Sceptic gets an eReader

It would be fair to say, at this point, that eReaders are in it for the long haul. And since they’ve successfully infiltrated our reading culture and silenced many of their detractors, I thought it might be fun to reflect on my experiences as a new eReader user.

I realise I’m a little behind the curve here, and that a post like this would’ve been much more helpful back in, say, 2011. But the point of difference I hope to bring is subjectivity; I want to break it down and assess the merits of this technology on a personal level. I’m not going to climb on my soapbox and proclaim myself an expert, nor tell you which format you ought to be reading in. But if, by some miracle, I end up influencing the three people out there who’ve yet to make their minds up about eReaders, well … that’ll be a bonus, won’t it?

* * *

Right off the bat I’ll assure you that I have no agenda to push. I’m still feeling my way through this new reading culture. Maybe you are, too. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t long ago I was denouncing eBooks as a silly yuppie indulgence. There was a time I considered their very existence sacrilegious; during The Great Bookstore Closings of 2010–12, I believed eBooks were a pox that threatened the very future of literature. That’s right – I was one of those doomsday-spouting clowns. I know; I can’t apologise enough.

In time, though, I unbunched my panties and realised that my reaction was an emotional one. When I looked into things, I discovered that the advantages of eReaders were numerous, and that there was no reason to feel personally threatened by something that’s only purpose was to offer a different – not better or worse – reading experience.

I’ve found that the main defence of most naysayers is usually something like, ‘Reading should be a sensory experience! I like the new book smell! I like the old book smell! Physical books wear; they should be reflections of our reading habits!’ These are all perfectly valid emotional responses; it’s true: you can’t really get the same experience from an eReader. So I get it: I get the hesitation, I get the dubiousness. Reading fiction is all about having emotional experiences, so if a new medium comes along looking primed to compromise what we love, our tendency would be to just stay the hell away from it.

It’s the same argument music fans and photographers used when their favourite pastimes made the leap into the digital realm. There was the sense among users that something would be lost – something magic and intangible – in the jump from vinyl to CD, CD to MP3, or film to digital. I know The Terminator franchise has taught us not to put our faith in technology, but hindsight paints a (mostly) different picture. I venture, in the case of music, that the consumer won out in the end. With the popularisation of online music distributors, like iTunes, – we have entered a new age of choice and convenience. Purists may feel differently, but for better or worse, photography and pop music are now more accessible than they’ve ever been, and I see no reason why this can’t be the same for fiction.

With the advent of the internet, many young people have lost interest in fiction. But I believe, optimistically, that reading will get its resurgence. The key is eBooks. When the growing pains are over and the frameworks definitively in place, eBooks will be what hooks an entirely new demographic. Here’s hoping.

* * *

Last Christmas, the biggest surprise under my tree was an Amazon Kindle Touch. Once I’d figured out how to set it up (a week later, I’m ashamed to admit), I loaded the device with every public domain classic I could think of, then set to work reading Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’.

Though far from a technophobe, I’d say I’m more hesitant than most people my age when it comes to adopting new technology. It took until late last year for me to (reluctantly) climb aboard the touch screen-enabled smart phone train. I’m an avid gamer who, nearly three console generations in, still refuses to indulge online gaming. Facebook is a necessary evil in my life, while Twitter I positively loathe. And tablets, which are all the rage these days, don’t interest me in the slightest.

So what makes eReaders different? I’m not sure. Possibly it’s because I, y’know, fell into the position of owning one; having time to play around on one definitely helped me make an informed decision. Or maybe it’s that I, as an aspiring writer and editor, find fiction more important than Facebook or gaming, and so I am naturally drawn to a new reading medium. Even before I fathomed owning one, eReaders always seemed like something I should have an awareness of. Would I have invested in an eReader had I not received one as a gift? I think so. Eventually. As someone who’s watched the self-publishing movement with great interest, I think I would’ve made the leap when the time felt right. The time probably isn’t right yet (and by this I mean that, despite Amazon, the eBook marketplace is still a veritable Wild West), so I’m left with a cool novelty device that I’m super grateful to own, but don’t necessarily need.

Case in point: since getting my Kindle I’ve found I still like going back and reading physical books. At the moment I’ve been using my Kindle for indie releases and classics. I’m certain I’ll use it for traditionally published contemporary works, too, but right now I’m on a bit of a classics kick. The recent print books I’ve read, it may interest you to know, were either library books, or stuff I’ve had on my bookshelf at home for a year or more. (I have an enormous reading backlog; don’t even think about recommending me anything.) I think I’ll probably continue to read this way (sandwiching print books between every one or two eBooks) for the foreseeable future. It keeps things interesting.

* * *

The initial fear with eBooks was that they would storm in and replace their predecessors. This has (so far) proven untrue. Perhaps this is because neither format is conclusively better. eBooks and print books each have their own drawbacks and advantages.

But I suppose, since this was meant to be about my experiences with eReaders, I should talk a little about how the digital experience differs from print. Once the novelty of owning a cool new toy had subsided, I began to realise that the experience wasn’t that different. The words, whether on a page or screen, were still the same. As with print books, reading on a Kindle is seamless and unobtrusive; there are no electronic barriers getting between you and your imagination.

My favourite place to read is in bed, and often, as I do so, I’ll unwittingly arrange myself into a slew of contortionist positions. (On my side, legs and arms splayed in different directions, with a book/eReader suspended a metre from my face is one favourite.) Chalk it up as a First World Problem, but I despise it when heavier physical volumes (three hundred pages and up) dictate what positions I can comfortably read in. Not only are bigger books harder to wield, but they also take longer to get through (thus the period of discomfort is prolonged).

When you’re dealing with epic tomes, this can adversely affect your experience. Sure, complaining about too-heavy books is très silly, but ideally what we as readers want is to settle into a state of complete immersion. Anything that breaks this immersion – like a wrist cramp, or the incessant barking of the neighbour’s labradoodle – is a hindrance, plain and simple. Reading on a Kindle does away with this (the wrist cramps, not the labradoodle). No matter how big an eBook is, or how extensive your digital library, a Kindle will always be light and easy to hold.

On the subject of tangibility, I confess I’m not the biggest fan of my Kindle Touch’s control scheme. I’m touch screen illiterate, you see, which sucks because, besides the obligatory home and power buttons, everything about my device is controlled by touch. (Funny, that.) The bigger problem, though, is that unlike the intuitive touch screens on tablets and smart phones, scrolling through the menus on a Kindle causes display flickers and jarring refreshes. The screen’s also more sensitive than I’d like, but this may be something you can tinker with in the settings. The screen isn’t a deal-breaker by any stretch, but the interface is definitely fiddlier than it needed to be.

* * *

In terms of convenient features, Kindle has a few more worth mentioning. By virtue of it being an Amazon device, you are encouraged to buy eBooks from the Amazon website. Though I knew Amazon was a monster conglomerate, I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time shopping there. It’s safe to say, though, that their range of products is extensive. In terms of eBooks, they have more or less everything a major publisher has ever put out (and let’s not forget the indies, either). Unlike when shopping at a physical bookstore, you will never go in looking for something in particular and come away disappointed; eBooks will never fall out of print, so even those with obscure tastes will find what they’re looking for.

Once you’ve registered your Kindle and linked it to your Amazon account, all you’ll need to do while shopping is click ‘purchase’ and the item will automatically download (debiting your designated account in the process). When everything’s set up, it only takes about a minute for a book to become yours. You don’t even need a computer; my Kindle Touch is 3G enabled, so I can also browse the Kindle store from the device itself and have items wirelessly downloaded regardless of whether I have a home internet connection.

I don’t mean to sound like an enamoured schoolgirl about it, but this really is a nifty feature. Just imagine if you were someone who travelled, moved around a lot, or found yourself living in an area where English books were hard to come by. The Kindle store would be a life-saver.

Another cool feature is the Kindle’s retractable light, a much better alternative to an eye-straining backlight. Obviously, this little guy is handiest when you want to read in an otherwise dim location. (I suppose, if you read print books, you could invest in a reading light peripheral and get this same advantage, but I thought it was worth mentioning because with Kindle it’s a built-in feature.) Simple and intuitive.

Battery life is something print book purists like to take pot shots at, though I’m not sure why. I’ve read that my Kindle model has a ridiculous two months of battery life on thirty minutes of daily reading time, and I can more or less vouch for this. Since Christmas, I’ve only had to charge the thing twice, and part of that might be because I was leaving the wi-fi on and regularly perusing the Kindle store (this accelerates battery consumption). At any rate, I find it hard to imagine a situation where I couldn’t read because of a depleted Kindle battery

Kindles – and I assume all eReaders – are very portable, unlike those aforementioned Big Books. Having said that, though, there are places you could take a print book that you couldn’t – or at least shouldn’t – take a Kindle. I probably wouldn’t use mine on the beach, by the pool, or in the bath (not that I take those; I mean, I do bathe, I just … oh, you know) for fear of damaging it.

This brings me to another worthwhile point: Kindles, by nature of being technology, are more valuable than the average paperback. (I’m not talking about that first edition copy of The Great Gatsby you have locked in a safe deposit box.) As a Kindle owner, you’ll find you have certain responsibilities that a paperback reader does not. Namely, you must take care in considering how and where you will store it. Kindles aren’t especially fragile, but they are susceptible to things like food and water damage. They also wouldn’t fare particularly well in a handbag full of, say, bricks, so watch for that. You can’t ninja-star a Kindle around your living room as you would a paperback. But the good news is that that caring for a Kindle is easy: exercising a bit of diligence will ensure you get the maximum value from it.

* * *

I could go on singing the praises of my Kindle, but I think you get the idea. As an entry-level user with a sceptic’s background, I’ve been won over by this enigmatic device, and eBooks as a whole. I’m sorry I can’t comment on any of the other major eReader devices, nor have I had any experience with eBook-capable tablets, like the iPad. (I would love to hear from someone who does read on an iPad. I’m genuinely curious; how is the experience?)

I hope those who’ve yet to dip a toe will now have a better sense of what to expect from eReaders.

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