E-Book Malaise

Posted On Dec 3 2007 by

I’ve had a few e-mails from folks asking me why I have not reported on the Amazon Kindle yet. As one who was once labeled the “E-Book Evangelist,” certainly I would have an opinion on this one. Frankly, I almost don’t know what to say, and the usual 3-day fermentation period that is my writing style, which usually results in a zippy 250-word blog post, just was not coming.

One of the phrases that I used to use about e-books is “the second mouse always gets the cheese.” I thought that for sure early failures in e-book devices would lead to the perfect handheld device, software that made digital reading a pleasure, and a DRM acceptable to most libraries—or at least their patrons. I sincerely thought that by now we would have a device that smelled like a paperback, and we still don’t have anything that even feels like one. Since the early days of digital books, many a rodent has died upon the altar of the e-book mousetrap. The cheese itself (digitized content, in this painful metaphor) has aged gracefully and gotten bigger. But the perfect device, the perfect software, still eludes us.

That said, I don’t want to dwell on the Kindle itself. There are plenty (plenty,plenty) of blogs, reviews, and even videos mostly deriding Kindle’s ability to not be more like an iPod. I’m not going to criticize its look and feel because $400 is above my technical curiosity threshold. Really, Amazon, did you think that making me choose between this oddly colored (is that 1993 PC beige?) e-book device and a Sony Blu-Ray was giving me any choice at all? Though I don’t have one in hand, my biggest disappointment is that the pictures I have seen make it look a bit too much like the grainy snapshot that was available when I did blog about Kindle over a year ago.

I do not find disparity between belief in the power of the printed word and the power of the word digitized. I have said all along that an e-book is not a device, it is not a piece of software—it is the work in electronic form. How a publisher chooses to distribute that work, and how a person chooses to consume it is where the disparity begins. —Your’s truly, Computers in Libraries, May 2005

So we’re still down to distribution and consumption being the biggest barriers. These are the topics being debated in the circles of Google Books and the OCA. And now Amazon has distracted us with their new little device. I really only want to see one for the supposed wonder that is the e-ink display. As I have been cleaning out my office, I came across my old RocketBook and SoftBook. I still like them both as devices, but due to technological and content restrictions (and some financial mismanagement), they were doomed to failure.

So maybe we need to take another step back. The Kindle is just another device, like the iPod, and the Palm, like the RocketBook. Tastes for consumption are hard to predict, but content providers can put themselves in the stream regardless. I grow increasingly pessimistic about a publisher’s ability to put itself in that stream without hyperbolic DRM paranoia.

The e-book scene is so different than it was when I first got involved, yet the arguments for and against seem to be getting circular in nature. What exactly will get us out of this circle, out of this e-book malaise, I do not know.

Last Updated on: January 19th, 2024 at 12:22 am, by Andrew K. Pace

Written by Andrew K. Pace

2 responses to “E-Book Malaise

  1. Its curious how a perturbing aspect of an aura or smell or tactile feature frequently comes up in comments about the physical book. It is as though there is a suspicion that it means something.

    The basis of tactile investigation prompting assimilation of concepts is deeply embedded from evolutionary experience. Primate dexterity and distinctive right and left handed manipulation prompted both neurology and evolutionary advance of the brain. Conceptualizations were prompted by tactile investigations and arms leveraged actions. This learning path of the hands prompting the mind is exemplified by the codex book. Later cultural traits of personal possession of objects including actions of portability and display are well reflected by the codex. And book possession can also be shared across time and culture indicating the codex capacity for persistent existence and library accumulation. The physical configuring of books in classified library arrays prompts researchers to conceive latent books between and among those shelved. Conveying concepts in physical objects is not a paradox, but an embedded mechanism of learning.

    But here is an interesting thing about screen reading. It also has an unsettling aura of its own. We like to watch the screen in a mild hypnosis as if we were watching a campfire. What is all that about?

    The first screen was the night sky. White dots on a black field. (screens still work best in darkened environments) Patterns were imposed including omens, constellations and astrophysics, but it remains a field receptive to almost any pattern and any perceived pattern is vulnerable to a realization that it is an illusion. We want stars and pixels to be objects, but they are not objects that can be possessed, they are objects that can be watched.

    What if reading combines possession and watching into a composite experience? That would be pretty fascinating! It would also begin to explain a disconcertion with formats that feature one or the other of the component experiences.