It’s nearly six months since I first took the plunge and entered the world of e-Books and e-Book readers in a big way. As an avid reader and book collector (some would say hoarder), has the digital plunge been a game changer, or just another meh experience?
I’m of that age where making digital transitions has been a way of life. Many of the toys and board games I played with as a young child largely gave way to video game consoles. I had a thermal electric typewriter (kind of a hybrid phase between standalone electric typewriters and standalone computer printers) before saving enough allowance and birthday money for a VIC-20. I was (and remain) a music geek, amassing hundreds of vinyl LPs as a teen, each preserved in a plastic sleeve and alphabetized in a series of milk crates; my first CD purchase was an imported Ultravox disc that seemed impossibly thin, incredibly expensive, yet compellingly perfect. It was CDs all the way from then on. My collection of slowly degrading VHS movies was dutifully upgraded to DVD versions and a select few have been upgraded once again to Blu-Ray (yes, for the most part the MPAA loves me). Film cameras and photo albums gave way to massive digital photo libraries (with select key photos still printed in archival hard copy). And over the past four or five years, all those digital bits -the CDs, photos and DVDs- have themselves been centralized and stored in a digital library that currently consumes 3 Terabytes of external hard drive space. The Walkmans and boomboxes have given way to a drawer full of iPods and various speaker docking systems. The CRT TVs held on through the early years of plasma, DLP and then LCD, but were eventually replaced in one fell swoop with digital LCD versions. My book collection was the last stand for old school media.
Of all my physical media collections, books have probably been the most consistently acquired through my life and as a result, the most space intensive. I may have stopped buying CDs for a few years when the kids were first born, but books have always been a necessity and they’re stacked on nine full height bookshelves. Like anything else I collected, it was important to keep my books pristine -no folded corners, reading on beaches or bending of spines. I have lent out novels to friends, but I suspect they’re a little terrified of the process, kind of like the inspection one undergoes when returning a leased car. When I was a kid, I frequented my hometown library until I’d exhausted their science fiction, horror and fantasy sections at which point I concluded that waiting for the library to get around to acquiring a copy of a book I wanted was too annoying to bear and I turned to accumulating my own collection. Besides, library books always offended my sense of perfection -books that frequently changed hands quickly became battered and often contained surprises left behind by previous readers, anything from food crumbs to torn pages and other stuff we won’t delve into here.
Which brings me to eBooks. Others have written about their eBook thoughts and come out on the side of good old paper. To me, this has been just another in a long line of digital transitions and I’m emotionally detached. Admittedly, I am a bit of a technology and gadget nut and my first reaction once I had eBook readers in my hands to play with, was to focus on the capabilities of the devices. The version I eventually bought (a Sony Reader Pocket) was simply flat out cool to play around with. The thing is, while I was reading eBooks as a requirement for reviewing the hardware, I seamlessly transitioned to using an eBook reader as my primary reading method. Granted, with its aluminum tablet form factor, it didn’t have the same feel as a book and pushing a button instead of physically flipping a page was also different, but I quickly adjusted and it was once again all about the written word. My wife bought me a leather cover at Christmas that replicates the “book” feel somewhat, so even that difference is largely gone.
My reading habits have indeed changed and, if anything, I’m reading more than ever. The eBook reader I have is compact enough that it literally slips into a pocket, so I have it with me everywhere. I can read serially on the run -flipping between books as mood or need dictates- with hundreds of books in hand and no worries about searching to find and sling around the novels I want to have handy. I’m buying books just as frequently, but they’re eBooks. Digital, taking up no space and pristine forever (although I realize that “forever” is as limited as any digital storage method can be). Like the iTunes Store and other counterparts opened up the record labels’ back catalogs and resulted in the release of thousands of albums that, for years, had been available only in used record shops, books that were once out of print are finding their way into circulation again, in electronic format. At the other extreme, I used to wait for new releases to complete their hardcover run before taking the plunge and buying a paperback version, but now I buy the book on release, usually for the price I would have paid for the paperback. Granted, that pricing seems to be on quicksand at the moment, but even if it falters, I’m no worse off than before. My eBooks are backed up, so a hard drive or device failure doesn’t mean my copy is gone. I buy ePub versions so I’m not locked onto particular device (unlike a Kindle, for example). No-one else in the household has an eBook reader yet, but when they do, there’s no fighting over the same book -we can all read it at the same time, if so inclined. I’ve even borrowed books from the library for the first time in many years. I can log onto my local branch, check out (or put a hold) on the eBook I want and a pristine copy shows up. The downside to the library aspect is a lack of titles and the still compelling need to accumulate my own library, because who knows when I might feel the immediate need to re-read Dune for the umpteenth time.
And what about the iPad? Do I regret taking the plunge when Apple’s offering was hovering in the wings? Those who’ve been following GeekDad for a while likely realize I do like my Apple gear. However, despite my enthusiasm, I have a certain degree of restraint. For example, I’ve felt no need to replace my “aging” (1.5 year old) HTC smartphone with an iPhone, despite being an obvious candidate. My existing phone does its job quite well and my iPod Touch does its job very well; I see no compelling need to combine them. Despite having a “free pass” to buy an iPad when it becomes available (this earned by ceding the right to choose appliances to my wife during our kitchen reno), I think I’ll hold off. I want an eBook reader that I can carry around and read on the beach. I want a display that I can easily read in the daylight and a battery that lasts for weeks between charges. I read novels for the most part, and they’re black text on a white page, so color is moot, unless you count nice displays of the book’s cover. When I do take the plunge on an iPad, I may do some reading on it, but I can’t see the day when a tablet that’s too big to pocket, expensive enough to make me cringe if I accidentally dropped it, not the greatest for reading in daylight and with battery life measured in hour instead of days, becomes my daily go-to device for reading eBooks; eComics, sure, but that’s something for another day. The iPad may eventually replace my MacBook Air as the lightweight device I use to stay in touch and dabble at writing while I’m off camping, but only if/when Apple caves and allows multiple applications to run simultaneously.
My conclusion? Reading is all digital for me from now on. I feel very old-school when publishers send me dead tree books for review. I read them, but I’ve come to prefer the eBook experience. I’m still keeping my analog novels, but I suspect they’ll soon be doubled up on the bookshelves, freeing up room for other things. I sometimes look at those bookshelves and think of them as 30 square feet of floor space, or 160 cubic feet or so of storage space. If we lived in a McMansion or had fewer kids and animals running around the place, I might leave them alone, but as it is, every square foot of storage space is valuable. If I upgrade my eBook reader, it will likely be when the rumored next generation of E Ink displays manages snappier performance and perhaps a slight increase in contrast, but color or a bigger screen are of little interest to me. One thing’s for sure, I can’t see the day when I downgrade back to paper. In a way, it’s sad to say goodbye to another holdover that’s served us well for centuries, but on the other hand, it’s all about the reading and eBooks offer a damned compelling path to the future.