Green Eggs and E-ham

Until recently, I was a very conservative, anti-e-book redneck who proudly said that you could have my paperback when you took it from my cold, dead fingers. Now… er, not so much.

I was never a Luddite. Well, not much of one. I got my first computer when I was ten. That’s not saying much these days, but mind you, that was 1977. I grew up as a calculator-watch-wearing nerd, taking down my BBS only to write science fiction. Sufficed to say, I embraced digital technology from an early age.

But the idea of reading fiction digitally never appealed to me. My first option was to read it on the computer screen, and that was a non-starter. I did not yet understand the differences between light-emitting vs. light-reflecting displays, but I did know that looking at a screen for two long caused fatigue, eye-strain, and general crankiness. Why would I ever trade my printed books for that? Heck, even when I needed to read my own stuff, I always printed it first, and that was back in the days of the 2-minutes-per-page dot matrix printer. But still, print was the way to go.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to reject long-form reading on the computer. Journalists and bloggers found that a different style of writing was required to hold people’s attention on the screen. Prosaic prose was out. Bold punches were in, along with

  • bonus
  • bullet
  • points!!!

Blech! Is that what fiction would have to become to be read on screen?

Next came reading on the smart phone. My wife did this some, but I never understood how she could stand it. The screen was tiny. The font was small and crappy. She had to turn the page every nine seconds. Plus, about the only books available for it were out of the Gutenberg project. On the other hand, she read Dumas’s Three Musketeers that way, so it was not entirely without value.

Then came e-Ink and the Kindle. Now, I’d been aware of electronic ink for a while. I saw it years before in a technology demonstration from someone at Xerox Parc labs, and it struck me as another great idea that Xerox would likely never successfully turn into a product. It was from that demonstration that I became aware of the difference between light-emissive displays (CRT’s or LCD flatscreens) and light-reflective displays, like, well… paper. Light-emissive displays cause eye strain much more rapidly than paper. I suppose it’s because we’re fundamentally staring at a light bulb, making out the tiny markings on its surface. Looking at paper is like looking at everything else in the world, and our eyes are much happier with that.

But still, even with e-Ink, I was not eager to run to the Kindle and e-books. For starters, I felt the technology was not mature enough. It wasn’t the display. It was the format of the books themselves. There were too many, frequently one per reader, and who knew which readers or formats would be around for more than a year or two? “I’m glad you enjoyed my book, but I’m afraid you bought it on BetaMAX and will no longer be able to read it.”

I heard some early adopters say that we shouldn’t bother with standard formats – they’re impossible anyway. Really? Anyone ever heard of JPEG images for the web? Yes, there are also GIF’s and PNGs, but my point is that every browser can display all three. It’s not like you need to format the images on your web page for Internet Explorer vs. Firefox. Perhaps a better analogy is the HTML wars between Netscape and Microsoft, and yet you can still read pretty much any page on any browser. E-books had a long way to go.

The other thing that bugged me was questions over the IP handling. I could buy a paper book, read it, and then let my wife read it. We would do that a lot, pushing books from one in-pile to the other’s. But as I understood it, it would be impossible to “loan” your e-book to another person’s e-reader, even if you are living in the same house. Plus, there were a few early gaffes where Amazon pulled e-book content, allowing a book you were actively reading to simply disappear from your Kindle. Big Brother anyone?  Ummm, no. I like the permanence and flexibility of physical paper, thank you very much.

So with all that going against e-books, you can see why I planned to be clinging to my paperbacks, even with my cold dead fingers.

So how on earth did I ever convert?

Over the summer, I ran into increasingly reliable statistics that sales of e-books were rising rapidly, likely to eclipse sales of paper books sometime in 2011 to 2013. That alone did not convince me e-books were ok. I happen to believe that yes, a billion Chinamen can be wrong. However, as an aspiring author who pays attention to the publishing world, I could not help but see how much e-books were causing a stir in the book-related business circles. I figured that if these were become such a big deal, I should at least see what they were like to better understand what was happening.

So, I bought one, convinced it would be a terrible experience, and that I would just have that much more vitriol and disdain for the e-book e-vangelizers.

Well… damn. This isn’t so bad after all.

In fact, parts of it are pretty nice.

Specifically, I really enjoy being able to adjust the font-size. My impending blindness, er, I mean my age-induced presbyopia means that I can’t read the small print anymore. Even with reading glasses, it is growing difficult. And it seems to me that as books get longer, the print is getting even smaller. So, instead of squinting to read some nine or ten point font in a paperback, I’m reading along in my Kindle at a nice twelve or fourteen point font.

Furthermore, I find the Kindle easier to hold than paperbacks, and that’s saying a lot because one of the main selling points of the old mass-market paperbook was that it was easy to hold one-handed. (No, not like that you dirty-minded monkey. Sheesh!) But the problem was I had to keep shifting it around page by page. I had to keep at least some of my fingers on top of the pages to hold it open, but I needed to constantly shift them around to not obscure that little bit of text at the top, bottom or side of the page. (In addition to shrinking text, I’m convinced page margins have been getting smaller over the years as well.) The Kindle can be held with most of the hand behind it and only one fingertip, likely the thumb, hanging onto an edge to enhance the grip as well as be poised near the page turn button.

Also on holding paperbacks, I would need to shift how the book was angled from one page to the next, particularly in bed where the only light was from a bedside lamp. The best angle for reading the left-side page was bad for reading the right-side page, and vice-versa. I can position the kindle in one spot, and just keep going.

For that matter, I don’t even need to hold the Kindle at all. I can set it flat on a counter or prop it in my lap. This has led me to start reading the Kindle in places I never would have attempted to read a book, e.g. while cooking or even eating.

But the bottom line is that I’m reading faster and more often on the Kindle than I was in paper. The larger font has certainly helped my words per minute reading speed, but it has also reduced my eye strain from reading the smaller fonts, and that means I’m reading longer before deciding it’s time to turn out the light and go to sleep. And the ease of holding it means I’m reading in places and situations where I never would have bothered to even bring a book before. That means more hours spent reading rather than looking around for things to distract my brain from its pervasive boredom.

For example, I recently read a longish book on my Kindle. In paperback form, it’s 448 pages. I read it in about a week. Historically, that’s really fast for me. Normally a book that length would have taken me at least two weeks to read, probably more because this one dragged A LOT. Contrast that with the paperback I’m reading now. It’s the same page length, but it’s an author and series I really like, and I’m eager to find out what happens. After about a week, I’m on page 80.

448 pages per week vs. 80 pages per week. So, how many books to I want to read next year?

Yes, it’s not a scientific experiment, but it’s enough for me to start looking at my in-pile of physical books and think about repurchasing some of them as e-books just so that I can finally get around to reading them.

Now, this whole can’t-loan-it-to-my-wife things still bugs me, but I believe that you can loan some books that way. And if traditional publishers ever start pricing e-books rationally (that’s a whole’nother post), maybe I won’t feel so bad at not being able to loan out my $5 e-book, because after all, I chose not to pay $9 for the physical book.

The format wars seem to be dwindling, with most manufacturers settling on the e-pub format and most others offering a Kindle-format reader on their non-Kindle devices. I’ve even heard rumors that “the next generation” of Kindles will support the e-pub format. Maybe – I’ll believe it when I see it. Still, we’ve moved away from the one format per reader chaos of 2009.

So, if you’re clutching your paperback as tightly as I was in July, let me suggest that you make the relatively small investment in an e-ink reader like the Kindle and at least see what it’s all about. You may find after a while that you too are finding certain advantages.

Then you can join me in the chorus: I do so love green eggs and ham. Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am.