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Books v. eBooks: the Reader’s Experience

July 3, 2007

Ebooks are wonderful — in concept. Lower manufacturing and distribution costs mean less-expensive (or even free) books and a democratization of the means of production. Decreased consumption of resources for printing and shipping gives a hand to a staggering biosphere. The digital medium allows for carrying a shelf full of books without having to warp one’s spine.

But what is it like to actually read an ebook?

I work for an ebook company, and I firmly believe in its mission and business plan. Yet I have to admit that I’ve had my doubts about actually reading a full-length novel on a computer screen. Sure, I spend hours a day in front of a screen reading from a web browser. I’ll even curl up in bed or on the couch with a laptop to read web content or email there.

Yet there almost seems to be some kind of emotional block to reading long-form book content in a digital way, as though the words are somehow supposed to be printed on paper. Newspapers, magazines, comic books and reference texts seem natural enough — now (I’m having a hard time remembering what that earlier transition to digital felt like). The Art of War with its pithy text was fine, too. But in general, books for pleasure haven’t quite made the transition for me. I often wonder if a kid growing up as a digital native (as opposed to a fully-assimilated digital immigrant like me) would even consider such distinctions?

Emotional barriers or not, some of the titles I’m seeing (like the ones in the Current Reads sidebar here) have lured me in, and I’m giving it a shot.

It helps that these particular ebooks look like print, with proper pages that follow the conventions of their paper counterparts. I think that part conveys a certain respect for the works that I want and need to see. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll write about both the books and the experience here.

Have you read books in ebook format? What was it like for you?

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19 comments

  1. Hey Gerry. Thanks for the info on WOWIO. I haven’t read an eBook yet…don’t really see the point. There’s an aesthetic thrill that comes from handling a hardcopy book, plus I can easily transport a book in my back pocket, or stuff one into my backpack. Art books seem especially suited for paper don’t you think? Best to experience a painting as a print on paper…digital just doesn’t suit.

    MadSilence
    http://madsilence.wordpress.com/


  2. I totally agree with you that there is a certain visceral pleasure in handling a well-made paper book, so I know there will always be a place for print books we consider very special. But for the great mass of books that pass through our lives, I can’t help but think that digital will ultimately be a better option in most cases. Technology is holding it back right now — the relatively small and low-res screens attached to bulky machines can’t yet be stuffed in a back pocket, and they can’t match the resolution of the printed page. But that’s only a matter of time.

    As for art books… as a designer, I can definitely appreciate the limitations of the screen versus print. An oversized art book printed with care such that the colors are accurate is simply a better way to look at art. On the other hand, so many books are printed with indifferent color quality — given that choice, I’d rather have a carefully prepared screen presentation with accurate color that’s not subject to the vagaries of a low-quality press.


  3. I’m an avid reader. And I love the smell and the feel of printed books. But when I had the option to either carry around 4 volumes worth of books (1 and 1/2 inch thick each volume, hard bound) or just easily stuff them all into one of my pockets (at that time using iSilo Reader on the former Compaq iPaQ), I, of course, chose the latter.

    The electronic versions of books truly have its advantages. E-books are evolutionary manifests of our time and that is to be celebrated too. So for now, while at the same time being nostalgic about the prints, I will be happy exploring e-books and maybe come to finish Darwin’s On the Origin of Species someday, an e-book in PDF that’s been sitting cozily in my hard drive.

    All the best!


  4. “Four textbooks in one pocket” sounds like a compelling argument, as long as you’re comfortable with reading from the small screen of a handheld. That’s one of my own limitations — I need plenty of room and resolution to display text in order to feel comfortable. I suppose that’s another sign of being a digital immigrant…


  5. I’ve never read a full-length novel in electronic format, but I have read short stories and I’ve found that even that much is a bother for me. I’m never able to fully fall into the story, as I can when I’m holding a book in my hands.

    I think part of my problem is that not only do I love to read, but I love books. I love the look of them, the feel of them, and the smell of them. I can certainly see the benefit of Ebooks, like the one timelessboulevard mentions above, but for me, nothing could replace the aesthetic value of holding a hard copy book in my hands, not even the matter of convenience.


    • I still love books. When I want to read a hardcover or more specifically (want to own) one, I buy it. Just because my Sony Reader has given me the freedom of carrying hundreds of books in my pocket, doesn’t mean that I have turned my back on the printed page. So many people that I come across tell me that “they would never give up a book”, guess what; neither have I. I just added more to my arsenal of reading material. Oh…
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  6. The question of the aesthetic reminds me of the situation with LPs versus CDs (and now, of course, mp3s). The feel of the vinyl, the beauty and detail (and even smell) of the album covers, the texture and warmth of the sound — I appreciate all of those aspects, and yet I no longer own a turntable. On the other hand, LPs don’t seem to be going away since they’ve found a niche among audiophiles and others who appreciate their qualities enough to keep buying them.

    I suspect this will be the fate of paper books.


  7. My first ebook experience was reading a text first published in the late 1800s and revived in digital form at BlackMask. I read it on a Toshiba GENIO PPC using MS Reader software. It worked well. I was always worried about battery life, though. Then the PPC crashed and I lost my bookmarks and that was the end of ebooks for me.

    But I’d rather have e over p. I’ve gotten to the age where the *weight* of books now matter. Not just in terms of moving house, but also in carrying in a shoulder bag.


  8. […] I continue my experiment in actually reading ebooks, I’ve been experimenting with ways to make the experience work […]


  9. Interesting post. I, too, enjoy reading as a somewhat visceral experience and yet am incredibly attracted to the idea of ebooks. So far, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Sony Reader, but not to the exclusion of paper books. Perhaps it might be best to strike a balance between etexts and paper texts. Call me a cad, but I don’t want to be exclusive to either. Both formats have their charms.


  10. I just ordered a Sony Reader for myself the other day, so I’m looking forward to giving it a good workout in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that the form factor will add some needed charm to the ebook experience.


  11. […] would make an excellent ebook platform, a longer-term trial is needed to fully evaluate the reader experience. This will show the effects of additional concrete qualities such as battery life and display […]


  12. The Sony Reader ad that has been running in the NYT Book Review keeps getting my attention. The ability to carry around multiple lengthy books is attractive. I plan to check out the reader. It seems more & more sites are offering free downloads of ebooks. MadSilence


  13. My experience with the Reader so far has been mixed. It has some very nice features but also some distinct problems. I’m still trying to distill some of my initial reactions to it, but I’m hoping to have something posted in the next day or two.


  14. I have owned and read the Sony Reader now since March of this year, 2007. There hasn’t been a day since I got it that I have not read it. I have read more books on it (and I am a heavy reader) that I have in a long period of time. I love the convience of carrying it with me daily. I love that I can read any book that I have started and continue when the whim hits me.

    Does this mean that I have given up on buying or reading real books? No. As mentioned in the comments above, someone mentioned Records vs CD’s. I still love books. When I want to read a hardcover or more specifically (want to own) one, I buy it. Just because my Sony Reader has given me the freedom of carrying hundreds of books in my pocket, doesn’t mean that I have turned my back on the printed page. So many people that I come across tell me that “they would never give up a book”, guess what; neither have I. I just added more to my arsenal of reading material. Oh… and I have read more books that I would have never bought in printed form but always wanted to read.

    My suggestion: Get a Reader and see for yourself how much it enrichens your life.

    -Seth
    San Francisco, CA


  15. […] « The Villar Debacle ebooks, cellphones, and cyber education December 12, 2007 The Reader, a blog devoted to books and publishing and how technology is reshaping it, asks a very relevant […]


  16. […] karlom87 06:00 amAdd comment1 Views The Reader, a blog devoted to books and publishing and how technology is reshaping it, asks a very relevant […]


  17. […] The Reader, a blog devoted to books and publishing and how technology is reshaping it, asks a very relevant question for voracious readers like me: Ebooks are wonderful — in concept. Lower manufacturing and distribution costs mean less-expensive (or even free) books and a democratization of the means of production. Decreased consumption of resources for printing and shipping gives a hand to a staggering biosphere. The digital medium allows for carrying a shelf full of books without having to warp one’s spine. […]


  18. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several
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    Appreciate it!



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