A Whole Lot About Books

Today’s post is just a collection of things about books. These are things that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, but none of them individually deserved a full post on its own. So I’m going to put them all together here and put them into a coherent narrative.

First off, you may have heard about the Kindle fiasco where Amazon removed a customer’s account without warning (or explanation) and then deleted all her books. Said customer’s account has been restored but it raises question about Amazon and the Kindle. I personally love the Kindle hardware and service, but I also want to actually own my books. I still buy paper copies of books that I want to keep and will read more than once. All my textbooks are paper too.

Luckily, many non-Amazon ebook vendors will provide DRM-free ePubs. If you have ePubs then the best reading experience for them is using the Readmill app on the iPad. They also recently added support for Adobe DRM, PDFs as well as books from the Kobo and Google Play store. Readmill will also sync your books to an online library and provides highlighting and social features to share what you’re reading. Highly recommended, I just wish they connected to Goodreads and Findings.

Unfortunately the Humble Bundle for eBooks has already ended. This bundle offered a selection of DRM-free ebooks (including some graphic novels) at your own price. The amount you paid got split between the authors, a number of charities and the Humble Bundle team. I hear that if eBooks counted all of these authors would have made the New York Times bestseller list. We can count this one as a success for DRM-free, post-scarcity publishing. You can sign up to receive notifications of later Humble Bundles and I hope to see similar bundles in the future.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Cal Newport’s excellent book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. It offers examples and advice on forging a career that’s based not on nebulous definitions of passion but rather on cultivating rare and valuable skills. If you’ve been wanting to read this book but haven’t gotten around to it yet, here’s your chance. Social Books is a new online book. Members read one book a month, sharing and discussing it as they go along. Their first book is So Good and they’re starting November 1. I’ve already read the book but I think it would be a learning experience to do it again.

Last but not least, one of my friends from college has been writing a blog called Courtney Reads a Lot. If you guessed that it’s all about books, you guessed right. If you’re looking for new books to read or a constant stream of book-related posts subscribe to her blog.

That’s all for today. Enjoy your weekend and see you all next week.

To Share is Human

Last week I wrote about my break from writing and how I’d spent it doing a good amount of reading. I noted how I’d stumbled across a particularly interesting (and good quality) “curation” site called Brain Pickings which collects interesting reading material (and some videos) from around various books and around the web. As a tangent to that, I’ve been seeing an increasing tendency to make reading (which by itself is a solitary activity) more “social”. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago I found an interesting little service called Findings that lets you clip little snippets of text on the web and present in a quotation format with a proper citation. Though I don’t know how Findings can hope to make money (or how long they’ll stay up without a revenue stream) but they’re an interesting little service. Amazon’s Kindle devices and apps allow you to highlight passages from Kindle books and share them. So does the excellent Readmill app which I use to read free ePub books on my iPad.

The recent rise of social media is almost entirely built around the idea of sharing. I suppose it’s not really surprising. To share is human, we want to tell our stories and be heard. We want to tell people what we’re interested in, what we like and what we don’t like and we want to find people with similar interests so that we can share experiences. In some ways I suppose we share for the same reasons we live in families and communities: connecting with other human beings is a natural thing to do (though not for everyone and certainly not all the time). Sharing is one way of connecting.

Sharing may be a fundamentally human quality, but so is individuality. (There’s a Star Trek reference in there somewhere.) And that means that there are some things that we do not want to be shared, or at least not shared with the world at large. That’s why we have curtains and doors with locks on them. There are some experiences that should be limited to a single human being at a time (or we have agreed that should be the case). We value this notion of individuality and privacy highly enough that we have laws to explicitly protect it (though Mark Zuckerberg might want us to believe differently).

Personally, I’m on the more open side of the spectrum. My Twitter stream and Facebook account is probably more active than I’d care to admit. But I have my boundaries. I don’t post pictures online (partially that’s because I don’t really take many pictures) and I’m also somewhat skeptical about the whole “social reading” thing (see, all stuff about social reading services had a point after all). I believe that thinking, actual deep thinking, is best done alone or at most in small groups. Reading and writing are both forms of exchanging thoughts. To write well you must collect your own thoughts, organize them into a narrative and put them down in a coherent structure. To read well you must be in a position to absorb thoughts from a series of symbols, you must interpret them in the framework of your own experiences and judge which of those thoughts are to be accepted and incorporated and which are to be checked or discarded. Mandy Brown’s article on Ways of Reading is instructive, but like all such things, your mileage may vary.

While I like the idea of sharing quotations, writing book reviews and talking about books and the ideas behind them, all of those are secondary activities to the act of actually reading. They are preferably done at a later time, possibly in a different place. Now I’m certainly not one to tell you how you should go about reading. For one thing, I’m no Luddite, I love the Internet and all that has allowed. I think that sharing is by and large a good thing. Also, if I am to suggest that reading is a solitary activity then I probably have little right to tell you how to go about it. However, perhaps it’s best to keep in mind why we’re reading in the first place. Sometimes we read for information, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes to escape and sometimes to connect over particular books, authors and genres. I wonder if perhaps the rise of “social reading” might be the beginnings of a re-imagining of Ye Olde Book Club, but in a distributed, ad-hoc fashion. Maybe that’s a good thing, or maybe it’s just different. We shall see. But whatever you do please keep reading.

And if you’re not in a committed relationship, consider dating a girl who reads.

An ebook dilemma

As much as I love the idea of a digital book and the implementation of the Kindle, I can’t quite convince myself to go all ebook for future purchases. There is the DRM question, but that’s not the main issue. I suppose in the future Amazon could go the way of the dinosaur leaving all my precious Kindle books to bitrot. But I’m pretty confident that someone will find a way to break the DRM before that happens.

No, my current dilemma is far less technical. There are two books I really want to buy right now: Seth Godin’s Poke the Box and the just-released Anything You
by Derek Sivers. Both of them are available on Amazon in Kindle and hardcover, dead-tree form. The problem is that for both of them the ebook version is just about a dollar less than the hardcover version. For the Poke the Box, it’s just 30c.

From an author’s or publisher’s perspective I can understand why you’d want that kind of pricing. Perhaps you don’t want readers to feel like either version is a
second-class citizen. Perhaps you don’t want readers without a Kindle to be put off buying. Perhaps you want to tell your readers that either choice is fine and you, as publisher, are ambivalent on the subject of print versus digital. I think all of them are perfectly valid decisions. But as someone who isn’t pre-decided one way or the other, it makes the decision harder, not easier.

Here’s a (probably incomplete list) of all the things that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days regarding my choices, not in strict order: Oooh.. look Kindle versions! Now I can take them with wherever I go. But wait, the hardcover is less than a dollar more. If I get the hardcover I’ll have something nice and physical and DRM-free to keep on my bookshelf. And I don’t randomly start reading on my Kindle so I could probably just plan ahead and carry the book when I think I’ll read it. But the hardcover is probably going to be heavy and I have to move on a fairly regular basis. I don’t want to move too much heavy stuff, but then again I move once a year at most. The rest of the time it’ll sit on my bookshelf and I do like the look of a well-filled bookshelf. And if it’s in plain view instead of tucked inside the Kindle I’ll
probably reread it again at some point. But paper books are so last century and the Kindle is just gorgeous.

So on and so forth. You get the point.

In general I agree with Craig Mod: the future of books is digital and paper books will move closer and closer towards Collectors Item status. Instead of being cheap, mass produced blocks of paper, they’ll become careful, hand-crafted works of art. And I for one am quite happy with that. The problem is that there is this awkward growing-up phase as digital book technology matures. That phase is now. One of the results of that awkwardness is the indecision I’m currently facing. If these were mass market paperbacks that I’m going to read on a plane flight and never again I would get the Kindle versions in a heartback. But they’re not. They’re both books I think I’ll like, would want to keep and can see myself rereading. If the reading experience on the Kindle wasn’t as top-notch as it is, I would get the hardcovers. But the argument in favor of ebooks and ereaders has gotten good enough that the choice between the two is not an easy one by any measure.

For me the idea of books is intimately connected with the idea of libraries. I don’t just want to read the books and absorb them, I want to have a growing library of my reading as well. And though I could make some kind of digital “have read” list, there is something about a physical library that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s the idea of having a set of books that in some way is a reflection of myself. They contain words and ideas that are now a part of me. Not all books I read would go into this library (most textbooks would not make the cut), but hopefully anything that I willimingly buy would. In an ideal world I’d be able to “rent” the ebook version for an absurdly low price (say 50c a day). Then I could read it and if I decided it was a “keeper” I would buy the dead-tree version for my library.

At this point I officially hand this question to the wisdom of the Internets. For a $1 difference, which version would you buy and why?

(And no, I am not going to scrounge around for a “free” PDF copy. That defeats the point of everything I just said. I want to give the authors my money, but I want to make a good investment myself as well. The two purposes can be aligned, I’m just not sure how.)

How many devices is enough?

I love gadgets and devices. I really do. Before I got introduced to the world of computers, I loved wristwatches. Then it was phones and computers. Now I have a fascination for mobile computers and phone-like devices (I don’t like phones as phones, just the physical gadgets). I’ve only really started buying my own devices since I moved to the US of A about two and half years ago. My current stock of devices is:

  1. A 15.4″ ‘work’ laptop
  2. A 4-year old Mac Mini
  3. A recent Eee PC netbook
  4. An old G4 used as a backup server (to be replaced by a VM when I leave school)
  5. A 2-year old iPod Classic
  6. A 7MP Canon Camera
  7. A dirt cheap Nokia cell phone

Though I use pretty all of them fairly regularly (except the camera) I think I have a few too many pieces of hardware. A lot of my friends think 4 computers is way too much, but I think I would really need about 3 computers: one machine (a desktop or larger laptop) for daily work, a netbook for travel and a remote server for backups and emergencies. However, it’s the portable devices that are starting to frustrate me.

I’m at the point where each of my portables does one job (and does it pretty well). My phone makes calls, my camera takes pictures and my iPod plays music. I can appreciate the fact that it’s a vaguely UNIX-y setup, but I’m coming to realize that the UNIX philosophy does not really apply to hardware, at least not to portable devices. In the case of software, it doesn’t really matter if you have 5 installed programs or 50. You have 50 functions either way. However the more devices you have, the more you need to lug around. And you only have two hands to hold them with.

In many ways, the iPhone is a stroke of pure genius. It’s combines all of my current devices into a single package. And it’s just the right size too: pocket-size. But I’m not going to get a iPhone for a good few years. I really don’t need  any of the expensive plans that the contracts require, especially since I don’t really like making phone calls. Also I want to take slightly better pictures than what the iPhone currently allows. Many of the same reasons apply to Android phones. And the third reason is that I’ve been thinking a lot about yet another device for a while: the Kindle.

On Ebook readers

Ebook readers are finally starting to make it into the mainstream. I like the idea of having a portable library that I can take everywhere with me. But at the same time it’s yet another dedicated device. Now you could argue that it’s possible to read documents on the iPhone or a similar device. It’s certainly possible, but it’s probably not something you want to do.

It’s a question of form-factors: the phone form-factor is good for always-on, in-your-pocket communication devices. Anything smaller and you wouldn’t be able to use the Internet with any comfort and much larger and it won’t fit in pockets. But when it comes to actual serious reading for extended periods of time, you want something that’s larger than can fit in one hand. The reasons may be psychological as well as physical, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to book-size material and would rather not adapt to something else. The sizes of the Kindle and Nook are bigger than what can fit in your pocket, which means that they won’t fill the role of smaller devices.

In some ways, a netbook and an E-book reader are of comparable form factors. They’re both too large to fit into your pocket, but they are small and light enough that you don’t need to think twice about slipping them into a backpack. This isn’t to say that they are comparable devices. I certainly wouldn’t curl up in bed with my netbook, and I wouldn’t use the Kindle to do any sort of serious text-processing (though web browsing, certainly).

As I keep wondering if I read enough books in enough places to warrant a Kindle (I probably don’t), I can’t help but also think about another contender waiting to jump in:

The Apple Tablet

My professor wants a device the size of a Kindle DX, but that connects to the Internet and can run apps. This is pretty much what the Apple will probably be. So no one really knows for certain what the Apple tablet will be like. But it’s probably going to be about the size of an ebook reader with features similar to, but not the same as, an iPhone. It’s almost certainly going to have some sort of wireless connectivity and might come subsidized with a data plan.

I’m sure a lot of people except the Apple tablet to cannibalize the ebook reader market the same way that the iPod took the over the MP3 player market. I doubt that’s going to happen, the main reason being that the distribution channels are already out of Apple’s reach. But going by Apple’s track record the tablet will certainly be an interesting device. And it’s going to be yet another device that I won’t get.

Firstly the price will almost certainly be too high for what I feel uncomfortable spending. Anything less than $500 and it risks eating into the iPod Touch market and I’m not ready to spend more than that. Secondly, I don’t want yet another semi-general purpose computer. Given the tablet’s probable size, I feel that wherever I’d take my tablet, I already take my netbook. And I’ll take a computer with a full keyboard over a tablet any day.

So how many devices do I really need?

I think the truth is that right now I have just the right number of portable devices. I have devices that do everything that I want to do when I’m moving (music, pictures, phone calls). I also have my netbook that acts as a quick way to get online when I don’t want to go find an actual computer.

None of the other devices offer really compelling devices for me to buy them. I don’t move around enough to justify an iPhone’s pricey plans. I have access to a wide selection of paper books at my school library and I don’t buy nearly enough books to justify a Kindle. And I simply do not have a suitable use case for using a tablet over my netbook.

As my current stock of items starts to fail, I will try to consolidate somewhat. The battery on my iPod is starting to show its age, but I’m waiting for an iPod Touch with a decent camera to come out to replace it. Combine that with a Skype number and constant wi-fi and I can leave out my phone too.

I’m still going to keep my eye on things and if I see a device that’s useful and low-priced enough, I might consider a buy. But only after I’ve thought things through on this blog.