Kindle for the Academic

Alex Golub reviews the advantages (and a few limitations, at least for now) of e-book readers.

November 3, 2009

E-book readers are all the rage these days -- from scenes of Oprah's audience ecstatically receiving complimentary Kindles to models of Sony's new eBook readers, this long-promised technology looks like it has finally arrived. Much has been written about the effect that e-books will have on the publishing industry (including scholarly publication), education, and its niche in the ecosystem of Extremely Complicated Handheld Devices Our Students Understand. But how useful are these devices for academics and how do they fit into our own personal scholarly ecosystems?

I recently got to spend two months up close and personal with a newly purchased Kindle from Amazon when I spent my summer conducting two months of fieldwork in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Over that time, and for about a month before hand, I had a chance to read both academic and nonacademic work on the Kindle. Based on that experience, my overall impression is that while the Kindle and other ebook readers might not quite be reader for prime time, they are going to be an important part of academic work in the future.

Let’s face it: at heart, the Kindle is designed to let you read mystery novels, not academic books. It is small, light, and has terrific battery life. In this respect, Jeff Bezos has succeeded in his goal of creating a device that "just lets you read." But for an academic like me, whose casual reading list consists of books that normal humans find pointlessly opaque, does it matter than I can now read anywhere? The answer, I think, is Yes. The Kindle is remarkably freeing -- suddenly your porch or the beach is a workspace (this is particularly important to me, since I live in Hawaii and spend much of my time on my lanai). I never realized how much reading I did at my computer until I had the ability to read somewhere else. Admittedly, some might consider the workspaceization of their entire lives a minus rather than a plus, but as academics when has our life ever been separate from our work?

Academics often have a different experience of reading from that of regular readers -- our books are expensive, they are odd sizes, we intend to use them our entire lives and are careful about their condition, and we travel everywhere with an elaborate array of mechanical pencils, sticky notes, and highlighters to read them. The physical experience of reading on a Kindle solves many of these problems for us. Over the summer I read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace, something that I had tried and failed to accomplish before simply because the book was too damn large to handle. Kindles can be held over one's head while in bed or on the couch without tiring the arms, a key consideration for academics who 1) read everywhere, all the time and 2) have no upper body strength.

There are drawbacks to reading on the Kindle, of course. First, it is not a book. If one of the main reasons you read books is feel and smell the pages in order to gratify your self-image as a "reader" or "intellectual," then the Kindle is probably not for you. But if, as an academic, you are interested in the content of the book you are reading, then the Kindle's lack of pages offers a different set of challenges. Most obviously, you must give up being able to remember that the passage you are looking for is on the left or right hand side of the page. More substantively, though, the Kindle makes moving back and forth between endnotes, body text, and bibliographic material a tremendous pain -- a key concern for scholars who read by moving through the main text of a book and its scholarly apparatus simultaneously. And I must admit, while it’s nice to be able to search the contents of your book, I somehow feel that flipping through it is a method of browsing that has some obscure but important utility that the Kindle hasn't yet duplicated.

Most importantly, many academics add value to their library by writing in their books. While the Kindle’s built-in underlining feature does a much less-suck job of marking up texts than I originally expected, the markup features of the device are simply not as good as paper. While underlining may be fine for some, I am sure that many academics are like me in that they have their own complex and idiosyncratic method of annotating books which features complex circling, numbering, bracketing, and so forth -- none of which is available for the Kindle. And of course if the things you read feature charts, graphs, or even pictures, the Kindle's small screen will render them illegible.

Of course, you can do more than just read books on your Kindle. You can email PDFs to it, put .doc files on it, and so forth. This makes reading journal articles a snap -- although it will be even more of a snap when we can just go to JSTOR and click the "send this article to my eBook reader" link. It saves us from dragging around lengthy MAs and dissertations to read, although of course we can't mark up and then hand back the drafts of our students' work that we read on the Kindle.

In fact, I must admit that I think the book as an artifact is already dead. The Internet has created a used book market in which different versions, printings, pressings, covers of books matter not at all. Each book is, in a way, a replica of all the other books of the same title. Getting "reading copies" of books is now so easy that the e-book feels like the nail in the coffin, not a game-changer.

As academics, we often read extremely specialized books printed in very short runs in places that are, in general, very far from where we live. The Kindle really helps "long tail" readers like us because it lets you download a sample chapter, and then purchase, download, and read a new title, something that is tremendously exciting for academics, whose books often don't have a "look inside" feature on the Amazon Web site (or Google Books, or wherever), and who otherwise might waste time and money getting a book shipped to them simply so they can verify whether it is worth reading or not. In an age when our libraries are more and more cash-strapped, e-book distribution offers a lot of hope for niche publishing -- and academic publishing is nothing if not niche.

Except textbooks. I have to admit I am scared silly by the idea of a generation of students so alienated from material they are supposed to be immersed in that they rent digital textbooks that they do not intend to keep, cannot dog ear and underline, and otherwise feel totally alienated from. Even the current trend of students not underlining in books so as to preserve their resale value strikes me as appalling. Taking ownership of your education -- and indeed, just learning how to read closely -- means making your books part of your physical environment. In an era when you thought criminally overpriced textbooks full of uselessly pretty pictures and pre-chewed content was the absolute nadir of education, the Campus Full Of Kindles demonstrates we still have lower to sink. If, that is, the Kindles alienate students from their libraries rather than empowering them to immerse themselves in them.

And this brings us to the crux of the issue: Max Weber once remarked that scholars are the only remaining technical specialists who own their own means of production: their library. The Kindle changes this. The Kindle is the inkjet printer of the 21st century: the business model is to give you the device for free and then charge you for refills. Sure, the Kindle promises liberation to traveling bookworms, who can now travel without an emergency stock of extremely heavy extra reading in their bags. This space-saving feature offers even more respite for academics who find the book to oxygen ratio in their over-packed offices dangerously low. But then again, books are visible in a way e-books are not. I don't know about you, but one big consequence of developing an electric library of PDFs and book is that I forget what is in it, something that is harder to do when your books are there in the room with you, on an easily-eyeball-able shelf. And I, at least, am reluctant to discard a book I have marked up no matter how ubiquitous replacement copies are: My markings add value to my library.

More importantly, what happens to our scholarly means of production when they in Amazon’s copy-protected format? A glitch -- or policy change -- at Amazon may result in an erased library, and it is not entirely clear to me that Amazon’s interests are aligned with scholars. We want our digital content to be open and accessible to us. We want our underlinings and notes to transfer seamlessly from our e-book readers to our PDF collection programs to our printers, and we want to be able to mark up our content a lot (this is the academic version of the "remixing" that Lawrence Lessig talks about). We want to be able to buy content from anyone -- not just Amazon -- and read it on our Kindles. We want to be able to read journal articles on our Kindle every time a new issue of our favorite journal hits our RSS readers. Will Amazon facilitate this or will it lock the Kindle down? In sum, while e-book readers could be an important part of our future academic reading habits, questions remain.

A key to making them attractive is developing an ecosystem of scholarly information sources around them: larger libraries of scholarly books, reasonably priced, and with a firm title to ownership. Better connections between the content repositories such as journal websites and our handheld readers, more ways to make annotations and display information. Compatibility of files across readers (something that could be facilitated by adopting Open Access standards) and ways to share marked up documents with our colleagues. Perhaps one thing that I don't want on my e-book reader is more bells and whistles -- the harder it is to check my email or surf the web on my reader, the more work I'm likely to get some reading done. Until law and policy provide stronger consumer rights for people to own, rather than lease, the information they purchase, books offer a surety of title that e-books cannot replace.

It is too early for academics to shift much of their workload over to e-book format -- although that day may come sooner than we expect. So if you, like me, are going to spend a lot of time traveling or just away from bookstores, it might be the time to try one of these devices. While they are not ready for prime time yet, they are still great places to outsource our pleasure reading and reference libraries. And soon they might be good for even more.


Alex Golub is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


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