Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The whole Kindle/Nook thing

So I've been avoiding writing about the whole e-reader debate for a while for several reasons. The first is that it's been absolutely done to death. Since they exploded on to the scene about a year and a half ago, all anyone's done is discuss them. Are they the end of the printed word? Are they good, bad, or indifferent? And by the way, anyone hear of any good sales on them?

Another reason is that I don't know much about the debate. I'm not a techie. I was without a cell phone from 2005 until last Christmas, and my co-workers laughed pretty hard watching me try to figure out my future sister-in-law's old Android. I don't have a burning desire for an e-reader, although The Sedentary Vagabond let me mess around with her Nook last week.

The third reason is that it's a debate based mostly on emotion. Either you're seduced by the ease and convenience of Kindle, Nook et al, or you're in love with the tactile smell and feel of books. How can you argue that?

But three things changed my mind. The first was a conversation with a different co-worker today (we'll call him Gibby) who told us of his recent trip to Barnes and Noble. I don't think I've visited one since I picked up "A Dance with Dragons" by George RR Martin over the summer, but apparently they've made some changes. Gibby says it's very Nook-focused now, with the music and DVDs eliminated, and a lot fewer books. He described it as going to an Apple store.

This change seems to be depicted on the New Yorker cover, which also influenced my decision to write about them, as did the fact that I had no other ideas for today.

I can definitely see their appeal. A Kindle or Nook would eliminate the problem I was writing about a few days ago, where I feel as if I'm drowning in books. I'll end up selling the ones I don't want, which is a hassle, and I'll have to keep going through this process over the years. With a Kindle or Nook, hit delete, no problem. It would also be nice to have an endless variety of books available to you on vacation. I usually lug several pounds with me and can work myself into a frenzy packing: but what if I'm not in the mood for that one? What if that one isn't any good? What if I'm feeling more serious? What if this one is too fluffy? Another problem eliminated by a Nook or a Kindle.

The instantaneous nature of it also appeals. In my travels through the blogosphere, I came across a woman who blogs on Canadian fiction. She wrote an article about an interesting-looking book. I wrote down the title and author, but if I had a Kindle or a Nook, it would already be downloaded to it. And by the way, when you're out in public with your Kindle or your Nook, no one knows whether you're reading a trashy romance novel or catching up on back issues of The Economist.

But at the same time, they do have disadvantages. You'll have to keep charging it. My Android spends as much time dead as it does working because I always forget to charge it. I'd be irritated if I wanted to read a book, and couldn't because of a stupid dead battery. You also can't take it in the bathtub with you. I'm assuming that the technology will improve, so you'll have to update every few years, and what, transfer all of your books, I guess? Sounds annoying.

As The Sedentary Vagabond
pointed out, with a Nook or Kindle, you can't tell where you are in a book. If you downloaded "Cannery Row" and didn't check out the page count, you wouldn't know how short it is. You don't know how to tell whether you're almost done with the book. You don't know whether finishing the chapter before bed is realistic. I do that constantly with my books, so I think that would annoy me greatly.

A physical book prevents revisions later, too. I believe there was a case recently where they pulled all of the virtual copies of a particular book for some reason. Just gone, wiped out. I don't know whether it was a licensing dispute, or whether it was that well-publicized case of a recent mystery that turned out to be totally plagarized. But the implications are pretty scary. It would be easy to destroy every copy of something with a click of a button, or revise it to better suit someone else's needs.

So despite the fact that Barnes and Noble is peddling fewer of these "book" things, I do think they'll be around for a while. People will still want a physical copy. People like the tactile aspect of books. A lot of readers are older and not tech-savvy. Others just feel they don't need the expense in this economy. Others may prefer aspects of the physical-book experience for a lot of the reasons I outlined. If you're a busy mom who does her reading in the bathtub after the kids are in bed for the night, if you plan your reading around the length of chapters, if you spend lots of time away from outlets, the Nook or Kindle may not be for you.

But they'll have their devotees, too, and that's also great. I hope it will encourage not only more reading, but more writing too. What could be cheaper to produce than a digital book? I interview many local authors for my paper, and their careers wouldn't be possible without internet-based on-demand publishers. Maybe de-books will be the next frontier and the bleeding edge in independent writing. And in the meantime, I don't see why the printed and digital word can't co-exist.

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