Friday, February 13, 2009

Is It Too Much to Ask?

Oh man, is that new Kindle ever tempting! It looks like it's so much less awkward than its big brother, and so many of the things I worry about when it comes to the e-book format seem to have been addressed (at least if the video ad is to be believed): screen glare, battery that dies after three hours, too clunky, etc. Amazon has definitely improved on the original model.

So why am I not racing out to buy one? After all, I am not someone who has ever complained about reading from a computer screen. I’ve said before, I’m moth-to-light when it comes to the written word, someone who will read the backs of cereal boxes if that’s all I’ve got in front of me. Although I don’t particularly like to read books for pleasure on my laptop, I have been known to read books for work on my laptop (and, as a matter of fact, I read all my manuscripts in electronic format now, finding editing online to be much easier than on paper, although I’m sad to think all those old proofreading and editing marks will one day be forgotten). When I read for pleasure, I want something I can easily carry around with me, that doesn’t require an electrical outlet, and that can be read anywhere. I love the idea of being able to carry around as many books as I like without breaking my back. I love the idea of being able to buy new releases for $10.00. Given all these factors, you’d think I would have been first on the waiting list for the updated version of the Kindle.

Let’s forget practicalities, which means we won’t talk about the fact that (if the Kindle behaves the way most technology does) this “wireless reading device” is bound to come down in price at some point (especially since the whole technology industry finally seems to be waking up to the fact that consumers may not be so willing to keep buying “better” versions with no change in exorbitant prices). When it does come down in price, it will be far superior to the model we have now (maybe with battery charges that last months, instead of days? Wouldn’t that be nice?). The pocketbook is a very good reason not to race out and buy one right now.

We will also forget the fact that I’m down on the Amazon Empire. I’m down on the fact that they are the Walmart of Internet shopping. I don’t like what they do to publishers in terms of their print-on-demand practices. I don’t like the fact that the Kindle has its own e-book software that is not compatible with other e-book readers, so if you want to buy an e-book from Amazon, you have to use the Kindle. That’s smart business practice, I know, but the librarian in me really hates it. I mean, the beauty of the book is that it can easily be shared once someone has bought it, and so, theoretically, as long as public libraries exist, anyone from any socioeconomic class can get their hands on it. (That’s not good capitalist thinking, but it’s worked for the book for ages, probably because most book addicts are not good capitalist thinkers).

I suppose the real reason I don’t want one yet, though, has nothing to do with practicalities or radical boycotting of greedy corporations. What it all boils down to is that I haven’t quite accepted the fact that this is as good as it gets when it comes to e-book readers. I’m still holding out for the e-book reader I want.

At some point, I wish those who design electronic gadgets would think more carefully about their final users, rather than showing off what they can make their gadgets do. Besides students (because I am absolutely positive e-books are going to replace textbooks within the next five years), who is going to be using e-book readers? Why, those of us who have always used books, those of us who love to read. I know we make up such a tiny percentage of the population that it was probably difficult to bring a group of us together for focus groups when designing the Kindle, but really, I find it hard to believe Amazon bothered to consult any readers. It seems to me, if they had focus groups (which I’m sure they did), they just pulled together a bunch of tech-savvy youngsters.

So, what does my dream e-book reader look like and do? First of all, it’s more like a book. I don’t really care that it’s going to have to be made out of some sort of metal and plastic material, but I want it to open like a book. I don’t like the idea of scrolling through pages. Can’t it be hinged, just like my laptop, only be the size of, say, one of those moleskin diaries, and open vertically, the way a book does, rather than horizontally, the way a laptop does? It would then have a verso and recto page. After all, Microsoft has insisted on making Word documents sent via email open with that extraordinarily annoying effect. If we’re so insistent on trying to duplicate book-like pages on computer screens, why on Earth haven’t we thought to do so with e-book readers? When I’m ready to turn the page, I would like to press a button and have it look as though I’m actually turning a page (like those old movie shots, where you see the flipping through of pages on a great big book of fairy tales).

Speaking of moleskin, I am perfectly aware that this is a new technology and that means losing some of what I love about books, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have something that is tactically-and-visually-pleasing. This is our opportunity to create something new that we will come to love. That means I want a special case for my e-book reader, not something to carry it around in, but something that I can take off or keep on like a book jacket. It could be moleskin, or some other kind of leather. Soft, velvety cloth, or wood might be nice. Think of all the “accessorizing” possibilities. The company that designs this e-book reader could make a fortune off accessories alone (reading a horror story? Choose your black, velvet cover. Reading Rachel Carson? Go for the wood. Wearing the brown leather boots today? How about a brown leather case to match?).

Ideally, there would be some way to display what I am reading on the outside of my e-book reader for public viewing. I can’t possibly be the only nosy reader around who takes great pleasure in noting what people are reading on planes, trains, in waiting rooms, etc. And, despite being pathologically shy, I love it when someone comments on what I’m reading or asks me what I think of it. When I don’t want others to see what I’m reading (for times when I’m, like Stef recently was, reading Sexing the Cherry on the bus), I can just leave my reader in its (cherry red) case, but maybe publishers could still design “book covers” (because, let’s face it, covers are important, and I don’t particularly want to lose that feature of the traditional book) that would pop up on a “currently reading” screen. The screen would be visible on the outside of the reader, so if I’m laughing, people will know it's because I’m reading Three Men in a Boat.

My e-book reader also has to be food-and-drink proof. If I spill a couple of drops of water, tea, coffee, wine, etc. on it, I don’t want it to fizzle out on me. Likewise, if some crumbs happen to fall on it, I do not want them to disappear under buttons, freezing my “book,” and rendering reading impossible. Ideally, it will be drop-proof, because I’m quite clumsy. I will (after removing its moleskin cover, of course, the same way I remove dust jackets on traditional books) be able to read it in the bath. When you consider the fact we scuba divers now all use dive computers, it could actually be better than the traditional book, which doesn’t hold up too well when accidentally immersed in water, for bathtub reading.

I know figuring out some way to have it emit that new book or musty, used-bookstore smell is probably going a bit far, so I won’t request that of the designers. Tell me, can you see why I’m holding out? Don’t you think this e-book reader would be far preferable to the Kindle? And what would your ideal e-book reader be like?


mandarine said...

My ideal ebook reader would be very similar to yours, with the addition of a functionality of paper books that I am still missing in all e-book technologies: fast page-flipping.
If you want students to be using such devices for textbooks (or permanent online access to wikibooks), you need to have a very fluid, very accurate page-flipping mode (ideally combined with ctrl-f): this would mean a page-update/display rate of at least 10 pages per second, with a knob or cursor for the reader to adapt the variable rate when he/she believes he/she is reaching the required section.

With novels, one may be quite happy with only being able to flip one page at a time with a display delay of one full second. But for non-fiction, be for skimming the book before buying it, or for returning to some place in the book that has left a fuzzy imprint in the back of one's subconscious, no scrolling or ctrl-f mode will ever replace fast page flipping.

Unfortunately, as kindle-like technology (e-paper) consumes energy only when one changes the state of a pixel, fast page-flipping will be a sure way to drain a battery in no time.

PS: for those interested in e-book humour, I had written what I personally consider an extremely funny piece: an unbiased review of p-books

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, you're right: quick page-flipping is needed, even for novels. I quite often forget something about a scene (especially if it's a mystery) and want to flip back to find it. That draining of the battery is a problem, though...And I remember your brilliant piece on the p-book. It reminded me of another piece that came out (I think it was in THE NEW YORKER) a number of years ago.

musingsfromthesofa said...

Oh how I loathe the Kindle. Nasty plastic thing with all the charm of an Etch-a-Sketch. Am also down on Amazon. If I am ever going to buy an e-book reader it has to be a whole lot prettier (Apple? Apple? Are you listening?). It needs a touch screen. It must be colour. It must change pages so fast that I don't notice a delay. It must be book-sized, durable, spill proof and lightweight. I must be able to buy books for it from whoever the hell I like, and I must be able to lend those books to whoever I like, just as I can with print. I should be able to underline and make margin notes, which means the page display needs a margin. It should allow concurrent reading of different books, and it should integrate with my laptop so that if I wanted I could pick on one screen where I left off on another.
Also, the range of books available has to improve enormously.
Also, unless it is the sort of gadget that inspires lust, i have to need it. I like carrying books; I like carrying a stack of books on holiday or buying them there. I care much less about practicality. Books are pretty and they do furnish a room.

Stefanie said...

Well, you know, my Bookman and I ordered ourselves a Kindle in November as our Christmas present to ourselves. It was out of stock and we have been waiting patiently since then. Amazon emailed me Monday after their Kindle 2 announcement to let me know they will be sending us one after the 24th. I am looking forward to playing with it and I will definitely report the positives and negatives of the thing in terms of ease of use and book reading experience.

Litlove said...

I like the idea of it opening vertically rather than horizontally. But one thing I fear an electronic device will never offer me is the feel of knowing how far through a book I am. I think it's intrinsic to the reading experience to be able to see the pages swap over from a fat wodge in your right hand to one in your left. But then, I am a Luddite. And I like books - I'm still not convinced I need an alternative. I must say I do like this post on ebooks more than any other I've read, Emily!

ZoesMom said...

I am sure your instincts are right here. Hold out -- the perfect reader has not been invented yet. I think when it comes it will include some of the features you describe -- either that or there will be several different models available just like there are several different computers, phones, etc. As technology gets more and more integrated with each other it will be easier for devices to be more integrated.

For now I am highly satisfied with my iPhone and the Stanza reading app. It is one of the better e-reading experiences I have tried.

So, I say, keep holding out.

bloglily said...

I do so love electronic things. But the Kindle just doesn't work for me. It's not particularly beautiful and it's not all that clever, by which I mean that it too slavishly imitates the experience of reading a real book, which means it will never really be as good as just sitting down with a book in your hand. I'm going to wait, because I know that at some point something wonderful will come along, something that doesn't replace real books, but somehow enhances them.

And now I'm going to go and see what Mandarine has to say.

Emily Barton said...

MFS, yes, what the hell is taking Apple so long? I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for the iReader. And you're right: we absolutely must be able to buy our e-books from whomever we want and be able to share them (what else will you and I do when we get together if we can't dump a bunch of books on each other?).

Stef, yes, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of your Kindle, so I can experience it vicariously through you. I trust you to tell us all about it: both its pluses and its minuses.

Litlove, I didn't think of it, but you are so right about needing a feature that lets you know how far through the book you are. And I will refrain from thinking, "This must be the only post Litlove has read on e-books," and instead think, "Wow, she must have read hundreds of posts on e-books by now, and she thinks MINE's the best!" :-)!

ZM, yes, I'm waiting for more integration and will definitely keep holding out. Of course, if I get to the point at which I'm the only one in the world who doesn't have one and can't read Pat Conroy's next novel (if he ever writes another one), because it isn't available otherwise, well, then I might have to cave, despite my demanding high standards.

Dorothy W. said...

I want to be able to mark passages and take notes easily. And it should definitely be possible to do this with an e-book reader (if it isn't already, I don't really know). I worry about textbooks being on e-readers without allowing students to highlight or underline or write in the margins -- those things are essential!

Bob said...

Emily, I’m not really answering the question but a noteworthy part of Amazon’s announcement of the Kindle 2.0 is they will be publishing Stephen King’s next novel via the Kindle (exclusively -- for at least a while). Now, King has options many other authors do not, but methinks an interesting development and threat to traditional publishers, ones that are also under siege in the present economic environment. Bob

litlove said...

You should know, I've read absolutely gadzillions of posts. Honestly.