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February 4, 2009

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

The Quick Read

John Siracusa has written an interesting "history of the e-book" from the publisher's point of view at Ars this week. Siracusa worked for Peanut Press, one of the earliest digital book vendors--I remember them from when I was using a Palm IIIxe to read on long car trips in college. The article sags around the middle, where (as the site's resident Mac greybeard) he complains incredulously about Apple's failure to enter the market in any organized way. One wonders why he'd want them in the market in the first place, given the proclivity toward censorship that they've already shown in their app store, but I guess for some people the dream dies hard.

Still, toward the end, Siracusa discusses his own conversion to e-books on a Palm device, and it rings familiar to me:

At a certain point, I realized I'd read my last five or six books on this thing. Without noticing, I'd gone off paper books entirely. Only then did I take the time to examine what had happened. Why was reading off of this tiny PDA not just tolerable, but (apparently) satisfying enough to keep me from returning to paper books?

Here's what I came up with. First, I was more likely to have my Palm with me than a book. When I had an opportunity to read during the day, my Palm was there, and a paper book, had I been in the middle of one, would not have been. (Incidentally, this also lead to a vast expansion of the definition of "an opportunity to read.") Second, I could read in the dark next to my sleeping wife without disturbing her with bright lights and page-turning noises. (The tan-on-black reader color theme was affectionally known as "wife mode" at Peanut Press.) Third, I was loathe to give up the ability to tap any word I didn't understand and get its dictionary definition.

Having now owned the Kindle for just over a year now, and having read e-books for many years, Siracusa's comments on convenience have the most resonance for me. That's why I like the format, and if it takes off, that's why I expect it to happen.

The great advantage of reading on a PDA, back when I owned one, was that it was always there. It eliminates downtime, and turns it into just another chance to get some reading done. Belle makes fun of me, because I carry gadgetry with me everywhere to deal with boredom, but there's something to be said for literature as an interstitial activity.

What Amazon did right with the Kindle was that they built on that on-demand aspect of the e-book. Sure, the hardware itself is larger, but people have bags and briefcases for a reason. More importantly, that Whispernet connection means that I can not only continue reading anywhere, I can start reading anywhere I want. Someone can mention a book to me, I can say "yeah, that sounds interesting," and in a couple of minutes (assuming it's on the service, for which the odds are not too bad) I can be reading it. There's no physical trip involved at all, and that's a vastly superior experience.

See, I like computers, and I like hardware that interoperates with them. I'm a fan of phones that can connect to my Outlook address book, and I like being able to browse the filesystem of my devices. But when it comes down to it, if I have to return to home base to load up a new set of books, I might as well just be reading on a laptop screen. And when I'm traveling, if I have to unpack the laptop to buy new reading material, I'm not going to bother--it's easier to go over and buy a magazine. More than anything else, it's the convenience that sets e-books apart from their physical counterparts. The Kindle gets that right: despite all its other flaws, it is focused on being a very, very convenient device. And for that I love it.

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