My New eBook Reader

Posted on February 18, 2010


Every May I treat myself to some toy in celebration of wrapping up another academic year. Like most red-blooded American males, the more high-tech the toy, the better (it seems to run in the family: I have a note from my 10-year-old son explaining the reasons why he must have his new must-have “gaget” [sic]). A few years ago I purchased that expensive lightweight carbon-fiber kayak I had been eyeing for two years (definitely a high-ticket item that swallowed a couple years of celebrating). Another year I ponied up for a 30 GB MP3 player. I like the fact that I can carry my complete music library – all 200 plus CDs and all those (legally) downloaded files, except for my 400-odd vinyl records, but that’s another project.

It’s incredibly liberating knowing that I am no longer tied physically to (the majority of) this collection. When traveling or vacationing I no longer have to make choices on what to pack to listen to. It’s all there, my (mostly) full range of choices unless in one of those “senior” moments I forget and leave the MP3 player on the kitchen counter for the mice to sniff.

For the last two years I have been lusting – sorry, no other word fits, the hankering for one is that palpable – for an ebook reader. I vacillate between whatever the current versions of the Sony ebook reader and Kindle are available. When one of my students brings one to class (usually at my vociferous promptings), I can barely contain myself from salivating all over that sleek plastic tablet. I want the same capability with my print library that I have with my music library – to be able to carry it with me at all times. I rather like the idea of being a media island unto myself.

I’m tired of realizing that I neglected to bring along a key text for a conference or for a working week on the beach. I’m also one of those people who have spent way too much time searching for a passage in a book on the basis of a remembered phrase and the vague recollection that it was in the middle of a recto page. An easy digital search would save whatever remains of my sanity.

But I have had a hard time bringing myself to click on that buy button. I had no problem shelling out another $350 to get my wife her MP3 player (which, understandably, fascinates her far less) so the cost for a dedicated ebook reader was not stopping me. What was stopping me? Maybe I feel limited by B&W or the size of the screen. After all, I can view ebooks in color on my PC with a far larger screen. Maybe I feel restricted by the Kindle’s proprietary format. I definitely do not like the fact that Amazon is privy to whatever (whether public domain, purchased ebook that Amazon can delete, or personal document) I am reading for I’m sure that Amazon’s privacy agreement permits the company to data mine this info.

I think what gets me most is the single-mindedness of these ebook readers. Sure, my MP3 player is single-minded too (but on my wife’s newer model, she can view videos and images), but I have been accustomed to single-purpose music-playing devices. Text, on the other hand, I have been accustomed to reading and working with as printed and electronic documents for almost as long as I have been accustomed to listing to music on a single device. Instead of having to juggle two, three or four similar-sized devices, I want one to do it all (or as much as possible).

So in the end, I fell for a promotional email from HP touting their Netbooks. I did some comparative shopping and eventually bought a competitor’s. I could have fallen for the latest iPod or iPhone, but their screens are still way too small and they still can’t do it all. Now, even though it weighs 10 times as much as a Kindle, I have a 10-inch color screen, wifi, ability to Skype, play music and videos, and, most importantly, the ability to read, write, edit, design and publish a book for print and/or digital output on my netbook that’s about the size and weight of Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking. Now if it could only be my cell phone, print a letter or two, and make coffee, I’d be in love.

One of the first things I did with this miracle machine was to check out the price of Mark Helprin’s new book Digital Barbarism. I wanted a copy to read so I could write an article on it. Even though I’m also a writer (a poet, the worst kind), I’m also a publisher and editor and, to me, there’s something so disastrously wrong with the idea of perpetual ownership of intellectual property (but that’s another story…). So I took my new netbook out for a spin by checking the book out on Amazon. No cheap used copies of the hardcover edition were available but I noticed that there was an ebook version so I checked its price on Amazon. When I saw that the ebook’s price was the same as the hardcover’s I thought there must be an error and headed over to the publisher’s website. No such luck. I thought that made as much sense as releasing both hardcover and paperback editions simultaneously at the same price. When was the last time you saw that happen?