Monday, June 20, 2011

Modern Reading

I got an iPad -- an iPad 2, to be precise.  I got the black border and the pink polyurethane cover, so it looks like this:

Nice, huh?  I love my iPad and I use it all the time.  I use it to read and mark up student work with a stylus; I use it to read scholarly papers with my "Papers" app; I do the Times Crossword on it, and I use it to find my way places with the maps feature.

But mostly, I use it to read.  Books, that is. I use it to read books.  Remember books? I'm always amused when people are like What Do You Use That For That You Can't Do On a Laptop because the answer seems so obvious:  I read books.

I don't know about you, but the idea that I would read a book on my laptop sitting at my desk ... it's almost laughable.  I read on the sofa, I read on the bed, I read on the subway, but I don't read at my desk.  I mean, I'm at my desk all day working.  I'm not going to spend my leisure time there too. 

Reading books on the iPad is fantastic.  I would say for me it's better than reading books on paper.


There is one thing I don't like about reading books on the iPad, and that can be summed up in one word:  e-bookstores.

There's no problem for works out of copyright, which you can download free from  And, of course, I do this all the time, and it is amazing.  I would never read the lesser-known Louisa May Alcott books if I had to buy them from a store and carry them around.

But for books in copyright, it's bad.  The main problem is DRM, or digital rights management, and the way it affects your "ownership" of the book.  There's an informative wikipedia discussion here.  But the essence of the difficulty is perhaps better conveyed through a descrtiption of the mechanism and the story of Orwell's 1984 on the Kindle.

When you buy a book on a Kindle -- or on the Kindle app on the iPad, as I do -- the book is downloaded to the device by a syncing mechanism in which the device syncs with your account at Amazon.

It's not like iTunes, where you can move the file around yourself.  You can't move this file anywhere -- you can't copy it from your laptop to your device, or from your device to your laptop, or from one computer to another.  All you can do is sync with your account.  You can sync any device -- I mean, I have my kindle books on my laptop, in the Kindle Application, and on my iPad, in my Kindle app -- but in both cases the books come from my account at Amazon and cannot be directly moved.  Obviously, this is to prevent you from giving the book away to all your friends for free, posting it online, or -- OMG, pirates! -- distributing it over some peer to peer network or whatever.

This means that your books on your device are always syncing with the books on your account.  As
this article in The Times explains, syncing giveth, but it also taketh away:
"Digital books bought for the Kindle are sent to it over a wireless network. Amazon can also use that network to synchronize electronic books between devices — and apparently to make them vanish."
And that's what happened with 1984. [Insert your own observations and jokes about "irony" here].  I guess the publisher who made the books available on Amazon didn't have the rights, and when whoever did have the rights complained, Amazon responded by taking the book out of people's accounts, and thus, next time they synced, off their Kindles.

Amazon says it'll never do that again.  But really, is their assurance sufficient?  Don't you think it's creepy that whoever sold you the book can control it at any time, indefinitely into the future?  Obviously they could change things around, delete smutty or politically sensitive material at any time. What if they're asked to do so by the government?  Surely they'll comply.

Sorry, but this arrangement is completely nuts. 

All the ebooks companies I know of work this way -- at least, all the ones with books I want to read.  I made a vow that I'd buy only scholarly books on the iPad and that I'd buy new novels on paper.  But I've already broken it.  Who wants to cart a bunch of paper and cardboard on a transatlantic flight if they don't have to?

We need a new system altogether, but until we get one, e-bookstores should throw people like me a bone by offering "bundles."  With a bundle, you buy the ebook and the book book together, for more than either separately but less than the two would normally cost together.  I get convenience and peace of mind, the bookstore gets more money.

Obviously I'm alone in a wilderness here, since no one is offering these.

When I first got my iPad, I tried out books on three of the big systems:  Kindle, iBooks, and Kobo.  Though I love Apple I gotta say the iBooks system is the worst, on grounds that you can't even read your book on your computer, only on your iPad.  Sorry but that is dumb.  The Kindle system is pretty good -- though they have some weirdo format they use, instead of the standard ePub.  Not that that matters, since given the DRM insanity just mentioned, you can't transfer the file or do anything with it anyway.  Still, wouldn't it be nice to at least know the book was in some standard readable format?

I had high hopes for Kobo -- books are in standard ePub format, and they company is proud of the way their books are available on a range of devices.  So far so good.  On the other hand, they don't have all that many books.  New bestsellers, fine.  Books on moral particularism, not so much.

At first I was committed to going with them whenever I could, but then I discovered something about the Kobo app which made me stop dead in my tracks and run screaming back to Amazon.  And it is this:  the Kobo app actually congratulates you on making it through a book.

It's worse than this, really, because the Kobo app also encourages you by congratulating you on making it partway through a book.  It's like, "Hey, You've Read Some of a Book! Way to Go! Do You Want to Post this News to Facebook or Twitter?!"

That's just about the most depressing approach to reading I can imagine.  I was reminded of it yesterday when I encountered this similarly depressing thing at the Times --actually called a "Riff."  The theme is that we have Stockholm Syndrome with long novels.  We don't want to finish them, but we feel we owe them.  We slog our way through.

I'm a reader, and just in case anyone thinks that's what modern reading is like, let me tell you, it isn't.  If I don't feel like finishing a novel, you know what I do? I put it down and stop reading it.  Yes, that's right: if I don't feel like finishing a novel, I put it down and stop reading it.

This doesn't happen often.  But it happens sometimes.  Just often enough to remind me that I'm doing tihs for fun and I don't need a gold star on the fridge for finishing a novel.  Kobo People? Are you out there?  Are you listening?  I'm trying to tell you.  Modern reading: it doesn't have to be a status update.


Daniel said...

I love reading on my iPad too!! Sometimes I miss the tactile qualities of a book, so I decided that if it is by one of my favorites, I just might buy the book book instead. I read them on the Nook for iPad, which seems pretty good.
Question: what stylus did you get? Can you write neatly with it? I bought one with a tip that was like an eraser - too fat for me. But I love the idea of one. Do you have to read the paper through a special program to be able to annotate?

The Facebook notification thing you wrote about is INSANE.

Anonymous said...

You should consider downloading Calibre . It is open source e-book library software that enables you to convert between different formats, so that ebooks you buy in one format can be used with other readers, shared with friends etc... there are also 3rd party plugins that will get rid of DRM (see this guide)

Patricia said...

Hi Daniel, Oh yeah, Nook. I haven't tried that. The styluses all have fat tips but you can set the line width to thin and it works pretty well. I use PDF expert but I think most pdf apps have this feature .. also, the stylus is awesome if you are using your iPad while eating and don't want dirty fingerprints!

Patricia said...

Hi Menoitios, Thanks. I sort of knew that about Calibre, but I was under the impression that for the time being that DRM removal was against the law.

My complaint partly concerns the way the systems are set up -- the way they are *supposed* to work. Which is ... not ideal!

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