Thoughts on e-books and Kindle

Amazon Kindle Amazon KindleWhen I found out that Amazon had released an International version of their Kindle e-book reader, I knew immediately that I wanted one.  I love the idea of e-books, and e-book readers.  I love the thought that I can carry a bookshelf round in my bag, and that I can add to it wherever and whenever I want to, especially without even needing to mess about with a computer.  Add to this the bookmarking, annotating and searching, and it starts to sound as though the e-book is far superior to simple ink on mere paper.

It’s not that simple though.  I was brought up in a house that was full of books.  I read compulsively as a child, devouring my parent’s bookshelves at an ever increasing rate, as soon as I first learned to read.  When I start to think about it, I find that I want my children to grow up with the same access to books as I have had.  Not unobtrusive insubstantial digital copies that must be sought out, but the real physical object stored in long uneven shelves with all manner of different colours, sizes and bindings.  There’s something magical about actual real books - something in the feel of the paper, and the way they age, picking up marks and coffee stains and wrinkles as you read them and re-read them.  A tablet made of glass and plastic just can’t compete with that.

I suppose that the function of books, which is to say the conveying of stories or information, is captured at least adequately by e-books.  However the physical form of books - the covers, bindings, and pages - this is a different matter.  This design has had centuries of usability testing, with incremental improvements and modernisation along the way.  Although there are some very well designed e-book readers, they just don’t yet come close to having had this level of scrutiny and refinement.

Of course, the other thing about a physical book is that once it is in your possession, you have it.  You can lend it to a friend, register it on bookcrossing.com and give it away, or put it on the shelf, knowing that you can come back to it in 30 years time and read it again.

This seems much less certain with some e-books.  Astonishingly, the publishing industry seems to be devoting effort to the non-problem of pirated e-books rather than the real problem of the decline of reading. So yes, despite the lessons from the music industry, we are to be afflicted with the inflexibility, inconvenience and irritation associated with Digital Rights Management or DRM.

So, if I invest my pennies in Kindle, I won’t be able to lend my books to my friends, or read them on a Sony e-Reader or other device of my choice.  Amazon’s proprietary file format and DRM has seen to that.  The ePub open format for e-books is better, but since it provides a framework for DRM, and not the actual DRM scheme, there’s no guarantee that an ePub reader will read any given ePub book.  The device would have to support the same DRM as well as supporting ePub.

In fact, it’s all just too complicated.  Conveniently for the vendors, therefore, you will probably end up buying the books and the reader from the same source, just to have a level of reassurance that it will be compatible.

I still own (and sometimes even read) books that I bought in 1979. Will I be able to read today’s DRM protected e-Books in in 2039?  In the last 30 years there have been many file formats and media types that have come and gone.  Many of these are extremely difficult to read today.  Do you still have access to a floppy disk drive? What about the ability to read files from Lotus AmiPro, the word processor I remember using when I joined IBM in 1994?  Where will Amazon and its proprietary formats be in 2039?  We have no way to know.

However, despite all these complaints, I have to say that I am reading e-books.

I’m doing it on my iPhone, using the excellent Stanza application from Lexcycle (I hope that their recent acquisition by Amazon bodes well for the future of that company’s e-book strategy).  What am I reading?  Well, Stanza knows about various online libraries, containing a variety of books, both free and otherwise.  I have read a lot of books ranging from The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow, and so have been able to download them all for free and from within the Stanza application.

This has been a positive experience that hints at what would be available with the Kindle, and despite everything, that is what I really want.  The DRM and proprietary nature of the Kindle stick in my throat, but I suppose I get the same thing from Apple, and somehow live with it.

I can’t decide…