A Novice E-Reader’s “Further Thoughts”

Verlyn Klinkenborg's Further Thoughts of a Novice E-Reader, published in May 30, 2010 New York Times, correlates some interesting insights from librarians and academics.

Klinkenborg's first major point bears repeating: reading is a subtle thing.  For an intellectual activity, it does depend upon look-and-feel: book design.  The designers of books, using skills and concepts honed over decades and centuries, really do know what they're doing when they select a typeface, weight of paper, and other design elements.  "Glass and pixel's aren't the same."

His first example –that no matter the length of the book, the iPad's iBooks reader always shows six pages past and six pages ahead –correlates with the results of e-reader pilot projects summarized by the trade journal Campus Technology at three colleges: Northwest Missouri State University, Arizona State University, and Princeton University.

"Students need to be able to … quickly skim through passages to refresh and compare information." (p. 28)  "Princeton participants, especially once finals arrived," [were frustrated by] "the inability to skim and flip through pages on the Kindle DX as quicly as they could with a traditional textbook." (p. 30)  Traditional printed book design allows quick skimming, review, and comparison, as well as easier note-taking and highlighting.

A 400-page textbook in biology or physics or economics allows a student a tactile sense of where in the book he or she is, and color-coding pages, page headers, footers, and margin colors allow quick retrieval when information or memory needs to be refreshed.  This is not a trivial requirement, and current e-book readers simply lack it.

Klinkenborg goes on to note how ugly e-book texts appear in comparison with their printed cousins.  The very ability e-reader manufacturers celebrate –you can change the font face, size, etc.– allow us to  make "them resemble all the more our own word-processed manuscripts."  In other words, they can look simply ugly, and often do.  In the rush to promote e-books, e-publishers seem to have completely forgotten the important aesthetic and design considerations which go into a professionally-done, finished book.

The bigger problem, Klinkenborg notes, is that he grew up reading books, not texts.  A contemporary, well-done, professionally designed book, suggests an authority, intellectual and publishing market niche, and an affiliation: a book from Princeton University Press, Knopf, O'Reilly Publishing, and Alysson Publications each carries some sense of affiliation and intended audience –in crass terms, "brand." 

Many, many e-books are public-domain recycled texts that carry no sense of their own dates of publication, intended original audiences, or publishing origins.  Above all, they have no sense of place as editions –is a public-domain 19th-century translation of Dante better or worse than an in-copyright 20th-century translation?  The long and complex problem of publishing rights has high-jacked the cultural agenda of e-book purveyors, and no amount of legal muscle or sheer money from Apple, Google or Amazon is likely simply to make those problems disappear.

Finally, Klinkenborg notes that "most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries," even though he has a personal library (and probably, one guesses, extensive).  How e-books, once they have grown past their horrendous aesthetic problems and legal challenges, can interact in the common cultural "third space" known as a public or academic library really remains to be seen.

Klinkenborg's brief article –paired with the summary of e-book pilot projects in Campus Technology– strongly suggest that when matters come to a head, e-books simply aren't there yet.  Someday they will have arrived, and libraries ignore e-books at their peril.  It behooves any academic library to build an e-book collection to anticipate this reality.  The present finding is hard to ignore, however — currently e-books fail significantly even in their most non-aesthetic "hardest" use, the academic textbook. 

The sheer arrogance of e-book purveyors and promoters in ignoring the lessons learned by centuries of print publishers and authors will have to be mended before e-books will really move forward.