Can you Love an Ebook?

My idea of misbehaviour in elementary school was to read a book under my desk while we were supposed to be paying attention—books generally had more interesting things to say. I readily affirm that some of my best friends are books but, as the age of ebooks1 appears to be dawning, I’m trying to ask myself how firmly wedded my love of reading is to the form of the book.

It has fascinated me that, although text is the easiest thing to transmit online, ebooks are one of the last analog media to truly make the transition into the digital age.2 Who reads novels or dissertations in a web browser?

While there have been a variety of ways to read and purchase ebooks for a while, it was only with Amazon’s late-2007 foray into the market with the Kindle device and store—aiming for an iPod-iTunes synergy—that ebooks really seemed to be arriving as a viable way to read content. Fast forwarding to the present, we’ve seen an explosion in this space. Amazon’s Kindle Store is the current premier content publisher (Apple’s iBooks store has fallen flat thus far), especially since Amazon has foregone an Apple-style lockdown by virtue of providing reader apps on iOS, Android, and Blackberry platforms in addition to their own Kindle device.3

But this state of the ebook matters little compared to the fundamental question animating this essay: can I bear to transfer my love of reading into an ebook medium? Spoiler: I don’t have an answer yet, but this essay is part of trying to answer it.

Physicality

A book is a sensory playground. Hardcover or soft? Trade or paperback sized? Does the cover entice me to crack its spine or not? The texture of the paper and the quality of typesetting, the new vs. old book smell; underlines and highlights from a previous owner: these are all sensory indicators that help us to judge a book before we’ve read a word. But an ebook is ephemeral, independent of whichever device will be used to display it.

The ebook’s ephemerality also gives me a poor sense of spatiality within a text. Or, in plain English, I don’t have a clue how far into the book I am while reading.4

Sociality

The physicality of an ebook matters to my experience as a reader, but it also affects those around me in some surprising ways. When I’m reading an ebook, my wife can’t tell if I’m reading a book or using any of the other (generally entertainment-driven) aspects of my iPad,5 and has no cues to know if I’m in “engrossed in reading, interrupt at your own peril,” or “feel free to interrupt, I’m not doing anything useful” modes, respectively. Also, since she has no book cover to look at, she has no idea what book I’m reading and has no easy way to segue into a conversation with me about what material I’ve been engaged with once I put my device down.

But perhaps the most damning aspect of ebooks is that I can’t share one with a friend.6 DRM’d ebooks can’t be shared, and non-DRM’d books aren’t so much shared as duplicated. In the latter case, I haven’t parted with my copy of the book, making the act less significant. In either case, my friend is not holding the physical artifact I once held. She cannot see the place where I underlined an important point or where I made a marginal note questioning the author’s sanity, since she has her own copy.7

An even worse implication here is for libraries, and especially public libraries. What does a library mean without books? How can I sign out an ebook? Will there be artificially-imposed DRM that demands the the book be erased from my device after a few weeks? Public libraries exist to democratize knowledge among the population that cannot necessarily afford to purchase books, yet this population may not be able to afford an ebook reading device8, leaving them with the unpalatable option of sitting at a dumb terminal during library hours.9

Environment

There’s an implicit, but rarely articulated, argument that ebooks are more environmentally friendly than their printed brethren, as seen in the epithet “dead tree edition.” But, does this hold? I’ll likely only use my current ebook reader10 for another 2-3 years before replacing it with the latest model, a pattern which most will follow, contributing to the mostly-silent dilemma of digital component disposal. And I certainly never stop to think of the energy demands of constantly recharging my digital reading device, nor of the massive data centres that distribute ebooks at enormous energy cost. I would be interested indeed to see a comprehensive cradle-to-grave comparison between ebooks and paper books.

Scholarship

Another aspect that doesn’t get much play when it comes to ebooks is very basic: how does one cite a quote from an ebook? Page numbers are no longer relevant when content fluidly adapts to various devices’ screen size, and ebooks are still too new to have an agreed-upon standard of responding to this variability. We could use some combination of chapter, section and paragraph numbers for our citation (as in the days prior to page-numbered books), but this is tedious and largely useless without 1) agreed-upon standards and 2) implementation of these standards in ebook readers. For instance, as an academic, I should be able to highlight a passage and invoke a function to provide a citation for my research in an acceptable format.

A good citation standard would also beg the question of a good linking standard, which also doesn’t yet exist. I should be able to click/tap on a citation and (if I “own” the cited book) be brought to that passage in the cited work. But DRM and the continued halfhearted embrace of the true potential of ebooks on the part of big publishers provides little hope on this front.11

And, speaking of citing, there’s probably little need to point out the utter and complete stupidity of disallowing copy & paste functionality in ebook readers like Kindle and iBooks. The lesson of iTunes’ success is simple: be better, easier, and less frustrating than piracy. Artificially locking out one of the fundamental advantages of digital text due to fear and outdated business models is no way to move into this new medium.

Not All Bad

New technology is always a tradeoff. Early adopters love to tout the advantages, while those entrenched in the old paradigm respond with a mixture of fear and ostriching.12 A more nuanced perspective asks, what have we gained, and what have we lost? This essay has detailed my sense of loss in moving into the new medium of ebook reading. While many of the drawbacks enumerated in this essay are due to ebooks being relatively new and therefore immature, the specifications and software will grow in power and nuance to not only address many of these issues, but also to produce an entirely new paradigm of publishing, learning, and knowledge-sharing. I both welcome and dread that day. Paper-based books are familiar, and therefore comforting. And yet, I cannot help but believe that the easy distribution of learning via electronic text holds potentiality that those of us living through this transition cannot even being to grasp. Whether these are good days or bad, they are not dull.


  1. I wish we had a better name. Ebook, e-book, eBook, digital book? I’ve chosen ebook in accordance with the convention of calling electronic mail email. 
  2. Sure, we’ve been doing a lot of reading on the web for the last 15 years, but little to none of it has been at lengths comparable to paper & ink books. 
  3. This is not to say that that Amazon is not attempting a platform lockdown. It is simply attempting to promulgate its locked-down platform by virtue of ubiquity: you can use their proprietary platform everywhere. 
  4. This is a design concern, addressable in a variety of ways. But none that I have seen or experienced thus far beat the quick glance at a physical book’s progress. 
  5. This is less important on dedicated reading devices such as the Kindle or the Nook, but it is unlikely that they will have much staying power. Digital = convergence. 
  6. Although the Kindle platform allows lending, it’s currently hobbled in that books may only be lent one time for a 2 week period, lend-ability is opt-in for publishers, and only currently available to US customers. 
  7. Technology might catch up here in interesting ways. Craig Mod has interesting thoughts on ebook heatmaps (and many other things ebook-related). 
  8. Although many cellphones may be technologically advanced enough within a few more years. 
  9. Which might be the solution in any case due to DRM issues. 
  10. An iPad 
  11. There’s work being done on this front, but it’s still early days and subject to the approval of publishers who do not appear to want to embrace electronic publishing.. 
  12. If I just put my head in the sand, it’ll go away. 

4 responses to “Can you Love an Ebook?”

  1. Matt, my son and I took a trip to England in May, and we borrowed a Nook and a Kindle so we would have reading materials without the weight of books in our backpacks. Neither one of us found the experience very satisfying. My son in particular was frustrated by the lack of clear sense of his progress through his novel, especially since page numbers of the ebook on the Kindle bore no relation to the number of pages for the print edition (which he had checked on before he bought the ebook to gauge if it would be long enough to last through the trip).

    Like you, I find the physical aspects of a book very important, and I always read with pen in hand to mark. The inability to make true marginal notes on the Nook really frustrated my reading process. Yes, I could highlight, and yes, I could attach notes to those highlights–but clicking through to a note is not the same as reading marginalia.

    My son and I concluded that ebooks were fine for our very limited purpose–portability and light reading–but both of us also decided we weren’t interested in making ebooks a regular habit.

  2. Saw this in a piece at the Wall St Journal site this morning and thought of your post; Danny Heitman writes:

    Electronic books can give us a universe of reading without ever leaving the house. But the books on my shelf help me remember that reading isn’t merely an inhalation of data. My library, and the years and places it evokes, speak of something deeper: the interplay of literature and the landscape of a life, the vivid record of a slow and winding search for wisdom, truth, the spark of pleasure or insight.

    Not sure if the article is available to non-subscribers–here’s the link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903554904576461590750640056.html

  3. @Dan Thanks for your comment and follow-up! As you say, each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. I’m interested to see how electronic reading begins to play to its strengths in the months and years ahead.

  4. I don’t know if it was from having to read so much on my computer in University and College, but it rarely matters to me if I’m reading paper or a screen. To me it is the information that matters, and I can get just as lost in a book on a screen as I can in a book on paper. I think the main difference is if you drop paper into the bathtub it’ll eventually dry out… and not electrocute you.

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