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Confessions from a Reluctant e-Reader Adopter

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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How do you read? Photo by KDCosta, 2012.

I’m a bibliophile. And an avid bookworm. I bring books home the way some people do stray animals—I have a soft spot for books that have been thrown away, though I have been forced to learn some restraint in recent years as a result of space considerations. I’m always in need of more shelves. S is largely supportive of these tendencies—he has even “saved” a book or two left on the counter at work that was destined for the donation pile and brought it home to meet the rest of the strays. However, he has put a moratorium on the expansion of my collection until we’re permanently settled in our new place, and truthfully, I understand: moving boxes of books is no easy task. (But it hasn’t stemmed my growing impatience that my books are not on their shelves and are piled and boxed in helter skelter fashion.)

I have not been a fan of e-Readers. I did not own one. That changed on Christmas day.

S handed me a wrapped box a bit nervously. I thought it was unusual because he knows me well and typically hits the nail on its head when it comes to gifts. “Shake it,” he said. “What do you think it is?” Amused, I complied, wondering what could have caused his hesitation. I felt the edges of the box running through the possibilities. “Too small to be shoes, I think.” (I need a new pair of sneakers.) “And it doesn’t feel like a book.” (Last year he got me a new release that I had wanted badly but had put off buying because the hardcover edition was expensive.) “Should I open it?” He nodded.

I tore the wrapping off and laughed in surprise. I was holding a Kindle Fire. I know I looked puzzled. “I know you like your books,” he began. “But you’re also a tech person. Maybe it’s time you gave this a shot.”

He watched me anxiously. And truthfully, I was a little stunned. It was an expensive gamble. But he does know me well, and he knew that if presented with the opportunity, I wouldn’t shut it out.

“I don’t expect you to use it as a tablet, but it gives you a little more flexibility than the older e-Readers, so perhaps that will change your experience,” he continued. “I really got this for you to read books. The other stuff it can do is a bonus. It sort of complements the other things you do online, like social media and blogging. It just provides another outlet … if you can find WiFi.”

I thanked him—enthusiastically—and went about setting it up. But I was still a little confused about how I felt about the device.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with other people who use e-Readers. I do have a problem when they insist that my method of reading is flawed. And such a discussion resulted in a heated debate with a colleague, which I am teased about to this day. I understand what some of the benefits might be, but I prefer physical books. I have a hard time with audio books, though that’s the primary means by which a good friend of mine consumes literature. I like to print journal articles out and mark them with my own notes. But I’ll admit that it’s not always easy collecting and referencing those notes, or storing those journal articles (all that paper!), or carrying a few physical books around all day every day as I am wont to do.

I have started to do more of my journal reading online—cutting, pasting, and tagging have pretty much replaced by Post-Its and stickies. And one day in a desperate bid for reading material, I downloaded some free Classics to my iPhone and read them while I waited for my train. But having to focus on that small screen gave me a crick in my neck and that idea never really had any staying power for me anyway. It was a temporary thing—and I felt a bit like an addict scrambling for a fix and ready to take it in whatever form I could get it. And at the moment, I was grateful for a means of passing the time. Granted, reading on an iPhone is not the same as reading on a tablet or e-Reader, but e-reading seems a bit like having virtual sex: it fills a need without being satisfying. There’s something to be said for turning a physical page—feeling the texture of the paper between your fingers and anticipating the coming words. e-Reading is just not quite the same thing.

Anyway, I’ve read five books on my new Fire and here’s my take on it:

  • Instant book gratification. A book, any time, any where. As many as I could possibly want. And it goes in my bag. Except for one, but I’ll happily buy that one in print to add it to the D’Costa Library.
  • Typos. Why are there so many typos? Seriously, in every book I read there were several typos, and it was distracting as hell. These weren’t self-published books, but titles from best-selling authors whom I presume have access to copyeditors. A friend assured me that with his device he had not noticed this to be a problem. So is it a QA issue? And if it is, WHEN will it be fixed?
  • A portable news stand? One of the ways I thought I’d really be able to put the Fire to use was with my subscriptions. I thought that if I moved them over to the digital format, it would accomplish a few things: fewer paper copies hanging around the house, less chance of my subscriptions going missing in the mail (which has been a slight problem in the past), and more flexibility in terms of which ones I have access to at any given moment. I previewed a National Geographic and I was really disappointed. Where were the photos that go along with the articles? They lend so much to the experience of NatGeo. Wired was a better experience. I understand how media adds to the size of the file and transfer speeds, but if it’s an integral part of the experience as it is in certain publications, it can be a major loss to the reader. It seems I might have to pick and choose in terms of transferring to digital subscriptions, which I can do—and maybe I’ll prune my subscriptions along the way.
  • Close reading. I seem to be more inclined to skim in digital formats. This might be a habit I picked up from reading online overall. When holding a physical book or document, I read more closely. And I think this is a widespread phenomenon. Comment threads often reveal that there isn’t a lot of close reading happening online. Too many angry diatribes are based on a misreading that could be avoided if the person had read the preceding or following sentence or had fully digested what was being discussed.
  • Distractions. The Fire is WiFi friendly. That means I can have my email sync-ed and I can browse online. That’s great, but those things are also the reason it sometimes takes all morning for me to read a blog post. They’re distractions. Fortunately, the slower browser and the frustratingly unintuitive keyboard create a bit of a barrier that I can use to my advantage—though it is nice to have the option. In many ways, I’ve just gotten used to doing many of those things on my smart phone, so it seems more likely that if I want to look something up quickly or Tweet something, I’ll grab my phone rather than go online with the Fire, presuming it’s connected to the Internet.

I’ve also noticed that I assess e-books differently than I do their physical counterparts. Online, I’m more inclined to read reviews. At the store, I can make these assessments myself—read a page or two, investigate artwork, etc. While I might go into a bookstore to find a specific book, when I’m browsing my impulse buys are based more on my own judgments. In the absence of those markers, I tend to rely on reviews.

The shape and feel have also taken some getting used to. It’s not due to design because the Fire is light and sleek. It’s just the nature of the thing: books will give a little in your hands. Devices in general don’t do that. The real test will come this weekend for my e-Reader, however: I have a new ethnography to read and I’ll likely want to take notes, so we’ll see how it delivers on that, especially when it comes time for me to find and reference those notes. It may very well be that my Post-Its and stickies get retired for good, which might be sort of exciting.

As I was downloading my first book (thinking, “Hm, instant access to reading material might not be a bad thing.”), S put a small envelope on the table next to me. It was a gift card. “You can still get physical books, too,” he assured me. “This isn’t meant to replace that.”

And it won’t. But it is handy. And anything that keeps reading material within the grasp of my fingers can’t be all bad, can it?

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Southern Fried Scientist 11:12 am 01/9/2012

    The extended Southern Fried Family all got Fires for the holidays this year two. I’m a bibliophile too and wasn’t expecting to enjoy the eReader experience, but after about half an hour I forgot that I wasn’t holding a book, and just enjoyed the experience.

    One thing I have noticed is those damn “% read” status bars. Maybe it’s because I grew up with video games, but I see a book on my carousel that’s 76% read and I’m thinking “gottafinishgottafinishgottafinish”.

    I also like that, as someone in a rural community, I can subscribe to newspapers that otherwise wouldn’t be delivered to my county, and not just the big ones like WSJ and NYT, but the major regional papers, too.

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:46 am 01/9/2012

    Oh, yeah! The % read bars drive me a little crazy too for the same reason. I keep thinking “Just a little more, just a little longer.”

    One thing I wonder is whether it might be easier for me to put something down if it just isn’t my cup of tea. I rarely ever don’t finish physical books because I’ve picked them, but since I’m relying heavily at the moment on reader reviews to select my “just for fun” books, I wonder if I’d be more likely to walk away from something I just don’t enjoy.

    And you make an excellent point about the subscriptions–I can definitely see how that would be a great benefit for folks who don’t otherwise have access.

    All in all, it hasn’t been a terrible experience, so we’ll see how it delivers with the note-taking.

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  3. 3. OgreMk5 1:08 pm 01/9/2012

    I’ve had the Kindle1 since it first came out and I actually surprised myself a time or two by reaching up to turn the page.

    I just got a Fire and have used it more for videos and music so far. I had a lot of downloaded books on my old Kindle and there are difficulties getting them onto the Fire and I can’t read on airplanes anyway.

    I would be very careful about magazine subscriptions. Most (even Wired) are still not up to print quality on tablets and e-readers.

    BTW: In case you’re missing it, there is an option to change the Fire pages to black letters on a tan background. It’s much closer to print than the glaring white background.

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  4. 4. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 1:15 pm 01/9/2012

    Right now I am a bit hesitant about my magazine subscriptions because it seemed to take a lifetime to download. My expectations are definitely a product of Internet instant gratification! I’m a little surprised to hear that there is difficulty transferring books to your Fire—are there different e-Reader editions? I’m assuming that your purchases are stored online somewhere, but the idea of my library being trapped on a device just gave me chills. (Though on the plus side, in an emergency, it would be extremely easy to save said library.)

    Thanks for the tip on the page options. It was actually one of the first things I did. Please keep the tips coming—I’m sure there’s plenty to learn!

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  5. 5. denysYeo 7:24 pm 01/9/2012

    Some good observations on the use of an e-reader. I would agree with, what I think is one of your points, that the two approaches to accessing print are complementary – rather than one versus the other. I think that as we use both e-readers and books we will become more aware of situations where it is better to use one or the other and hopefully we will be able to get the best of both worlds.

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:53 pm 01/9/2012

    One of the great things of eReaders in general is that they seem to have encouraged more people to actually read, so that’s certainly a plus worth mentioning. Now I think it’s about figuring out what format and device works best for you, whether that’s printed books or digital material. And yes, it may be that some material is better suited to one over the other, depending on lifestyle and personal preferences. One of the exciting things is that we have a chance here to really tailor our experience to meet our preferences!

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  7. 7. notscientific 1:37 pm 01/10/2012

    Krystal, I’m wondering if you don’t get tired (as in physically tired) when you’ve been staring at the Fire for too long. The main problem with reading on a computer screen is that the screen is backlit and it tires my eyes. I don’t have a Fire, but I have a Kindle keyboard which comes with eInk. It’s a great technology: the screen isn’t backlit but instead looks like print. And it doesn’t tire my eyes at all. I can read and read and read, no problems!

    Re. typos, I’ve been reading hit fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and it’s loaded with typos. Annoying.

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  8. 8. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 1:52 pm 01/10/2012

    notscientific, I haven’t really noticed any fatigue. Although, I probably spend up to 10 hours a day looking at a screen, so perhaps I just don’t notice it as much as others? The husband has found me on many occasions fast asleep with a book nearby—the danger with the Fire is that if I fall asleep and drop it, it’ll break!

    Glad I’m not the only one to have been seen the typos. But WHY are they there? Ack!

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  9. 9. MemTiger 11:30 am 01/11/2012

    I identify with so much of what you wrote here. I use an iPad, but I bought three Kindles for my nieces and am waiting for reports of their reading.

    Millard’s Destiny of the Republic was my first ebook and I found, at most, one typo. The second book I read was about a bookseller and there were so many typos that I finally started to highlight them! But there were many grammatical errors, too, so who knows if there were actually typos or if the author was just a lazy writer.

    I like to make notes in hardcopy books and I have not adapted to making notes the ebook way, yet. iAnnotate permits writing on the ebook page with a stylus (or finger), so that’s good.

    I have not mastered the ability to keep my fingers from inadvertantly touching the screen and flipping forward or back several pages…..or completely to another app. I do like the ability to have many books available in one small device. Educational books are fantastic; the graphics, video, and other media really provide an outstanding learning opportunity. What would I have done if I had had such devices available, when I was a student!

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  10. 10. OgreMk5 12:04 pm 01/11/2012

    My problem with the e-books is that the Fire is very specifically designed to be Amazon friendly and other-not-so-friendly. Various websites have many free books (Baen Free Library, 5th Imperium, Guttenberg, etc) and it is very difficult to get those into the Fire book folder.

    It’s pretty easy to get them into the docs folder (just e-mail them to your Fire). This weekend, I plan on spending some time doing some light hacking and see if I can get documents moved into the books folder.

    The Acase appears to be the best case (in my experience). You can also ‘like’ the Amazon App store on facebook and they present a ‘free app of the day’. Mostly they aren’t useful, but you find an occasional gem.

    There is a popular e-magazine reader (Zonio or Zanio or something) that can be hacked into the Fire without interfering with the Amazon store.

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  11. 11. dr8688 1:39 pm 01/11/2012

    I too am a bibliophile, many bookshelves, books stacked upon others in the bookshelves, and am very reluctant to get an e-reader. My husband and youngest daughter have been trying to get me to buy one since they came out because I can’t seem to go a week without buying a book. Seeing the comments here, it doesn’t seem like I’ll buy one soon. I can’t stand typos, they drive me crazy. I, too, love the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of the pages, and the artwork of the book covers, all of which you cannot get with any of the e-readers. Everyone tells me they’re easier to put in your purse to carry with you, I carry my books with me everywhere I go and read them when I have to wait, so I don’t see the problem there.
    I do see the benefits of having an e-reader also, they’re lighter, able to download many books, and surf the internet, but my i-phone does that also. So if I’m in a bind all I have to do is pick up my i-phone to do all I want.
    Until they quit making them or get too expensive to buy,I think I’ll stick with my physical books for now. I know I’m one of a “dying breed”, as my husband likes to tell me, but I’m not ready to give in yet. I guess I’m just stubborn that way.

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  12. 12. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 2:38 pm 01/11/2012

    MemTiger, I haven’t mastered that either. I usually wind up flipping through pages when I try to insert the bookmark. Most annoying.

    I definitely think there’s a lot of potential here as an educational tool. Having all of my textbooks within reach at any time would have been awesome, as would the chance to digitize notes and references. And the possibilities for other media are definitely worth exploring. Students are already carrying laptops and netbooks to class, why not an e-Reader? Great point!

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  13. 13. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 2:41 pm 01/11/2012

    Ogre, thanks for the tip on the jacket. My Fire is sitting on the bedside table because I haven’t gotten a cover for it yet … and I should probably get a move on that if it’s ever going to actually leave the house :)

    Would PDFs work in the docs folder as well? (I have so much to learn!) It would make the transition for journal articles easier if they did. Good luck with the hacking—drop us a line and let us know how it worked out.

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  14. 14. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 2:45 pm 01/11/2012

    dr8688, believe me, I hear ya. I am NOT giving up my physical books—you’ll have to pry those out of cold hands ;-)

    But the benefits are, well, benefits. My back and shoulder do ache from lugging around the books and articles I do carry, and I am truthfully a bit tired of carrying both a tote and bag to and from work every day. I think as denysYeo points out, we’ll find that different formats work better for different material. It may be that magazines become the champion of e-Readers—think of the possibility for interactivity! We just have to wait and see how this story unfolds.

    But nothing will ever, ever beat having your favorite paperback with you at the beach, in my opinion.

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  15. 15. Hasufin 5:44 pm 01/13/2012

    I am technically half-owner of a Kindle. I think I’ve seen it half a dozen times since we bought it.

    That said, I’ve had a few issues pointed out to me about e-readers.
    First, the price – not of the reader itself, which is of course expensive – but of the e-books. On Amazon, the “Kindle edition” of many e-books is the same as the *paperback*. I don’t know what percentage of the cost of a book is tied up in shipping, printing, etc., but I think I’m justified in feeling it’s a bit of a rip-off, especially after paying for the reader too.

    Second, there’s no secondhand market for e-books. I had a friend describe how, when she was a kid, her family was very poor and she got her books from goodwill by saving change. e-books simply don’t offer that option at all. You can’t buy used e-books, and a kid, or someone who is poor, can’t afford to buy the reader anyway.

    Third, of course, is that not all books are available in electronic form, and many of the ones you would most want are unavailable. For example, some friends and I are reading _The Tale of Genji_. My girlfriend wanted to put it on the Kindle rather than carry that hernia-inducing monster – but she found that there are no unabridged versions available! That has held true for many of the weightier books I’d have liked to carry around.

    I don’t think it’s a bad medium; I expect to see it getting ever-wider adoption over time. However, we’re still in the early stages and it’s not quite there yet.

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  16. 16. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:49 am 01/16/2012

    As someone who has a fair number of second hand books, I’m disappointed I didn’t catch that as an e-Reader point. I’ve “saved” so many of them—and so many are now favorites that I should have caught that! So it doesn’t seem that physical books are going anywhere, but for a large segment of the population, they do seem to be fading as a popular medium. My brother-in-law, who as someone in his early twenties represents a generation that has never had to span a digital/analog divide, has taken to his Kindle (non-Fire) immediately. It will save him a fair amount of money on textbooks, which are cheaper as e-Books, and taking and indexing notes in this way is second nature to him. All of my points of concern were negligible for him.

    Truthfully, I’m sort of glad some books aren’t available in an electronic format because it forces you to have a different experience of reading. But it will be interesting to see where this takes us.

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  17. 17. Hasufin 11:01 am 01/20/2012

    I didn’t think about the secondhand market, or rather lack thereof, until a friend (and professional author) who grew up rather poor pointed it out. It’s very hard to grasp the real effects of poverty in America without being poor.

    Have you, by any chance, read the essay “Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives”? I assume from your wording that you have, but just checking.
    I expect that the recent move to use e-readers for school textbooks will be a major driver in adoption – kids will be growing up who simply won’t know a time when an e-book wasn’t mundane.

    This essay sheds a bit more light on the book business:
    http://www.cherryh.com/www/bookbiz.htm
    What it doesn’t go into detail on, however, is the issue of warehousing. As it was explained to me, warehoused books are classified such that they are taxed, and as a result publishers don’t warehouse printed books. Add in that there is a not-inconsequential cost to setting up a print run, and there are time limits on licensing – separately for the book and for the cover art, in some cases! – it’s very difficult to get a copy of a book that’s out of print. e-books don’t solve all of those problems, but they do get past the physical availability. And it costs nothing to warehouse an e-book.

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  18. 18. AddaBright 3:48 pm 11/16/2012

    I like Hasufin’s comment. I’ve been able to get many books that are out of print or just far out of copyright date through an e-reader (I also didn’t think I’d ever like one. I love the smell of bindings, the feel of turning pages, the particular shape and wear/tear of books that you’ve made into personal friends.). They are good for some things. It is also true that some of the services are loads better than others. My husband’s ipad, for instance, has several book-reading programs on it. One of them, the one I use the most, allows you to turn the pages like a real book, (Like, but never truly as good.) and has tinted pages.

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