E books

Cory Doctorow has an excellent column in the latest Locus magazine on why people don’t read e books (or e-books). I’m with him in that I don’t want to use a laptop or desktop screen to read much more than a dozen or so paragraphs. Even though I write plenty of stuff on a computer, most of the significant stuff gets printed out and read on paper so I get what I feel is a better look at it.

And while some of the dislike undoubtedly stems from the fact our associations with computers or even PDAs aren’t conducive to reading longer works, that’s just part of the reason I don’t read e-books. The main reasons are esoteric. There is just something about the feel of a book in your hands, the anticipation of opening a book to read for the first time, the sound of the pages being turned in a new book, and the familiarity of a book you’ve held in your hands several times before that reminds you of the relationship you established on prior reads. That physicality is a far more enjoyable link than an electronic version can ever provide.  Sure, you can shove a PDA in your back pocket but it’s a helluva lot more uncomfortable than those hand-sized paperbacks that at least try to mold to your body while you’re walking or when you sit down.

I still miss the days of buying an LP that had a center spread, opening it and poring over it again and again as I listened to the album. As I may have mentioned before, the scene in Almost Famous where William is intently studying the cover of the Tommy album his sister left for him while listening to the LP for the first time brings many memories to mind. CDs and digital technology have largely ensured those days are gone for good. But I will never, ever opt for an electronic substitute over a real live book.

These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.

Gilbert Highet, The Immortal Profession

3 comments to E books

  • i agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said here, Tim.

    i would further add that my 21″ monitor is truly uncomfortable on my lap and won’t reach to the bathroom, let alone outside.

    and while you can swat a fly with a PDA or a laptop, that’d be a mighty expensive fly.


    Have you noticed that TV interviews of lawyers always seem to have a background display of Law Books. Other occupation also include photos and papers and books of their occupation.? Can you forsee an interview where DVDs are stacked up in the background? Without books we cannot trust that person being interviewed. Subliminal argumentation?

    I have always taken time to read the footnotes in books. A great way to check the spin of the author with the material he has read and interpreted.

    Have you read the 100 best E Books.

  • David N

    More than ten years ago, I was the co-author of an e-book. It involved a text with layers and layers of documentation and collateral references. One chapter of 40 pages, for example, had 205 pages of documentation. Hypertext seemed to offer a way to publish a book like this. Many people in the academic and journalistic worlds were hyping the “new rhetoric” which transcended “linear thinking” and offered a new way of writing that transcended the limits of ordinary thought.

    Even though we put the book through six editions, it hardly got noticed. As the publisher had put a great deal of money into the book, we engaged in an elaborate effort to find out why so few people responded to the book.

    The first main reason we found is that there was no such thing as a “new rhetoric”. The advantages of hypertext to provide immediate links to supporting and elaborating documentation do not change the process of forming an argument and assembling the evidence. In fact, they distract from the point being made by diverting attention away from the line of thought into side issues. We also were informed through our analysis that thinking is never “linear.” While we use geometric terms to designate “lines of thought” and “chains of reasoning,” the critical thought process is one of constant recircling and approaching questions from different perspectives. We found that the hype for a “new rhetoric” was not founded on the hard facts of human reasoning and communication.

    But we also found some mechancial problems. At the time, everybody who read the book experienced massive computer crashes. Although computers and programs have improved greatly, they still tend to freeze up and crash when a great deal of linking and calling up of multiple documents is concerned. We also found that human physiology is a factor. Graphics experts point out that type size and line length (a guideline is no more than 84 characters of 10-12 point size per line) are very significant factors in how efficiently readers process the writing. If they have to expend some concentration in perceiving the text, they experience an interference with their reception of it. They also point out that reading from paper is much easier on the eyes than reading from a screen, even though screens may do a nice job of simulating a black-on-white printed page.

    And then, there is the portability of books and the ability to consult passages readily. Most of our readers who were interviewed said that they would have found it more convenient if we had included all our documentation in an appendix. Most of them printed out the chapters on paper to read them, and thus lost the links that they wanted to refer to.

    Printed out, the book was 320 pages. The links comprised 1,015 pages.

    Many other detractions were cited, but the main point we received was that the printed book is an artifact that evolved through many brilliant minds through six centuries and e-books have a long history of development to complete before they are as cogent, convenient, and compelling.