Just a few months ago I saw an eReader at the Willamette Writers conference, and was a little scared of it. It seemed like an alien or something that was probably an enemy because it was different. Books are dear friends of mine, and I didn’t like the idea of anything threatening them, no matter how much I enjoy my other gadgets.
But this fall I tried an eBook as an experiment. I needed to do a quick read of a novel for my book group and I heard that Kindle and Nook had eReader apps that I could use on my smart phone (it’s Android, if anyone cares). So I looked into it. I found out that the apps for these eReaders are free. I was interested. I found out that I could also install these apps on my computer for free. More interested. And a quick scan of the eBook stores online told me that electronic books typically cost the same as paperbacks if not much, much less. The novel I was looking for was available for about $5. It seemed worth a shot.
And you know what? I loved it. I could adjust the text to a size that worked for me, and I could adjust the brightness of the page. I always feel a tiny surge of accomplishment when I turn a page in a book, so I really didn’t mind turning the page as frequently as the tiny pages on my screen required. (Read: The pages were tiny, but the font was a normal size.) I could check the table of contents, jump to a chapter, and bookmark pages just like I do with my paper books (in some ways, far more efficiently). The only thing I really missed was having the option to underline passages and write notes in the margins. I do love margin notes.
There were three moments that sold me on eBooks:
- First was the moment when I realized that I didn’t need to lug a book around in my purse all day — I could carry my book in my pocket, along with everything else that’s on my phone. Maybe this means I just really enjoy my phone. But having the book in my pocket was a revelation. It meant I could read whenever I had a free moment. I had it out in line at the DMV, the bank and the grocery store, and on a long car ride (plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter). It felt much better to use those moments for something as peaceful as reading a book instead of repeatedly checking my email or playing Tetris.
- Second was the moment when I plugged my phone into the outlet by my nightstand, laid back on a pillow and read myself to sleep by the light of my eBook screen. I have always loved reading myself to sleep, but paper books can be pretty awkward to hold while laying down. (Can I get an amen?) And paper books require lighting of some kind. So I will admit that it’s really, really weird to take your electronics to bed. But when it involves a book, I find it to be downright magical.
- Third was the moment when I realized that I could use the eReader apps on my computer and download classics for free. As an English teacher in training, I see this as a goldmine. It means that I can have the entire text of, say, a Shakespeare play on the same computer where I am writing my lesson plans. It means that I can do quick searches for key words in that Shakespeare play and copy excerpts directly onto lesson handouts. Just writing about it makes me want to do a dance.
- An addendum: I haven’t done this yet, but I am super-excited to try knitting while reading an eBook on my laptop. Two of my favorites at once!
Admittedly, I have reservations about getting new books on the cheap from a monster bookseller such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I still want to support my neighborhood book store. And I wonder if someone is losing out when a book is marked down by, um, 70 percent. At the same time, can it really cost that much to produce an e-book? It seems like it has to be far cheaper than printing, and cutting down on printing could provide enormous environmental benefits. But it’s a complex picture.
Totally by coincidence, Google unveiled its electronic book store today, and it sounds promising. According to this NPR story, the site sells eBooks from large and small publishers, and it can be accessed from a smart phone, Nook device or your computer. You can use the service from any device with an internet connection, and you have the option to download a book so you can read it even without an internet connection. I see all this as key in making electronic books much more widely available. It means that you don’t have to have a fancy device to use the books. It means that teachers can share eBooks with students, and that students can easily access those books on school computers, or on their computers at home. Google books cost about the same as paperbacks and many classics are free, as they are with other services. (Weirdly, I just looked up the Google bookstore while logged in to my Gmail and somehow the program knew of three classic books I have on my phone. That’s either really cool or kind of creepy.)
This whole experience reminded me of a panel I attended at this year’s Wordstock festival in Portland called Brave New World: The Future of Publishing. Industry experts and authors Lauren Kessler, Rhonda Hughes, and Kevin Smokler made up the panel, and discussion was facilitated by Richard Meeker, publisher of Portland’s Willamette Week. Watch for highlights from the discussion in my next post!