The Bookworm Turns

Will getting an e-reader change your life? Scott McLemee takes one step forward, two steps back....

September 15, 2010

My last column, two weeks ago, discussed getting an e-book reader – or rather, deciding to do so. The device itself arrived as I was revising the piece. There was just enough time to download a few things before leaving on vacation.

This seemed a good way to test it out. One of the selling points of digital reading, of course, is that it’s ideal for travel. Since returning home, I’ve had time to accumulate and read a few more e-book titles -- and to think about how this gizmo fits into readerly habits that (after 40 years of bookwormery) seem pretty well-consolidated.

In his book Words & Money, forthcoming from Verso in November, the publisher André Schiffrin makes a comparison between “the new reading machines” and ballpoint pens – which, he recalls, once cost “an enormous $20” each. Two years ago, the Kindle sold for $400. Competition from other digital readers has cut the price to about a third of that. By the end of the year, you will probably be able to find an e-reader for $100 or less.

The e-reader seems to be following the same arc as the ballpoint: from pricey novelty item to something ubiquitous and fairly cheap (if not disposable). The aura of conspicuous consumption has faded. It now feels like a legitimate business expense, rather than a slightly preposterous toy.

In my case, the drop in price was a necessary though not sufficient basis for deciding to get one. My routine had been drifting in the direction of the e-reader for some time, albeit without my noticing it. Over the past year or so, I’d developed a tendency to read newspaper and magazine articles (and even the occasional paper from an academic conference) by squinting at the tiny screen of my cell phone.

This was not easy. Things were in six-point type, at best. But eventually I found myself reading the equivalent of a short book every two or three weeks, in spite of the complaints of my middle-aged eyeballs. At that point, making the jump to a device dedicated to this purpose (with the option of adjusting print size) began to make sense.

So did another feature of e-readers – one mentioned in passing in John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, due out next month from Polity.

Thompson quotes someone identified as a “senior figure at a large technology firm who works closely with trade publishers, and who has been heavily involved with e-books and other forms of electronic content delivery since the late 1990s.” Given this individual’s background, his skepticism about the value of making print books available in digital format has a certain force.

“Sure,” he told Thompson, “you can carry 80 books around on this $400 reader, but the number of people who require 80 books to be carried around at one time is very small….This is not the music business – these aren’t two- or three-minute songs. It’s not the newspaper business – [books] don’t have a shelf-life of a day or an hour.”

Of course, since the interview was done, the price of e-readers has gone down, and the storage capacity grown to the equivalent of hundreds of titles. But the point remains valid – within limits. Most people read one book at a time. I have never understood why anyone would want to do this, but to each his own.

Nietzsche comments somewhere that there are scholars obliged to consult an average of two hundred books per day. If memory serves, he was mocking this – treating it as a kind of mental tic. But exaggeration aside, it describes a certain demographic. One part of the reading public would be happy to have a small library that can fit into pocket or purse.

Writing here a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that one benefit of an e-reader would be the savings in that rarest of resources, shelf space. My guess was that having an e-book would tend to sort books into two categories. On the one hand, there would be titles of passing interest (things read once, either for research or review) which could be stored in digital format. And on the other, there would be the books that I revisit often – which, being durable of interest, it would make sense to keep as durable, paper-and-ink artifacts.

This sounded logical. In practice, things are not proving so conveniently neat.

Publishers are happy to send me review copies of their books in PDF. It saves them postage, among other expenses. I’ve also imported JSTOR articles, which otherwise accumulate in my study in towers of print-outs that are menacing to behold.

But not all digital texts are created equal. E-books can be published in formats that allow you to adjust the size of the type on the screen. Not so with the books and articles I’ve seen in PDF. (You can magnify the page, but only at the cost of chopping off the right- or left-hand side of any given line.) The idea that a digital reader would help reduce the clutter of new, incoming printed matter is starting to look a bit utopian. So much for the savings in space.

At the same time, I’ve had an itch to keep certain books of long acquaintance available in digital form. Having them on the shelves at home doesn’t do much good when you want to look something up while in transit.

But here, you may be at the mercy of dumb luck. Before heading off on vacation, I grabbed digital copies of a few familiar works it might be interesting to look over once again. Unfortunately these editions turned out to be based on scanned texts that had then been run through optical character recognition software. In the best case, there were only two or three typographical errors per page – though in some cases whole passages were corrupted to the point of being incomprehensible.

Obviously the vendors of e-readers hope you will be purchasing lots of new e-books – in format custom-made for their devices, of course.

I’ve avoided this, so far -- apart from downloading one of Stieg Larsson’s novels about a cyberpunk Pippi Longstocking. (Easy to justify when you are going on vacation.) Yet in the past few days, I’ve managed to accumulate a pretty decent collection of e-book titles for free. They make the device seem worth the investment.

How? Most of them have come from Project Gutenberg, which hosts some 33,000 documents, including literary, philosophical, and historical works in several languages. The editions are not annotated. The Gutenberg site is bare-bones, and the alphabetizing of authors and titles sometimes rather approximate. It is also mildly astonishing to find the book best known as Aristotle’s Masterpiece (a sex-education manual from England, first published in the 1680s) listed as if it had actually been written by Aristotle.

But the texts are in good shape, with no chunks of random punctuation marks or random gibberish. New material is constantly being added to the collection. Visiting it is rather like hanging around a used-book store. You might not find what you’re looking for -- but there’s bound to be something you’d want to read.


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