at $10 shipping per book. But, delivery time was measured in weeks rather than days–a trial for someone who likes to have his resources now. My magazines…well, they were still faithfully delivered to my address in the States. My 18 pounds of CFA curriculum? Ditto.

It was during this time that I learned of an amazing new product. Amazon had released the Kindle, a device with an e-ink screen and a battery that lasted for weeks–a device that would let you buy and read books anywhere in the world, almost instantly! Moreover, I wouldn’t have to use precious luggage space for the books I “might want”–I could have access to my entire digital library, from anywhere!

It was a while before I was completely hooked. After returning to the States, the Kindle’s $400 price tag was a luxury I wasn’t sure I could afford. And, as convenient as it is to “own” digital books in the cloud, I didn’t like the idea that Amazon controlled all of my access to books I’d bought and paid for–and that my library could, in theory, vanish into thin air if Amazon ceased to exist, if they erred or my account’s security were breached, or if I simply lost access to Amazon’s Kindle-reading devices and programs. I even thought about the evanescence of digital data: it’s not efficient to inscribe knowledge on clay tablets and fire them, but they’ll last for millennia! The same isn’t true of a Kindle, though the underlying data might last (see the Library of Congress for more information).

Despite a slow start, I’ve now sold out to Amazon–surprising myself at the speed of my dive into digital, for good or for ill. I still have reservations, but the benefits of digital reading hold sway:

  • Portability. I’m contemplating quite a bit of overseas travel and living in the next while. The thought of being able to take almost all of my library with me in a few ounces, rather than trying to figure out which books should take their part of a 50-lb weight allowance, is a strong selling point.
  • Accessibility. This is partly a consequence of portability. Beyond that, though, the ability to pull out my phone in a bit of “dead” time and read real books, thoughtful analyses, novels, or even “mind candy” is huge.
  • Searchability. It’s easy to pull up that quote I know I saw somewhere in the book. Moreover, it’s a lot easier to search my archives for a book than to search my shelves for the “dead trees” version.
  • Instant gratification. A number of times recently, I’ve needed information in the near term, and have either known what book contained it or found a promising book by searching. Moments later (and a few dollars later), I was reading the book. The Web is great, but book-length treatments are still often the most valuable.
  • Integrated dictionary. My vocabulary is relatively large, but I still find it useful to read with an integrated dictionary. Recently, reading William Styron on Kindle, I found myself luxuriating in his use of language–but frequently looking up the words he used. Had I needed to a separate dictionary (whether digital or paper), I’d have been much less likely to look them up and expand my vocabulary.
  • Sales and freebies. Amazon occasionally runs sales on their Kindle books. Many of them are books in which I have no interest; others are opportunities to acquire interesting books at a fraction of the normal price. There’s a lot of flexibility in pricing a product with a unit price that approaches zero, vs. the costs of physical production and distribution. Many classics are available for free in digital form, and promotional “freebies” of other books often are available (and, admittedly, worth that price a good portion of the time). Though it takes sorting through some dross, discounted or free Kindle books do add to the value proposition.
Though I love digital reading, I’m still wistful about some of the costs of giving up paper–and suggest you “count the cost” of doing so.
  • Thanks to DRM (digital rights management), you’re locked into a single company or set of companies. You can’t read Nook books on your Kindle, or Kindle books on your Nook. You can, though, read Google Books on your Nook, and any of these formats on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. That “lock-in” also means that if the company with the key goes away, your books are vulnerable. Fortunately, many out-of-copyright and other books are not “protected” (as in, protected from the purchaser!) by DRM.
  • For similar reasons, the selling company and the publishers decide whether and how you can “lend” e-books. For the Kindle, some books allow a single loan per book.
  • I’ll sometimes leaf through a paper book to get an idea of its contents. Though the ability to preview Kindle books is nice, “leafing through” an e-book, even one I own, doesn’t seem to work very well. The same is true for a “skim reading” of a book.
  • While in college, I realized that part of my mental “indexing system” is spatial: though I may not be able to pull up a fact or exact quote I vaguely recall, I may remember that it’s about 2/3 of the way through the book, at the top of a right-hand page. This is one small part of richly encoding information in my memory, but it’s unavailable with an e-book. I’d love if an e-book vendor could re-create such mental cues.
…and now, though this post may not yet be perfect, I’ll listen to Godin again…and SHIP.

One thought on “Digital Reading”

  1. I echo both the pleasures and the wistfulness. My 9-year-old son has a Kindle (gift from a generous uncle) and he has devoured dozens and dozens of books, mostly old (free or close to free) classics.Being a long way off from public libraries and used bookstores, it’s a great way to get lots of good reading.

    However, if given the choice, I’d much rather have a houseful of floor to ceiling bookshelves stuffed with good books. There’s a richness of standing in front of a big bookshelf on a weekend afternoon scanning the fiction section for just the right book for a lazy, pleasant afternoon. Even better if it’s snowing outside (doesn’t happen here!) or raining (does happen). Sharing is also a problem — my youngest son tries to get his turn in on the Kindle. Now as the price has dropped, perhaps we’ll become a 2 or 3 Kindle family.

    I’ve also wished for a simpler way to find great reads on the Kindle, especially good classics for our children. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’d love an easy way to share my list of books to selected friends and have them share lists with me. Even if it would simply be in an email format that I could peruse and order if I wish.


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