The topic of ebooks and the digital reading experience continues to interest me. I’ve asked if you can love an ebook, and wondered about how the digital medium will shape the form of writing. Despite the shortcomings of ebooks and the pathetic lack of care with which content is being produced for digital consumption, most of my reading over the past year has been digital. Here’s why:
Just like with a camera, the best book is the one you have with you. I have an entire library’s worth of books in my pocket, ready to read at a moment’s notice. Even better, when I open my latest read on my iPhone, it’s in sync with where I’d left off on my iPad, and vice versa.
Since I can fit a library in my pocket, I don’t need to find space for bookshelves in my very small 325 square foot living space. I am definitely concerned about the future of this library due to DRM, but I remain hopeful that this will sort itself out like in the music industry.
The Kindle edition has always been cheaper in my experience of browsing Amazon.com. Not only this, but it’s instant. The space between “I’d like to buy this” and owning the book moves from the hours or days of shipping or trips to bookstores to a minute or two. This makes me buy many books that I wouldn’t have bothered with previously, due to both lower prices and hassle.
This point marks the transition from “already here” to “just over the horizon” in terms of digital reading experiences. You can highlight and annotate ebooks on many ereading platforms, but I haven’t yet seen an implementation that beats the marginal note for ease and non-interruption of reading flow. But, since I both like taking notes and hate reading books that have them (unless I’m explicitly looking for them), the ability for ereaders to toggle their display on and off increases my reading pleasure greatly.
In a future where ebook annotation is no longer a hair-pulling experience, we’ll see some interesting things come out of the data that can be mined from the aggregate of these notes. Publishers and authors will get some of the best feedback ever from their readers. Professors will be able to annotate their student’s texts. We’ll be able to overlay our own texts with the notes of some of our intellectual heroes. This is going to be awesome.
Custom Reading Experience
Nothing beats a well-typeset text produced with skill and care by a real typographer. But nothing’s quite as frustrating as reading a good text that’s been mishandled with amateur typography. The ability for users to control the typography, layout and style of any text they read will lead to many improved reading experiences (and many a diminished one, sadly).
Another thing I’m hoping for is never having to read another bloody endnote again in my life. Texts can indicate notes and leave it to the ereader to display them it whatever way it sees fit. Prefer endnotes? Go ahead and enjoy your terribly mistaken preference without damaging the rest of us who know that footnotes are the only way. Even better, ereaders might even allow an entirely new notes design that beats both.1
Part of the Semantic Web
Imagine being able to seamlessly link in and out of ebooks. Tap/click a footnote reference right into that particular work2. Imagine the lines blurring (or even disappearing) between books, journals, magazines, weblogs, and other forms of writing that are digitally distributed. This is not the case right now, but the conversation is happening.
Digital reading is in transition. I’ve only listed current and currently imaginable advantages to ebooks over their paper siblings, but the true ereading revolution is yet to come. We’ll know it’s here when books are treated like vinyl records today: a collector’s item for purists; a higher fidelity, more sensuous experience. Until we move beyond the current template of the printed edition being canonical and the digital version being an afterthought, we won’t really be able to weight the pros and cons of printed vs digital reading. Even so, ebooks make a compelling argument for themselves today, and will only make a stronger one in the future.