what is lost

I bought and read my first e-book on a phone this year using an iPhone app. I don’t plan to repeat the experience, not because it was horrible but because I know too many booksellers personally and until it’s easy to buy from them I’m not planning to purchase e-books. But I felt as if I needed some experience with e-books.

The good side? It didn’t weigh much when traveling and I could read it in the dark on the long shuttle ride from the airport. The bad side?

Let me count the ways.

First, the pages look ugly. There’s no other way to put it. There is no page design, just letters poured into a mechanical box, no art in the chapter headings, no thought given to initial capitals, words broken in the wrong place, justified lines full of gaps like bad teeth. And of course no page numbers. The design of a page in a printed book is a nearly invisible pleasure. Page design is something I appreciate more since seeing what is lost when it’s absent.

Second, reading on a phone is fine for e-mail and  for short form texts on a web page, but it’s hard to get lost in a book when you have to turn pages every paragraph or so. I also found it strangely disorienting to have only a bar at the bottom of the page telling me where I was in the book. A sense of place, of orientation in the arc of the story is harder to grasp. (I found this also true when I held my most recently published book in my hands for the first time. The last chapters felt different when measured between the thumb and fingers and the growing weight of the left side than when I was scrolling to the end of a document. Though I did read the galleys on paper, I shifted the pages to the back of the stack as I read and so was surprised by how profoundly the anticipation of an ending affects the reading experience.)

Third – I don’t like a future for the book in which sharing is disabled and ownership of an immutable copy no longer exists. It bothers me that a corporation could reach into my personal library and pluck a book back or alter it. I don’t like the fact that there is no such thing as fair use in a world of licensed content and that I can’t give a friend or family member a book I read and loved. Sure, I could buy them a second e-book version, but it’s not the same as handing on the book I read.

Fourth – this post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation spells out just how much we give away to Google and Amazon when we let them be our “bookstore” and “library.” Real booksellers and librarians have stood up for reader privacy. Personal information is a valuable commodity to these corporations. I don’t like the idea of my reading habits becoming a commodity and I don’t like the aggregation of readers’ behavior becoming a huge data mine of our minds.

Google’s new Google Book Search Project has the ability to track reading habits at an unprecedented level of granularity. In particular, according to the proposed Google Books Privacy Policy, web servers will automatically “log” each book and page you searched for and read, how long you viewed it for, and what book or page you continued onto next . . . your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon. But exactly what information is sent? Amazon’s wording — “information related to the content on your Device and your use of it” — reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon. Some security researchers have indicated that the Kindle may even be tracking its users’ GPS locations. Is this the future of reading?

God, I hope not. Cory Doctorow has put some of this in sharp perspective in “How to Destroy the Book” in which he argues that the true pirates are the corporations who are remaking our book culture so that they can be in the center of it, controlling books for the sake of profits. He contrasts this perspective with that of “people of the book” who love books, want to fill their houses with them, and pass favorites on to their children.

Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.

What he said.

photos courtesy of brewbooks and Josh Bancroft.

4 Responses to what is lost

  1. bernadetteinoz says:

    An excellent post Barbara. I am particularly swayed by your third and fourth arguments – how sad my world would be if I was unable to borrow books from friends and fellow book-club members (not to mention the library) and loan my favourites to them as well.

    I have an e-reader for work where it is invaluable for carrying around manuals and that sort of thing and would happily use one to subscribe to magazines and newspapers (assuming there will be such things in the future) but I’m a long way short of being interested in one for my leisure reading.

  2. Barbara says:

    I do worry that publishers are learning nothing from the recording industry’s failures. They act like our headless-chicken TSA tightening security on airplanes in a completely nonsensical way, adding nothing to security while punishing people who have no intention of breaking the rules. (If I can’t hold a book in my lap in the last hour of a flight, I’m not flying, thank you very much.)

  3. […] Oh, Mr. Klinkenborg- we are on the same page. […]

  4. This is the most cogent explanation of what’s wrong with e books that I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t have thought of the big brother aspect of digital libraries, but it’s chilling. Also, the photo looks just like my bedroom (aka book room) at home! GREAT post–thank you.

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