As a reader who loves both—ebooks, I’m on my 4th Kindle, for single reads and hardbacks for keepers—this is a wonderful article (and I agree with everything the author says) from the Atlantic.
“Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful.
“If you hate ebooks like I do, that loathing might attach to their dim screens, their wonky typography, their weird pagination, their unnerving ephemerality, or the prison house of a proprietary ecosystem. If you love ebooks, it might be because they are portable, and legible enough, and capable of delivering streams of words, fiction and nonfiction, into your eyes and brain with relative ease. Perhaps you like being able to carry a never-ending stack of books with you wherever you go, without having to actually lug them around. Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.
“When discussed in the present tense, ebooks means Amazon Kindle ebooks. Competitors are out there, including tablets such as the iPad and the various software that can display books in electronic format. Precursors are also many. Ebooks appeared on Palm handhelds in the late ’90s. Microsoft made a reader for its equivalent, Windows CE. The first commercial e-ink reader was made in 2004 by Sony, not Amazon, although you’ve probably never heard of it. Barnes & Noble still makes the Nook, a Kindle competitor that seems like the Betamax of ebook readers. Before all of these, it was always possible to read on computers, portable or not. Adobe’s PDF format, first released in the early ’90s, made it easy to create and share print-formatted documents, viewable on any platform with a PDF reader. And you have been able to scroll through Word (or WordPerfect or WordStar or plain text) documents for as long as computers have existed, even if few would call such an experience reading.
“Stop and reread that last clause, because the key to understanding why you love or hate ebooks is pressurized into it. Agreeing that books are a thing you read is easy enough. But what it means to read, what the experience of reading requires and entails, and what makes it pleasurable or not, is not so easy to pin down.
“Consider, for example, the Kindle DX, a 2009 follow-up to the original, 2007 Kindle reader. The DX’s 9.7-inch screen was 50 percent bigger than the original’s six-inch display, and the newer model could also show PDFs. Seen as a potential disruptor of technical, academic, and other specialized reading uses, the DX was a failure, at least in comparison with the paperback-size original Kindle and its successful follow-ups, including the popular Paperwhite model. Students and technical readers didn’t want to consume documents on the gadget. By contrast, readers of genre fiction or business best sellers were more willing to shift their practices to a small, gray screen.
“Reading is a relatively useless term. It describes a broad array of literacy practices, ranging from casually scanning social-media posts to perusing magazine articles such as this one to poring over the most difficult technical manuals or the lithest storytelling. You read instructions on elevators, prompts in banking apps, directions on highway signs. Metaphorically, you read situations, people’s faces, the proverbial room. What any individual infers about their hopes and dreams for an e-reader derives from their understanding of reading in the first place. You can’t have books without bookiness.
“Bookiness. That’s the word Glenn Fleishman, a technology writer and longtime bookmaker, uses to describe the situation. “It’s the essence that makes someone feel like they’re using a book,” he told me. Like pornography or sandwiches, you know bookiness when you see it. Or feel it? Either way, most people can’t identify what it is in the abstract.
“Fleishman and I took a swing at defining bookiness anyway. A book, we decided, is probably composed of bound pages, rather than loose ones. Those pages are probably made from paper, or leaves akin to paper. These pages are likely numerous, and the collection of pages is coherent, forming a totality. The order of that totality matters, but also the form of bound pages allows a reader random access to any page, via flipping and fanning. Books have spreads, made of a left (verso) and right (recto) side. You can look at both at once, and an open book has the topology of a valley, creating a space that you can go inside and be surrounded by, literally and figuratively. Some books are very large, but the ordinary sort is portable and probably handheld. That held object probably has a cover made of a different material from the leaves that compose its pages. A stapled report probably isn’t a book; a coil-bound one with plastic covers might be. A greeting card is probably not a book; neither is the staple-bound manual that came with your air fryer. Are magazines and brochures books? They might be, if we didn’t have special terms for the kind of books they are.
“Whatever a book might be, all of the things that an average person might name a “book” evolved from an invention more than two millennia old, called a codex. Prior to the codex, reading and writing took place on scrolls—long, rolled sheets of paper (or vellum or papyrus)—and then on wax tablets, which a sharp stylus could imprint and its tapered end could erase. The ancient Romans sometimes connected wax tablets with leather or cords, suggesting a prototype of binding. Replacing the wax with leaves allowed many pages to be stacked atop one another, then sewn or otherwise bound together. Codices were first handwritten or copied, then made in multiples when the printing press emerged. I’m skipping over a lot more detail—a whole field, called book history, addresses this topic—but the result connects today’s best seller to hand-gilded illuminated manuscripts, the earliest records of the Gospels, and more. Two thousand years after the codex and 500 after the Gutenberg press, the book persists. If something better were to come along, you’d expect it to have done so by now. In other words, as far as technologies go, the book endures for very good reason. Books work.”
Retrieved September 15, 2021 from Why Are Ebooks So Terrible? – The Atlantic