Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

E-book or P-book?

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E-book or P-book?

I've been unfaithful. After decades of a stable relationship, I'm spending the week-end with a much younger competitor, sleek and alluring. Yes, I've borrowed a Kindle, while paper books languish beside my bed, their dusty silence broken by the occasional muffled sob.

The Kindle is about the size of a typical poetry collection, and a little heavier. Yet it can hold a thousand or more titles at once, downloading them wirelessly in about a minute apiece. Is this the Book of Books, the 1,001 Nights compressed into one electric evening? Will it sound the electronic death knell for the long-running offspring of Mr. Gutenberg -- the bound collection of printed paper?

It's tempting to reduce this problem to the simplicity of a formula: E(book) ≠ P(book)?. I've inserted the does-not-equal operator there because, after a few hours of trying the Kindle out, I don't think it is a book. Instead, I think it might be more accurately termed a text delivery system. Unless you can read the very smallest of the several fonts sizes available, you don't see a whole page of a text at once, but rather a screen (or window) of part of that page. Also, by reducing every title to the same font and monochrome screen, the Kindle strips some of the attributes that are so enjoyable to readers, and help distinguish one book from another. These are the design choices setting the size of the book, the texture and brightness of the paper, the fonts, leading (spacing between lines) and so on. In the hands of a skilled designer, these variables are not just branding; they are a sensitive and creative response to the book's subject and style.

So, one startling aspect of reading á la Kindle is that a page of poetry, except for shorter lines, looks and therefore visually feels no different from a page of scientific or academic prose. Another difference is that reading a traditional book was always a hypertext exercise, because you could simply glance ahead or behind your current reading place to anywhere in a two-page spread to see how the lines there related to what you had just read. To do the same on a Kindle requires changing screens back or forward, thus losing your original place.

With that major qualification, there are some cool tricks that the digital nature of the Kindle (and its competitors like the Sony e-book) allows. If you run into an unfamiliar word, you can get a dictionary definition at the bottom of the screen with a couple of clicks. Instantly changing the font size so that you can read from further or closer, or to accommodate older eyes, is one. Another is the “read out loud” option; just plug in headphones, turn the feminine robo-voice on, and the screens of text will advance automatically as your now audio-book orates in its slightly computeresque style.

If you tend, as I do, to read multiple books at the same time, the Kindle remembers your place in one book as you flick to another title. It also allows, through its wireless connection, some basic Web services; I didn't use this aspect, but presumably you can check your email or look something up on the web in the middle of reading, The most obvious advantage is the fact that you can carry so many “books” in one lightweight device. A literary holiday or working trip no longer requires lugging many kilos of paper along.

The Kindle's display is pretty easy on the eyes, and appears to have a good non-glare coating, although there is no contrast or brightness adjustment that I could find, so those with visual impairments may not find it suitable. The other ergonomics are good, including a nice leather cover that makes it look, when closed, like a date- or notebook rather than an electronic device; the button you use most often when reading to advance a screen is located right where a right-handed person's thumb falls when holding the Kindle open. However, the five-way “joystick” button that controls many functions is tiny, and easy to make mistakes with. I accidentally deleted a whole book with it when distracted for a moment.

There are some other drawbacks. You must, of course, keep the battery charged, but this is not onerous as the Kindle can be topped up either through the USB port on a computer or with a plug-in wall socket adapter. A big consideration is its nature as an Amazon Kindle, meaning that you can only acquire new reading through having an Amazon.ca account and paying for each title. The cost is cheaper than for a paper book, usually between a half and a third of the p-book's retail price. Public and academic libraries are starting to acquire e-books for loan, but you can't download them on this particular Kindle (the Sony e-book does allow this, I'm told). So having an Amazon Kindle means you are locked into a no-choice monopoly “contract", and I'm sure we all remember what it was like to have only Bell Tel as the choice for land-line phone service.

Also, as an old fogey who's lived and consorted with paper books all my life, I miss the physical nature of the book, the comforting heft and texture in my hands. P-books really are versatile products; you can safely read them in the bath or swimming pool without worrying about frying circuits. When a book is no longer required for reading, it can prop up wonky Ikea furniture, swat a bug, start a campfire, or even take on structural support duties in the cheapest of all bookshelf designs, where the boards are supported by vertical columns of piled books (don't try this at home).
Don't forget, too, that books, whether as décor (lining residence's walls) or accessory (in public places) have long served the literary as a measure of their owner's potential as a friend or, even better, friend-with-privileges. Spot a stranger reading a book you like, and there's an instant conversation starter. It's socially acceptable to browse someone's living room book collection while he/she is dressing; or primping, wile it is less so to scan through his/her electronic aids. Too many self-help books, junk fiction titles, or spirituality-of-the-month selections? No poetry besides Rod McKuen or Kahlil Gibran? Ayn Rand? Uh-oh.... But Patchen's The Journals of Albion Moonlight, well-worn fantasy, poetry by Erin Mouré or Dionne Brand, crime fiction by Sue Grafton or Tony Hillerman? Could be fun.

After this initial flirtation, I would like to try a Sony e-book for comparison (it has a colour screen, which my Amazon Kindle didn't, and can play movies and video as well, I'm told). I think that these text delivery systems will satisfy certain reading demands – for the traveller or commuter, they make considerable sense. Also, the increasingly large and heavy textbooks required for high school and post-secondary studies will probably be replaced by e-reader versions soon, which would make sense in terms of cost to students, knapsack loads, and the ease of updating them. In fact, since most students use a text only for a term or so, they could pay for a four-month licence rather than actually having to “own” the title.

The other issue which concerns me, and which there isn't time to explore right now, is the effect on independent bookstores. If the latest bestsellers are only a download away, and e-books achieve significant market penetration, indie stores will suffer one more blow, as a reliable revenue source supporting less-popular titles begins to dry up.

What do you think? Will you go e-book, or stay with the tried and true p-book?

5 comments

I'm not surprised that you, as a student, value your Kindle. That seems to me one of the most likely applications of an e-book. But the Amazon stranglehold over content (and therefore its prices) is a concern.
John Oughton

I actually own a Kindle. It's really great. I'm a student and traveling back and forth to class make the Kindle a wonderful choice to carry with me. I can have various books assigned for classes along with my personal recreational reading list with me at all times.

I must say, though, that I am lusting over the Kindle 2. I adopted the early technology...and it is a little lacking. I don't have the option for text-to-speech capabilities which would be really great on my 2 hour commute in my car to and from school.

The worst part, in my opinion is not being able to just go to a store, see a good deal on an interesting looking book and buy it. The books are expensive, comparatively, because one can get a used book at a fraction of even the Kindle price. Anything more than $5 for an electronic copy of a book that cannot be loaned to anyone seems a little much for me, after paying so much for the object itself. I certainly do miss the in-store browsing.

Meg Tisdale

Sales of e-books and e-readers may have a lot to do with hype and novelty. Time will tell.

Thanks, Elana. I'm not suprised by the results, but it'd be interesting to know: of those who voted in the poll, how many have actually tried an e-book? Some people must prefer them, or they wouldn't be selling at all.
John Oughton

P-book over e-book, John-- definitely. A "text delivery system" is just no substitute for the real, physical thing. And according to the current poll on OBT, most voters agree.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page