The Last Book You’ll Ever Read

As I edit Ships of My Fathers, I’ve been thinking back to my father’s death. Specifically, I remember that towards the end, when it was clear that the second round of chemo was not going to work, he was reading a book on cosmology and faith. As a lifelong scientist and Christian, he was looking for some kind of reconciliation between two oft-conflicting viewpoints. I don’t know if he found what he was looking for, but I do remember thinking about mortality and limited time and that someday, I will be reading the last book I will ever read.

skullandbookWhat kind of book is that going to be?

It might very well be something of a religious nature. I don’t expect that, since I don’t feel I have a lot of open questions in my theological view of the universe, but you never know what you’re going to do when you’re staring death in the eye.

But I like to think, instead, I’ll be reading fiction. Maybe I’ll reread some old favorite tale. Maybe I’ll be tearing my way through some new series that a friend recommended. I have always loved to escape into stories, and I think they will be a great comfort to me in my final days.

If I know the end is coming soon, I don’t think I’ll put the book down when I’m done and declare, “That was the last book.” More likely, I’ll pick up the sequel, because I want to know what happens next.

And isn’t that perhaps the best way to go? With the hunger for story and a thirst for that great mystery of what comes on the next page?

What do you think your last book will be?

On the Death of My Kindle

My Kindle died yesterday. Technically, it’s still on life support, but as soon as I pull my data off, I’m going to pull the plug and let the battery fade out to oblivion.

It was a tragic little accident, the kind you wouldn’t think much of, but it was enough. It slipped from my hand with the cover open, tumbling as it went, and it came down screen-first on the corner of a wastebasket. The electronic components behind the scenes are still functional, but the e-ink display is ruined. The vast majority of the screen is a jumble of vertical and horizontal lines, making the text not merely unreadable but virtually invisible.

I called Amazon right away, but I am now one month past my one-year warranty. They gave me a credit for what amounts to its “trade-in” value and offered me a discount on some quick replacements. I had already been considering upgrading to the new Kindle Paperwhite, so that’s what I opted for. Alas, given the high demand, my order won’t be filled until mid-December. I might hunt around for some in retail stores, but I’m not optimistic about finding any.

So, that brings me to an economics question about the cost of e-books. I’m not going to argue their price point between 99-cents and $14.99. Instead, I want to talk about the burdened cost of the reader. I paid about $160 for my Kindle, and in some ways, that should be considered part of the cost of those e-books I read. But how many books was that?

Here’s where my situation turns away from that of my friends. While I consider myself an avid reader, I realize compared to many, I am a slow reader. Part of this is the actual speed of my eyes passing over the words, and part is the amount of time per day that I devote to putting those words in front of my eyes.

I’ll point to my well-read wife as an example of a fast reader. Just watching her turn pages, I’d say she scans the text at least twice as fast as I do, possibly even pushing three times as fast. She may be an extreme example, but she’s hardly unique. Now, before you point me towards your favorite speed-reading development program, I should point out that my hearing problems are related to dyslexia. It’s possible that may be placing some kind of upper limit on my actual reading speed.

Furthermore, my wife spends more hours of the day reading than I do. Between bedtime reading and little moments through the day, I probably spend an average of 60-90 minutes a day reading books. Again, she’s easily double that, possibly even triple that. Add it all up, and in years that I’ve been hard-pressed to read more than 20 books, she has pushed through 200, ravaging whole shelves of our home library.

How many of those were e-books? For me, it’s been running about 2 out of 3. I’d have to ask my wife to be sure for her, but I’d ballpark hers at a much lower 1 out of 4. It’s not she dislikes her Kindle, but rather that she has a vast backlog of paper books in her in-pile. Seriously, we own a lot of books. My last reliable count was in the 4500 range, but that number is now a decade old. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re well north of 5000 now, possibly even approaching 6000.

So, at our traditional reading rates, I might find myself amortizing that $160 over a mere 14 or 15 books, i.e. over $10 a book. My wife’s per-book cost would be a lot lower, at perhaps $3 per book, though with her Kindle hopefully lasting another year or two, that will drive down the per-book cost to about a buck. And if her e-book percentage increases, it could fall into the pennies per book.

But a funny thing happened last year. I suddenly started reading more. Some of this was the fact that the larger fonts on the Kindle allowed me to consume text at a faster pace, and some was the fact that the Kindle’s size allowed me to haul it around more places that I would not have previously taken a book. In the thirteen months I owned a Kindle, I did not merely read my usual 20-25 books. I read 36 books, an jump of over 50%.

So, at 22 e-books over those 13 months, the amortized cost per book comes down to $7.30. Alas, that’s still too pricy. That’s as much or more than I paid for many of those books. Now, if it had last 2-3 years, that would have dropped into the $2-$3 range, similar to my wife’s. That’s still a little pricey, but that’s not the only issue here.

Because my sudden jump in reading speed raises a different economic question: How much is it worth to me to be able to read 50% more books than before?

We’ve all heard that saying: So many books, so little time. It’s a mantra for the kind of book-junkies I hang with. Our great lament is not that the books cost so much. It’s that they take so long to read, and they just keep showing up. I was telling my daughter recently that there are more books published each year than she will be able to read in her entire life. Even cutting it down to the types of books I like (speculative fiction and niche non-fiction), there are still several thousand published each year, once again pushing that year of published books out to a lifetime of reading for a slow reader like myself.

But to somehow buy the ability to read faster? At that point, I stop thinking of it as a per-book cost. Instead, I start thinking of it as a per-time cost. Boosting my reading speed like that is like buying more time to read, and at those rates, it’s like buying time at 50 cents an hour. And that’s assuming the next one lasts just a year. Stretch it to two or three, and we’re really buying time cheap.

What about the rest of you? What’s your view on the amortized cost of e-readers?