Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Books and ebooks

My original motive for buying a Kindle was this: I was buying a fair number of “current events” books – nonliterary works that I generally read just once, but that I wanted to keep around for future reference. Getting a Kindle, I figured, would let me keep such books off my bookshelves, which I could then reserve for books that really merited a place there.

To some extent, that’s how it’s worked out: I have Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order on the Kindle, so I also have the free inch or so of bookshelf space that it’s not taking up. The same goes for The Price of Inequality and Thinking Fast and Slow.

However, the Kindle has altered my book-buying and reading habits more than I expected. Because such huge quantities of out-of-copyright material are available for free – cleaned-up and well-formatted versions cost a dollar or two – I read a lot more 18th- and 19th-century literature than I used to, including some obscure potboilers that I had never heard of before. (J.S. Fletcher, anyone?)  In fact, there's such a cornucopia that it has come to feel painful to pay $9.99 or $11.99 for something contemporary. Moreover, it feels painful to buy any physical book at all – the issue of storing the darn thing rankles in a way it never did in the pre-Kindle days.

In other words, I’ve shifted fairly decisively away from paper books.* Extrapolating from my own experience, I’d expect people in their 20s and 30s to have shifted even more, and have no use for paper books at all. I’d conjecture market is heading toward collapse. 

Apparently, I would be wrong. According to this piece in Nautilus, the rise of e-book sales has slowed, as has the decline in in physical book sales. People still like real books, it seems.

The article cites a study purporting to show that paper books enhance reading comprehension:

A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from a printed page understand a text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other studies on the process of reading. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension,” wrote the Norwegian researchers.

Personally, I don’t feel as though I get less out of a Kindle book than its paper counterpart. What I do feel reduces comprehension is the Internet. I find myself skimming too much and jumping from link to link, until everything merges into an undifferentiated blur of data, assertions and urgent advocacy of … something or other. Darned if I can remember. 

Today, I came across the announcement of Amazon’s planned “Matchbook” feature:

Today, Amazon announced a new feature called Matchbook that will allow owners of hard copies of books to purchase extremely cheap ebook versions for their Kindle collection.
 The prices range from $0.99 to $2.99, depending on the title. If you purchased a book from Amazon in the entire time the company has been around (going all the way back to 1995), you qualify for the ebook sale price. The feature will go live in October, with over 10,000 books eligible at the start of the program.

Hmmm. When moving house, I’ve often weighed getting rid of a book against the chance I might want it again and have to pay $7 or $8 to purchase it used. Wouldn’t object at all to that price plunging to $2.99 or less.

But I can't see buying a "complementary" e-version of a printed book. I tried it once, getting an e-version of Battle Hymn of the Republic as a transportable version of the somewhat cumbersome hardback. The result: I stopped reading the hardback. The slightly nicer reading experience wasn't worth the heft of the thing. 

Books are an odd bundle of the physical and the metaphysical. Amazon.com is a dissertation waiting to happen for some aspiring Platonist out there. 

*It can be startling to see a book in real life that you’ve only known through its e-version. You know the form factor of the Kindle needn’t apply; but still, who would’ve thought the hardback version of Lives of theNovelists would be so big? Also, a long book on the Kindle does not convey quite the same impression as the same thick book in real life. Perhaps they should lengthen or shorten the Kindle’s thermometer icon that shows your progress through a book in accordance with its real-world heft. 


  1. I have always been a die hard reader, a dedicated "real books don't require batteries" sort of person. I read "War and Peace" on a lark, for fun. I had no intent to ever pick up an e-reader - too much hype, too little real need. And then on a whim I picked up a thing called an "entourage pocket edge" from woot.com. (entourage was going out of business, and the price was great.) Long story short (sorta) that was a bit over 2 years ago, and I have read well over a hundred books on this thing so far. It is my constant can't leave home without it companion. I feel like a traitor of some kind, as if I have turned my back on the printing industry that I have supported for so long. (we have long joked that we were insulating our home with shelves full of paperbacks, and rare was the time that we would exit a bookstore without further increasing our descent into debt.)
    But the truth is this: I enjoy reading.
    I need words in a row, and it doesn't really matter to me if the story is presented on a backlit lcd, or on the yellowing paper of my old school scifi novels.
    It is just so much more convenient to always have a selection of books available at my fingertips for when I complete the current one.
    I am now so dedicated to the out of production non supported e-reader/tablet that I bought on a whim that I have re-soldered replacement power connectors onto its main board 3 separate times now in order to keep it functional, and replaced the lcd screen scavenged with one from a dead entourage edge off of ebay.
    I am addicted.

  2. Well, someone reminded me, as I pack and give away books to move, that there is always the library. I like the amazon offer, though. I am becoming more and more afraid that the hardback/paperback novels will never get into the hands that will really value them at some specific time in their lives ....