My Issues With E-Books

“Kindle is something I use in my fireplace.”

– Carter T. Blayne, Reminiscences of Carter T. Blayne

My negative attitude toward “e-book” readers is fairly well-known. I can’t think of a good reason why I should buy one–and there are a number of reasons why I shouldn’t.

Here are a few of my major issues:

1.   Formats

Formats and standards come and go.  During my young life, there have been at least eleven widely used methods of storing movies for home use, for instance.  What is popular and “the only reasonable solution” today may not be so in a few short years–despite widespread acceptance.

Doesn’t apply here, you say?

Try finding a new high-end cassette tape deck or VHS player.  They’re available, but becoming more scarce everyday.  I tried to buy a new open reel tape recorder a number of years ago.  Many of you have never seen one of those, but it was the “state of the art” for audio recording into the 1980 and equipment was produced by all the major manufacturers.  Cost of the only machine I could find for my large collection of recorded material: $3,500.

To those who believe companies with proprietary e-book standards like Amazon could never disappear because they are so big, powerful, successful, and pervasive, try repeating the words “Digital Equipment Corp.” out loud three or four times and see if that helps.

With printed books, as long as you can read the language, “formats” are not an issue.

2.   Durability

Even if there are no standards issues to deal with, e-books are intrinsically fragile in that their readers, techno-marvels though they may be, are subject to accidents.  E-book vendors may warehouse and back-up files you have purchased, but if the vendor disappears for some reason, what do you really “own?”

You’re lucky if an electronic gadget survives a fall from the desk without damage, whereas a book can tumble off the roof of your house and survive none the worse.

I have books that are hundreds of years old, from long defunct publishers, that have passed through countless owners during that time.  Try that with an e-book.

3.   Immersion

E-book “paper-like” screens are nice, but it isn’t the same as a book.  You want to “immerse” yourself in a book and concentrate on the story–not the device.  You want the physical apparatus to disappear as you read, not continually assert itself as the next e-mail or “tweet” arrives.

4.  Ease of Reference

I have several electronic databases containing the text of hundreds of books that I can search simultaneously within a given field.  I rarely use them.  They’re great for periodicals that are too cumbersome to store or read efficiently, but for answering topical questions I can usually find the answers much faster with real books.

Electronic databases simply display too much information at once to be quickly useful.  Most researchers, myself included, have “search strategies” they employ using books they are familiar with–and usually have really read.  One reference leads to another, and so on.

The problem many people have is that they’ve never read what they have, so they don’t know how to use it.

5.   Recall

No one remembers “everything,” but many people can remember quite a lot–under the right circumstances.  Most of these folk use memory “tricks” that help them organize what they see, even if they use them unconsciously.

I can remember a large part of what I read (as opposed to see or hear)–not everything but substantially more than most people.  For me to do that I have to read it in a book a computer screen doesn’t work.

I realize this won’t apply to most people, but it’s important to me.

6.   Judging By Their Book Covers

You’ve probably done this before: if you scan someone’s bookshelves you can usually quickly tell what kind of person they are based upon what they read.  It’s amazingly accurate.

I don’t think I’ll be asking to see anyone’s e-book device so I can look over what’s in storage anytime soon.


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