• April 19, 2014

Do You Like Your E-Reader?

Six takes from academics

James J. O'Donnell, provost and professor of classics, Georgetown University

My Kindle's great. It's just not a book. I use it to read, and I don't use it to read. What it has done is make me look at my own reading practices and those of colleagues, trying to understand some of the many different behaviors that we call "reading," and how they flourish or don't flourish. It makes me wonder if Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos really likes to read­—or what he means by "reading."

The Kindle is great for reading the way ancient Greeks read, on papyrus scrolls, beginning at the beginning, proceeding linearly, getting to the end, absorbed in one book, following the author's lead. That makes it just fine for lots of fiction for entertainment or diversion. It has its annoyances, but next generations of devices are pretty good at removing annoyances.

So when I was given my Kindle for Christmas, I started loading it up—and found that there was lots my good intentions could acquire quickly, some even for 99 cents, on the Kindle store. Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne's Essais, the King James Bible (I'll read it for the prose), an unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and Three Men in a Boat. I've read chunks of all of them on the Kindle at odd moments, but not a lot of any of them yet.

And of course, I'm grumpy with the selection of what's available so far. They say there are 500,000 books, but 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.

But even for what's there, I haven't been able to make myself buy Kindle books very readily for the $10 or $15 or higher that many cost. What I have bought include a meditation on higher education by a public intellectual (zoomed through it in two hours one night), a scholarly book in my field that I know I won't like but should have a good look at, and several short novels people recommended for airplane reading.

So what's going on here? Some part lies in the idiosyncratic reading habits of the scholar. I need particular books, and I need to have several of them open at the same time (with a specialized reference shelf handy). I need to take and "export" notes (we didn't call it that when I was putting 3-by-5 cards in a file box, but that's what I was doing), and to do that while flipping back and forth easily through the volume I'm reading. I can reproduce and even expand on many of those practices on a networked desktop or laptop, but not easily on any of the e-readers out now.

So for now, I'm a little stuck. Like a French bulldog, I'm overbred for reading and very fussy about my intellectual treats. The Kindle's world, on the other hand, began as fast food and is, to its credit, moving forward rapidly. Using that analogy, we're up from Mickey D's to something like Panera Bread or Pret A Manger, and while I do eat at all those establishments, I'm fussier about my books than I am about my food. For now the Kindle remains a travel appliance, a convenience, and an idea whose time has almost come. The art of reading, I'm pleased to realize, is still far ahead of the art of making e-readers.

Alice E. Marwick, doctoral candidate in media, culture, and communication, New York University

I'm a voracious reader. Besides the endless stack of academic books and articles that I absolutely must read before finishing my dissertation, I read a lot of contemporary fiction. But like most graduate students, I'm intensely parsimonious, and spending $10-$20 on a new book is out of the question. I also read very fast. So I get my ever-flowing supply of paperbacks from thrift stores, used-book stores, friends, free piles left on stoops, sidewalk sales, my mother, and of course, the New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston Public Libraries (grad students move around a lot). There are books stacked on my nightstand, coffee table, bathroom sink, and floor. I love books.

A year or two ago, my boyfriend's mother generously sent him a Kindle as a birthday present. I eyed it with suspicion and left it alone; he, preferring to read economics blogs when not programming, followed my lead. The Kindle sat there gathering dust until one of our friends asked to borrow it for a lengthy vacation. She came back raving about it. Finally, my curiosity piqued, I took it back (she immediately bought a new one; she has a real job) and started experimenting.

First things first: Reading on the Kindle is easy in bed, in direct sunlight, and on public transit—I can hang on to a subway strap with one hand and click the "next page" button with the other. The Kindle is much lighter than hardcover books and makes packing for vacation more pleasurable.

But here is a list of things you can't do with the device: Borrow library books. Trade books with your friends. Download anything that isn't fairly mass-market (which cuts out approximately 99.99 percent of academic books). Mark important passages with Post-it flags. Highlight articles. Write notes on articles. Cut and paste text into other documents.

When you pay for a Kindle book, you're purchasing a license to read content on a single Kindle for as long as Amazon or the publisher allows. Some authors make their books available through free licenses on Creative Commons, but they are a small minority. Sure, you can find books to download in the public domain, but thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, those are restricted to books published by authors who died more than 70 years ago. Anything more recent, you pay for. You can't transfer a purchase, copy it, print it out, or do anything else without violating at least the Kindle terms of service and at worst the copyright act. Naturally, there is a thriving trade in pirated e-books, as well as in software that converts files so that they can be read on the Kindle. That is all highly illegal.

The Kindle works best for one type of reader: She who buys new books and discards them immediately. I'm not that kind—I'm not sure anyone is. Even if I were, I bristle at anything that takes away my highly valued reader's rights. I love the idea of e-books, but publishers and manufacturers need to be more realistic about the many ways that people read, share, acquire, and enjoy books for me to love the Kindle.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate professor of English and media studies and coordinator, media-studies program, Pomona College

I'm an early adopter and an Apple zealot, so I pretty much knew as soon as the iPad was announced that I'd be getting one. I preordered it through my college's bookstore and picked it up the morning it was released. And I've been thrilled with it so far as an all-around media-consumption device: I've used it to read and watch videos on airplanes, as well as to keep me amused and busy while stuck in bed sick.

It's a great digital reading device, in no small part because of the multiplicity of its channels. Rather than being restricted to one reader application or digital bookstore, I've purchased and read books from both iBooks and the Kindle apps, and I've imported epubBooks from the Internet. I tend to like the feel of reading in iBooks, with its facing pages in landscape format, a bit better than in Kindle, but the selection of books available for the Kindle app is significantly larger, so I've wound up using it a little more.

But there are other ways of reading on the iPad. iAnnotate, for instance, provides sophisticated markup tools for PDF's and synchronizes the annotated documents with a designated folder on your computer. And, of course, there's the Web: The iPad's Web-browsing capabilities make it a powerful online-reading device.

The iPad goes more or less wherever I do, and it's taken the place of the paperback book and the Moleskine notebook I used to carry around. I use the Evernote app to take notes during lectures and meetings, then synchronize them to the Evernote applications on my laptop and desktop computers. And I always have a good selection of material to read during those random moments of sitting around waiting.

To this point, though, I've used the iPad mostly for pleasure reading, in part because I'm in the finishing-up stages of a project (for which I already have the necessary texts in hard copy), and in part because of a few kinks that need to be fixed for it to work the way I'd like. The iBooks app, for instance, allows a reader to bookmark and highlight within any text, but to copy and paste only within DRM-free texts, texts that do not have copyright or other limitations—meaning that books purchased from the iBooks store are excluded. The Kindle app similarly allows bookmarking and highlighting as well as text annotations, but it doesn't permit copying and pasting at all. I like taking notes in my books, so I'm happy to have annotation tools, but I also want to be able to take notes in a separate text document. My hope is that updates to the iBooks and Kindle apps—as well as the multitasking of iPhone OS 4, which will be available for iPad use in the fall—will apparently permit that kind of note-taking. That means more research-oriented reading.

Leonard Cassuto, professor of English, Fordham University

I saw my first iPad in action last week while I was commuting to work. A young man on the train was using it to read a graphic novel. The machine was graceful, compact, and altogether beautiful, and I gazed hungrily at it for awhile before I returned to the newspaper I was holding.

Perhaps that tableau marks me as hopelessly old-media. And perhaps I am: I'm writing this for a newspaper, after all, and I love newspapers. Though hardly what the industry calls an "early adopter," however, I remain open to the blessings of the digital world. But I'm also cheap with my money and time. I don't want to buy anything, or invest the hours to learn it, unless it helps me do my job better.

E-readers haven't yet been able to help me with my job—but they're almost there.

In digital terms, the main obstacle for me has been interactivity. I need to be able to write in the books I read, and if I own the book—whether in the form of pulped trees or as a collection of magnetized zeros and ones—I want to be able to take notes in it.

Let me put it another way: I don't collect books. Instead I collect what I write in them. The novelist Elizabeth McCracken, a former librarian herself, describes a library as a giant "exosomatic memory." My library, with its collection of my own thoughts written between its numerous covers, is my personal exosomatic memory.

E-readers are still primarily designed for people who want to read books, not work with them. The latest versions allow users to work with documents, but copyrighted books remain difficult to manipulate, partly to prevent people from distributing them free. The latest version of the Kindle does allow the reader to annotate the text, so I borrowed one and tried it. I quickly discovered, though, that the annotation function isn't easy to use, mainly because the keyboard is very uncomfortable. So I gave up—for now.

But I realize the defeat is just a pause. The thought of being able to comment on and search book text, together with my notes on it, makes me salivate even more than the screen of the iPad does. Now, that would make my job easier. So for me, here's the question: Is it yet possible to annotate a copyrighted e-book (the ones in public domain are easy to use and available at online textual archives) and then save the annotations to a word-processed file on my own computer?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that question is how hard I had to look for the answer. A friend works in the e-reader business, and even he wasn't exactly sure. The industry evidently doesn't cater to readers looking to compile exosomatic memories, but I kept searching. The answer, I eventually discovered, is still no. So I'm not yet ready to buy. But I still think about the sleekness of that iPad on the train. My e-reader is coming soon.

John Palfrey, professor of law and vice dean for library and information resources, Harvard Law School

I like but don't love to read on my Kindle. It's a fun, intriguing device, but it has not yet displaced the hardcovers that I prefer for both professional and plain-old-fun reading. If I'm on a long trip, I'll bring the Kindle as a way to have multiple books and articles with me, while saving my back from carrying a whole slew of them in printed copy. Too often, though, I find myself with a dead battery at an inopportune time or a sore hand from clicking the pages from one to the next. I'm a believer in the possibilities of reading on digital devices, especially during interstitial moments in the day. But the user interface and the industrial design have a ways to go before I, for one, am a total convert.

I've been thinking about e-readers from another angle, though, which is as an author. I've just begun writing a book with my friend Urs Gasser, executive director of our Berkman Center for Internet & Society, on the topic of interoperability and the way that people, data, and code can interact with other people, data, and code. We've written articles and case studies on the topic, and now we're building a more sustained argument. It's gotten me thinking: In the era of the iPad, if that's where we're heading, how might the book be improved? Might we find a way to link it back to the articles we've and others have written? How might we authors create a richer experience for our readers, given what we know they might be able to do via networks and over clever devices like the iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, or what will inevitably follow?

My sense is that the book as a sustained argument—primarily in text with more than 70,000 or 100,000 or however many words—will persist. And for good reason. But I think that we can do better than we have in terms of making such a sustained argument more engaging, useful, and perhaps even entertaining.

As a thought experiment, we might try conceptualizing a book as an application that would run on an iPad. The application would launch a window that would have a series of ways into the argument of the book. One link would take you more or less to the e-book version, much as you'd see a book on your Kindle after you've downloaded it from Amazon.com. But the book you'd download would have many more links embedded in it, to other information that might be of value. The links might draw you out into the Web at large, to access other data or metadata that would help you to understand the concepts discussed in a richer context.

The application might also draw you into other forms of argument beyond the text. The author might have recorded a series of videos with leading figures discussing the same topic, but from different angles—much like the interviews that a reporter for a newspaper or magazine story might record and make available as primary source material. More fancifully, perhaps an interactive game or quiz or discussion space would draw the reader into a community of people interested in similar topics.

The book-as-application might open up new avenues of human interaction with ideas and with one another that would take us beyond e-readers that save our backs from hauling large bags of books on planes, only to have the battery die halfway between New York and Shanghai.

Mark L. Sample, assistant professor of English, George Mason University

I am a geek and a lover of gadgets. I've got Apple products, I've got Microsoft products, I've got Linux machines, I've got Android machines. I blog. I tweet. I'm a mayor on the social-networking site Foursquare. I teach and conduct research on contemporary literature, new media, and video games. I read. A lot. You'd think I'd be the first person around to have a Kindle, a Nook, or an iPad. But I don't. I don't have an e-reader, and if I had one I wouldn't be able to use it.

It's not because I'm in love with the materiality of books—their heft, their smell, their thereness. It's not because I am unwilling to give up the ivory-tower vision of a book-lined study. It's not because I'm staking out an ideological, technological, or pedagogical position.

The truth is, e-books are simply not interesting.

The iPad and the Kindle before it are marvels of engineering and commerce. They're endpoints on a publishing-and-distribution chain. They make book-buying quick and easy, and by most accounts, they make book-reading easy, too. Yet they also reinforce the most conservative of publishing and reading practices. The iPad is the height of 21st-century consumer technology so far, but the e-books you might read on it are much less experimental than any paper-and-glue book.

Consider one of the novels I teach in contemporary-literature classes, Mark Z. Danielewksi's House of Leaves, published in 2000. It's a monstrous book, about a monstrous house, written in a mind-bogglingly complex form. It's a novel with footnotes, which is not anything particularly new. But those footnotes have their own footnotes, and each of the narrative voices has its own typeface, often laced with encrypted messages. There's an index with entries that aren't actually in the novel; entire pages of distressed typography. It's a crazy, shambling, labyrinth of a book, and it'd be impossible on any kind of e-book reader.

And I don't just teach House of Leaves. It is the kind of book I read for pleasure as well. Books like Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would also be impossible on existing e-readers. So would some of the older books I value, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man.

But the real problem isn't so much that e-readers won't let me read books that experiment with form. The real problem is that most novelists are writing books that don't experiment with form. Generally people still think about e-books as, well, electronic books. And they imagine the only difference between books and e-books is the screen's replacing the page. Jay David Bolter, a professor of new media, has famously described the tendency to think of new forms of media in terms of the old as "remediation." I call it a rut.

For me at least, e-books won't become compelling until writers and publishers begin taking advantage of the native capabilities of e-readers. Imagine a novel whose plot changed based upon your location. Imagine a novel that was infinitely scalable, infinitely malleable. Imagine a novel that incorporated other media—a video clip, a song fragment, a dynamic map. That novel would not be an experimental novel. It would be, at long last, a fully realized realist novel. That's the kind of e-book I want to read.


1. schultzjc - June 14, 2010 at 09:36 am

I'm still waiting for a reader that depicts a PDF at full size. The iPAD was very disappointing in that regard; screen's just too small. So I'm still lugging around scores of paper pages and killing too many trees. Sigh.

2. twestheimer - June 14, 2010 at 10:01 am

No one ever mentions the Ipod Touch/Iphone which has a Kindle and Epub readers, is very small, light and most importantly backlite for reading in bed. Try to carry the Ipad in your pocket! I agree I really would buy a lot if I could pass them on to friends. Until that is possible I will use paper as keeping a book on a shelf is a real shame.

3. paulakrebs - June 14, 2010 at 10:42 am

For a good take on the iPad as an ereader, see this Baltimore Sun article my student wrote in my class on Literature in the Mass Media: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-04-23/news/bs-ed-reading-and-computers-20100423_1_ipad-pooh-reading

4. frankinhouston - June 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

The statement that the Kindle is only for those who buy a book, read it once, and then discard it, is absolutely false. I have a large number of books store in my Kindle with the notes and page marks I put in them and I will keep them and be able to refer back to them. I have always kept my books, which is what makes the Kindle so nice. I have only so many book shelves and I want to save more books. The Kindle allows me to do that.

5. trishjw - June 14, 2010 at 06:13 pm

Until I can purchase just about any kind of book I want--novel,travel or history book of specific time/place,philosophy,classics etc, I will stick to regular books. My book club has been finding that only American publishers of mass paper back books are available mostly on the Kindle. No one else of the 15+ people has bought any other. Yet books on the New York Times Best Seller lists are seldom available on Kindle but can be purchased via Amazon and their additional outlets for $2-$6 plus shipping which ends up being cheaper than Google's $9.99 which doesn't include the shipping. Therefore I would spend more with Google's books than paperback off the shelf at the nearest book store. I find e-books clumsy to handle for any length of time--maybe my arthritis tells me to use the old way--and the regular books even 900 page ones can be stood on a book stand and I can read for hours if I wish. There has never been a means to write notes on what you read on the computer so how will that come to be in e-books?? Notes and highlighting is part of my everyday pattern of reading not only books but numerous magazines but only on paper. Ebooks are fine for some situations and kinds of reading--if you can afford to have additional batteries ---to keep it going. Another expense that I can't afford. Just keep telling the publishers to continue publishing as before and add e-books if the author allows but don't pull back. If you read about what is being done in Europe, there is no pull back there. They are gaining a lot of profit by translating novels and histories etc in other languages. Something Americans need to keep up with the rest of the world. We are very "horse blinded" by our own information but ignorant of the rest of the world.

6. 11242283 - June 15, 2010 at 07:10 am

I'm tired of these "do you like your E-reader?" features. Listen, it's an either/or choice. My Kindle is great at what it's great at ---- letting me load up on books for trips without killing my aging back --- not so great at other things, but it has niche in my life that I appreciate. Is it the end all and be all of books, no, but it has value.

Oh, and I'd point out that even for the fast reader who is a poor graduate student, even a newly published hardback novel at around $24.95 is about as expensive as going to a movie in NYC and the experience lasts longer!!!

Why are academics so Manichean? Unless I can buy any kind of book I want on my Kindle, I don't want one? PHAWW! What kind of idiot talk is that?!

7. mgcardin - June 15, 2010 at 07:41 am

A couple of the six participants hinted at, but none fully stated, the aspect of the e-reader experience that has rapidly turned my Kindle DX into one of the hubs of my reading universe: the ability to collect, collate, and read the flood of interesting and significant new articles from the Web in a hugely more friendly form than just sitting at my laptop.

I subscribe, for instance, to the Chronicle's email updates, and also those from The Atlantic and several other publications. I also have a gazillion Google Alerts set up for various topics of both personal and professional interest. Plus I'm hit every day with a flood of links to interesting and worthy articles, op-eds, essays, etc., from the collective tweets of all the people I follow on Twitter. The magic formula for not only bringing this under control but achieving bliss in doing so is: Kindle + Instapaper + Calibre.

I use Instapaper's "Read Later" function to fill an endless online reservoir of all the things I want to read but can't get to at the moment. Then I use Calibre -- freely downloadable, and the single must-have application for managing one's e-reader experience on *any* platform -- to download these batches of items periodically and create a Kindle file from them. The net result is is an ongoing personalized digest of material from the infinite and otherwise unmanageable flood of Internet material.

I've only bought five or six actual books with my Kindle in the 10 months that I've owned it. The above-described use is more than worth the admittedly inflated price I paid to get the DX with the full-sized screen (which I would't sacrifice for a second).

8. 9850698 - June 15, 2010 at 08:16 am

I echo mcgarden--I am a graduate student and I have a kindle dx which I have used to store over 400 .pdfs which I need access to when I travel (e.g. working on a paper while going out of town to see family no longer involves a giant bag full of binders). I also use instapaper and it has been a great boon. So is the ability to subscribe to magazines and avoid having my weekly Economist strewn all over the house. I look forward to the time when I can get my journal subscriptions delivered wirelessly to my kindle. I save my eyes from reading on screen and I save my wallet from the cost of printing these many pieces of paper I may only need every so often. I have also been able to purchase a number of academic books which I needed. Those books are easy to annotate and to export the notes. I take advantage of the calibre software to convert other electronic formats into pdfs which I can read. I also understand amazon is going to do a firmware update soon that will make working with pdfs even more useful.

9. robert_egan - June 15, 2010 at 09:21 am

I enjoy reading on the Kindle but i also like to download audiobooks onto the device. I download the audiobooks from Audible but there are other vendors as well. The only problem is memory. There is plenty of room for ebooks on the Kindle but audiobooks take a lot more memory. In addition to the books that I have downloaded, there is only room for about three unabridged audiobooks. Im hoping the next generation Kindle will add some memory. Why not? -- it's cheap enough.

10. dvlubitz - June 15, 2010 at 09:48 am

In the end, then, it is like with the business of the hammer: it has been creating for driving nails into things rather than eating soup. Get out of your e-reader what you can get out of it, rather than insisting on what it cannot deliver, and do not spend time making another philosophy out of it. Surely, there are fascinating elements of molecular level forces involved in the process of hammer application, but to common mortals with only perfunctory (if any) understanding of physics the fact that a nail has ben satisfactorily driven into the wall rather than the finger appears to be good enough. I presume, the same goes for your e-reader.

11. 11159995 - June 15, 2010 at 10:21 am

The new kind of book that John Palfrey and Mark Sample talk about in their comments was first adumbrated by Cornell librarian Ross Atkinson in his article titled "Networks, Hypertext, and Academic Information Services: Some Longer-Range Implications," College & Research Libraries 54/3 (May 1993): 199-215. It was later elaborated by Robert Darnton in "The New Age of the Book," New York Review of Books, March 18, 1999. It is indeed, sadly true that all this new technology has been put to use almost exclusively in reproducing an electronic facsimile of the traditional printed book and not yet been much used to create a new kind of multilayered, multidimensional document outside of a few isolated experiments like the Gutenberg-e project that Darnton inspired.---Sandy Thatcher

12. minnesotan - June 15, 2010 at 04:37 pm

I absolutely love my Kindle. As a humanist, the article clutter in my offices was out of control. Now I keep them all on the Kindle, along with notes (that I back up on my computer).

The trees are probably a lot happier, too.

13. abbiesmooth - June 15, 2010 at 06:50 pm

For the record, a lot of what some of the reviewers were complaining about (not being able to lend ebooks and not being able to borrow ebooks for free from the library) is because they (unfortunately) invested in a Kindle instead of a nook.

If you buy a nook you can borrow books for free from your local library via Overdrive. It's fantastic. You can also lend a B&N book to one friend for 14 days.

If you buy a Sony reader you can borrow books.

Kindle? Thhhbtttt. Nasty, greedy corporation stuff going on over at Amazon with "Ooooh. Look at what my DRM can get me!"

14. beckerpa - June 16, 2010 at 08:03 am

Echoing the comments from @abbiesmooth, I also wondered why someone hasn't written about using the Nook. It's either Kindle v. iPad. I have neither.

However, without saying "yeah me too", the only complaint I have with my Nook is the difficulty with annotating the books I read. It works, but it's painfully slow. The developers need to fix that feature - the rest works as advertised.

I'm happy with using an e-reader to read books. I bet others are too. I don't need a physical book to carry because it's rare that I'll re-read a book right away. (Gasp, the horror!) In fact, most of my books that I've kept are collecting dust on my shelf (Say it isn't so!).

It's funny that no one complains about MP3 players or iPods ruining album art...

15. gpage - June 17, 2010 at 01:01 pm

I agree with 7 and 8. To me, the real value in ePub/eReaders such as an ipad or android devices is in just a section of consumable content. To use food as an analogy; the content that is more parishable (or generally less valued as time goes on) is where the ereader segment shines. I can read articles while I'm on mass transit, sitting outside at lunch in a park, or waiting to get my haircut. All of these would require me to trundle along a magazine which takes up space, but my android phone resolves that.

I would love to read the Chronicle via ePub (as was my respones when I took the survey), but short of a reference book that I cite or use often, I'm not using ereaders for normal fiction/non/academic reading.

"Right tool for the right job" as #10 points out. I think it's the right tool for article reading, not so much for "book" reading per se.

16. adamrshields - June 25, 2010 at 11:36 am

I just have to wonder about these types of articles. They are usually filled with half truths and "it does not do the one little thing I want it to do so I will complain even though it does the other 99 things very well."

All of the complaints about sharing are not really true. Yes, you can not share with any old person. But you can share with everyone that is on the same account. I have 10 devices and 7 people that I share my books with. It is perfectly legal and authorized by Amazon. I know others that have 17 on their account. You can share annotations if you want, or keep them private if you prefer.

Yes, the kindle and other readers are better and linear books, but that is what the majority of books are. It is also just fine at "Choose your own adventure" type books with links, if they are formated properly.

Are kindles or other readers perfect, of course not. But don't complain (and then condemn the entire process) because they are not perfect. Paper books are not perfect either. Long books are heavy. If I read in the tub, they get wet. Every format has its strengths and weaknesses.

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