The Book of Last Resort

Speaking to a particularly ebook-wary friend the other day, I was told the only reason an ebook might be useful is when travelling. Years ago, he said, he travelled with half his pack full of cassette tapes and half with books, then stuffed a few pairs of underpants around them. After he started using an MP3 player he discovered he had a lot more room. Ebooks, he said, might reclaim the other half of his luggage. Presumably with the magic of electronic reading, he can now pack more than just underpants when he goes on holidays. The world sighs in relief.

This conversation got me thinking about book scarcity. When you’re relying on finite paper resources (or finite luggage resources) there are only so many books you can carry. There isn’t much space for the book that you don’t think you’ll read (but you might). Ebook buying, on the other hand, lends itself to this kind of purchase – the book that you really think you might never get around to, but at least you have it just in case. I’ve got many friends that treat their bookshelves like I treat my ebook reader. They’re full of books they’ll probably never get around to reading, but you never know – there may come a time when you really decide to commit to A Brief History of Time, Ulysses or Infinite Jest.

This all leads in to the title of this post. The Book of Last Resort. I think you all know the one. It’s the book that has crossed over from the ‘might never read’ category into a habit you can’t kick. The book that follows you around like a bad smell. You read a chapter in 2008, two chapters in 2009 and a few pages in 2010. It’s long, it’s difficult, it’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s there – mocking you. It’s the book you do take on holidays, but it remains unread while you plough through the Stephen King or Jodi Picoult on the rented house’s bookshelf. But it will always be there, at the bottom of your bag, or somewhere in the alphabetic calamity of your ereader.

My question for this post is to own up to your Book of Last Resort, whether it be electronic or not. What book can’t you quit, and why?

Review: International Kindle

As much as I would like to review my brand new iPad for this column, I feel that I haven’t yet had enough time to wrap my head around it, so I’m going to start my series of ereader reviews with Amazon’s International Kindle.

The Kindle has been around for quite a while now, first with the US-only Kindle 1, then the US-only Kindle 2 and the DX (the A4-sized reader). Late last year they finally opened up to the rest of the world with the international versions of the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. As mentioned earlier, Amazon did not consult with any publishing companies or even the local telecommunications companies before launching the Kindle internationally – they struck an international roaming deal with AT&T in the United States in order to arrange wireless internet on the devices, and used their existing catalogue of books (which they have gone on to remove from many local Kindle stores because of territorial copyright claims).

Despite this, in comparison to other ereader devices available in Australia, the Kindle experience is overall the best (for now, at least).

The Kindle is an e-ink type ereader. This means that the screen is not backlit, and simulates the look of a page. For those who haven’t seen this technology before, it’s not quite as good as a printed page. It looks a bit like a giant calculator screen. The upside is you can read it in direct sunlight, and you can read it for hours without giving yourself eyestrain (or running the battery down – with wireless turned off, my Kindle runs for about two weeks without needing a charge). The other features of the Kindle are pretty standard – you can search your ebook, there’s dictionary support and you can highlight and make notes on your books as you go. It also has rudimentary free wireless internet access – which in Australia can only be used to search the Kindle Store and buy books. The Kindle can even read your books to you in a haunting computer voice that will probably give you flashbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Kindle Store is the most comprehensive source of ebooks in Australia at present. Additionally, with a few simple tweaks it is quite easy for Kindle users to get around territorial copyright restrictions to get access to the full 450,000-book range of the US store (a pretty big drawcard, at least until Australian publishers make their content available to Amazon and other vendors in Australia). There are positives and negatives to the Kindle way of buying books. Obviously there are DRM issues, but that goes for every generalist ebook store at the moment. However, in addition to this, Amazon uses a proprietary ebook format and DRM that they purchased from Mobipocket (another ebook store, now going the way of the dinosaurs). What this means, for those of you scratching your heads, is that unless you crack the DRM on a Kindle book, you will never read it with non-Amazon software.

Additionally, the Kindle is incapable of reading any other form of DRM except its own. This means that if you buy a book from Barnes & Noble or Kobo or Dymocks you will not be able to read them on your Kindle (again, this is assuming you do not crack the DRM on your ebooks, and most people will not). This is Amazon’s way of keeping you in the family – they maintain the biggest range of ebooks, woo customers in and then lock them in forever. Apple did the exact same thing with the iTunes Music Store and the iPod – and Amazon are fighting to win in the ebook wars.

So basically the Kindle is a double-edged sword. It is feature rich, content rich and is cheaper than most other ebook readers available in Australia. However, it is fraught with problems: a lack of content on its Australian ebook store, DRM lock-in evil juju and even Orwellian removal of books after you have purchased them. Having said that, if you’re in the market for a dedicated e-ink reader – the Kindle is your best bet. If you’re sitting on the fence about ebooks at the moment – hold off for now (and read my iPad review when it goes up in a week or so).

Why Everything You Think About Ebooks is a Filthy Lie

So this is going to be a blog about book technology. And I want to kick it off by talking about the title … The Smell of Books. In the last few years I have read hundreds of pages of blogs and newspapers about ebooks. I’ve also been working in a publishing company, where people love to read books, love to talk about books and love to own books. There is a significant proportion of early adopters out there who love the very idea of ebooks and e-publishing, and criticise ebooks only in the way they might criticise any of their beloved gadgets.

And then there is everyone else.

I’d like to start with three misconceptions you might have about ebooks and why you’re stupid for thinking them.

The Smell of Books

The amount of newsprint that has been wasted on the latest prehistoric pundit slash columnist road testing an ebook reader and decrying it as ‘not the same’ as a paper book is absolutely shameful. Their biggest crime, of course, is talking about the smell.

The experience of reading on an ebook reader (or any kind of electronic reading) is self-evidently not the same as a paper book. Nobody is trying to make it so. The advantages of electronic reading are manifold (you can expect me to expound on these reasons in blogs to come), but they do not include any of the following: being able to hand down a worn electronic copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to your grandson on his 21st birthday; sitting in a bubble bath reading Wuthering Heights to your girlfriend; or showing off to your friends how many of the Russians you have read.

From My Cold, Dead Hands

Nobody is trying to replace paper books with ebooks. Least of all traditional publishing companies. Most publishing companies are still making 95% or more of their profit from paper books, and most people still want to read dead trees. I cannot envision a point in my lifetime where there will no longer be paper books at all. There is no need to take a stand – you will only overbalance and fall over.

Why Try to Reinvent the Wheel?

Books have been in their current form for a long time. They are beloved objects of beauty. They are perfectly suited to all reading activities. Only two of the previous three statements are true. There are plenty of annoying things about dead tree books. Ever tried to haul a copy of Infinite Jest around over the course of the month or more it takes you to read? Ever got stuck reading Gravity’s Rainbow because you didn’t know what Poisson distribution was? Ever lived in a small town with a tiny library and no bookstore and couldn’t find the latest Dan Brown?

Ebooks have a place in the future of book selling, publishing and reading. It’s time to prepare yourself. Just because you don’t like the idea of them doesn’t mean you might not like them. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not here to stay.

[Image courtesy of smellofbooks.com]