Friday, 12 October 2012

No, I don't work for Amazon...

I must say after taking a module called ‘Hacking the Book’ I found myself rather bemused that we would not be looking at the creation that gave the book, in its traditional form, the biggest shake up since the creation of the internet. I am talking about the e-reader. 

For some reason this is a topic that many people become instantly heated about – I can already feel the ‘angry face emoticons’ judging me with their little pixelated eyes. But, I feel I must stand my ground and proudly announce that I am a convert. I love my e-reader more than anything else I own but when I tell this to traditionalists they often get all starry eyed and ask ‘don’t you miss the feel and smell of a real book?!’ Well, no, not really. 

The benefits that these tiny portable machines can bring us is a saving grace to those of us who are either forced, or ploughed on by our own initiative, to tackle books big enough to kill a man. Suddenly we are able to carry up to eight thousand of these, no matter where we go or how small our bag happens to be. We are given the opportunity to be able to download any book, anytime, anywhere and often for much cheaper than a standard bulky paperback. The moment I realised you could also download PDF files was just the cherry on an already magnificent cake.

I understand the allure of a traditional book. My Language encyclopaedias could never have the depth of information and images on a machine as they do in real life. However, in this case I believe technology really does have its place in our libraries and on our bookshelves. E-readers aren’t hacking our books – they’re just advancing them for the 21st century.


  1. My Kindle is also fantastic, however my main problem would have to be the huge amount of red tape surrounding E books, I will never have understand how something which has infinite supply can cost more than the paper back version.

    Out of interest, why can't they have the depth of information and images that a book can? Surely the addition of a search function and hyperlinks would increase the amount of information, and images is simply a matter of resolution.

  2. While I'm well aware of the dangers of unsightly bulges in public, the size and weight of a book has never been a problem unless I'm off on holiday and have to carry quite a few. There are some who would also put forth an environmental argument about the amount unsold books turned to mulch, but they tend to be equally (if not more) impressed by a second hand book or a copy from a library than something on a non-Apple product. Admittedly, the Kindle does come in a plain cardboard package, with the accessories wrapped in brown paper and a rough-finished white surround for the device itself - just the right amount of rustic charm for the Instagram generation – but the grey scheme of the last generation leaves something to be desired; especially when placed beside the Kubrickian monstrosities offered by other manufacturers. I suppose at least the 'e-ink' is quite nice to read.

    One of the main reasons touted by supporters in the beginning of the 'e-reader' revolution was the ability to read in public without people knowing what it is exactly that you're reading. This is fantastic, since I am a character from the Beano, and I don't want the teacher knowing that I'm not really reading a textbook. In real life, however, many people are far more concerned with being seen reading at all to be bothered with what exactly it is that they are reading. A glance around a suitably fashionable tax-avoiding-beverage-serving establishment a couple of months ago would have shown people with their noses in copies of certain pornographic fan-fiction-turned-best-seller in similar numbers to those who chose to be more discrete with their morning fix of non-awkward passion where nobody gets their hair knelt on. Surely, then, shame is not the main reason for buying an 'e-reader'.

    As an English student, my one method of impressing another person is by having read things. If all of the things I have read are contained in a six inch plastic case, it is difficult for someone to easily visualise just how much I think of myself. As a result, regardless of how many books I read on my Kindle, I am required to purchase enough reasonably high-brow books to populate my bookshelf appropriately and convince any potential doubters of my affiliation with the artistic master race. There is also something to be said about being able to casually whip out a tastefully yellowed Penguin Classic in a public place and appear intentionally but adorably unkempt to all around; something which is not possible with any piece of technology yet released.

    The main benefit of the Kindle (we would like to remind you that other 'e-readers' are available) to me is that books are available for free. This is a lot like a library, but you get to stay in bed. The free sharing of information between is more than enough to get any aspiring lentil-munching leftie hot under the cardigan, and many peer-to-peer sites allow this dream to become a reality. The grand collections of 'stolen' music pales in comparison to many an 'e-library', where book collections may be found by the unscrupulous in their tens of thousands at a time. Alongside this is the ability for anyone to publish anything they want and make it available to the whole world (or the bit with the money, at least). Our new aspiring Popes and Swifts are now throwing out clumsily thrown together rubbish for the populace with clunky allegory and unsubtle development left, right and (albeit rarely) center, and this is certainly something to be praised.

    All in all, I like 'e-readers', and as a closet techno-phile, I eagerly await the day when I get to meet the new generation of Kindles. If you see me around campus, though, I'll be the one with the dog-eared copy of 'Pretentious Satire #58' by 'Dead Guy' or of course, sitting shamelessly in the arts building with my nose in 'Textbook written by person whose office is on this floor'.

  3. It's interesting, isn't it, that we just assume that what is available to read on an e-reader like Kindle is a book. But what it is it about this genre - one so connected with print - that is reproduced in digital form? What is missing? In other words, to what extent are 'books' available on e-readers? on No, I don't work for Amazon...

  4. I have to say, I was surprised about this not coming up on the main module schedule, because it is such an interesting and contentious topic.

    Anyway, as someone who has owned (and since sold) a kindle, I feel like I’ve seen the best of both options and, as the fact that I no longer own my kindle suggests, decided to opt for the traditional rather than the shiny, technical choice. There are a number of reasons, which I’ll lay out and discuss below.

    1. Monetary validity
    Yes, many classics are available for free on the Kindle, or through e-book formats to download elsewhere, but the contrast between these being free and the cost of any recent book outweigh one another. Firstly, because you are paying a large sum for the reader itself (when the Kindle software and free e-books are accessible on any computer or smartphone) and also because if you get through books quickly (as I imagine many students, English or otherwise, tend to) the costs soon mount up.

    I have always been one of those people who trawls the bookshelves in charity shops and used bookshops, where anything you find is a) an adventure in itself, down to chance and b) cheap. The used-books market is dreadful - I’ve looked into selling second hand books as a way of earning money and unless you know exactly what you are looking for, or are willing to sacrifice hours to shipping books for little profit, there is basically no money to be had in selling them. Paperbacks are especially cheap, and this translates into second-hand book prices: most things can be found for under £3 including postage on Amazon or e-Bay.

    So I suppose I would rather pay money to charity, recycle old books and have fun doing it than pay a multi-million pound company the same price for a few lines of encoded text.

    That said, the e-publishing business has been a boon to falling book sales - even Waterstones have brought out their own e-reader with some success - and it might also be argued that in addition to the profits generated by the sale of digital texts, the environment might benefit from less new books being published in paper-form.

    2. Usability - Highlighting and Annotation and its Flaws
    Another thing that could be considered a benefit of the kindle is the ability to share highlighting and notes across a large network of Kindle users. Ostensibly, with a kindle you’re able to read War and Peace with access to the shared notes of other readers, thereby making the text more accessible. However, as far as I am aware there is no control over these shared notes, and you might be as likely to stumble across a student’s misreading as a brilliantly insightful note. Also, practically, this can be very distracting - in a world of shared notes, it is likely someone (or multiple people) have commented on every single line of a text, which would make reading them more time consuming than the book itself.

    Also, in practical terms, writing notes on a kindle involved a fiddly highlighting and typing process, where making longhand notes in the margins or on separate paper would be much quicker for a serious student, and much easier to scan over at a glance.

    One of the best features I found while I had my kindle, however, was the search option, which allowed you to search for quotes or references within a very long text very quickly. The use of this in planning out essays, or even just working out themes within a book speaks for itself, as I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve thought ‘there was a great line somewhere in X chapter’ and then struggled to find the quote we need.


  5. 3. Aesthetics & Tangibility
    The much toted argument against Kindles is a combination of traditionalism and aesthetics: books, purists argue, just /feel/ better. Something about the paper, the cover, the weight of a book, makes reading an experience that goes beyond the words on the page. This is a strong argument, and one which Amazon definitely considered when they developed the screen technology for the Kindle. The idea was to create a non-backlit page which mimicked paper as closely as possible. With the addition of fancy leather covers and other accessories, e-Books can come to resemble a traditional book - but can they be a replacement?

    There is something satisfying about owning books; my flat would feel lifeless without my bookshelves, and there is some comfort to be had in carrying a book around in your bag (even if the opportunity to read it doesn’t come up). Whether this is as James said, a sense of erudition that comes from being surrounded by books, or whether it’s just a matter of aesthetics, a kindle - for all its extensive library, notes, and built-in dictionary - can never tangibly replace this feeling. Would you rather look over an old manuscript or a digital scan of one?

    Overall, I think I am fairly traditional when I say that the Kindle, while a wonderful gadget, is no real replacement for books. I enjoyed my Kindle while I had it, but weighing everything up, decided that it was not for me and sold it on. It’s a really interesting area of discussion though, as I do think it’s going to have a serious effect upon publishing as a practice and the writing process as a whole.


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