Archive: In Which the Author Discusses the Value of Portable Books in Quantity

Archive: Originally posted 02/02/2011 at

I have been reading electronic books for what feels like a thousand years. (Given that I’m 35, that’s an exaggeration, but…) I started reading journals and articles online almost as soon as they were available, and I was a proud owner of an early Handspring, a PDA that ran the Palm operating system and had a teeny little monochrome screen. I would have owned a Newton had I been able to get my hands on one and wrap my budget around it, though there was little software and less media for the Newton.

Part of the reason I was an early electronic book adopter is SPACE. I broke a thousand books in my personal library in 2000 (and I STILL resent the asshole ex who convinced me to “limit” my library to one small bookshelf. Jerk. Meanie. Aliterate selfish crapbag. Okay, I feel better) and my library just keeps growing. Today, we’re running about 3500 volumes in print editions, and I’m honestly surprised that the end of our house with all the books isn’t sinking. Given my rate of acquisition, we may need a bigger house at some point. (But.. I still have walls! That don’t have bookcases! What do you mean, HGTV, that books are clutter?? Phui!)

The second motivation for ebooks was night reading. I’ve been reading myself to sleep since I learned to read, but people with whom I share a bed somehow have problems with my light being on all night. (These days, I use audiobooks, too.) Most people, for some reason, sleep with the lights off. Ereaders let me read in the dark, and shut themselves off quite effectively.

Third, ebooks have saved me from the nadirs of pop culture. With an ereader in my pocket, I never have to waste precious brain space on which Famous For Being Famous is sleeping with/divorcing/having a child with/breaking up with/dieting/not dieting when waiting to buy my damned groceries, see my damned doctor or getting my damned oil changed. There are a few things I hate more than People Magazine and entertainment tabloids, but most of them have high death rates.

So… ereaders are very important to me, and I’ve gotten strong opinions about good, acceptable, and which ones are funnels for my money into corporate products. I have put up with some craptascular design — tiny grey-scale screens, green backlighting, having to copy everything to an external card, then onto the internal memory, ugly fonts, tiny fonts, poor note ability and the gawd-awful glories of two inch square grey-scale, 8 bit resistive touch screens. I’ll tolerate a lot in an ereader, and they have gotten so very much better over the last decade that part of me says “don’t complain. They’ll take it away.”


Apple… is a funnel. A bad funnel.

I’m not an Apple Fangirl, though I am (quite obviously) using a Mac to write this post, and I own a fair number of Apple products. (No iPhone, though. I like t-Mobile, and I actually like Android better than iOS. Would like it even better if there was a functional Android tablet available…) Apple has flaws, and one of the big ones is they’re getting greedy and evil as they move towards world domination ^H^H^H^H try to lock their users and products down. However, most of their products, both hard and soft, are well designed, robust and hard to break in a stupid user moment. (which we all have, I don’t care how tech savvy one may be). I also don’t terribly much mind Apple’s iWeb software, nor The price is reasonable (I’d spend at least $10 a month on hosting anyway), and the NOT attracting the attention of spammers is worth not getting Google-indexed. I’d say that I use 90% of the Apple products and services I use because they don’t require me to think much to use them, meaning I can devote attention to things I really care about.

One of those things are ebooks. In 2005, I bought approximately 200 hard copy volumes and 200 ebooks. That was the point of balance. Since then, I’ve been tipping steadily towards ebooks, especially as ebooks become more common, their formatting improves and backlist books become more available. In fact, at this point, I will buy a hard copy book only if it is not available in ebook.

Ebook readers, thus, are critical to me. For years, I used Palm Reader almost exclusively — partly because I was mostly using a Palm device, part because the .pdb format is easy to create, so I could put my own manuscripts on my ereader and edit on the fly. A good ereader has multiple features:

  • Dark available screen — black background with dim text, for night reading.
  • User determined screen colors — I use a sky-blue screen for morning reading, because it seems to help me combat my genetic predisposition to Seasonal Affective Disorder.
  • User determined orientation — sometimes I like landscape, sometimes I like portrait. There are times to use both — landscape is better at night, when I’m lying down; portrait is better in a crowded setting, because my elbows stay closer to my body.
  • Multiple formats and, if DRMed, then unobtrusive DRM. My preference is for multi-format, non-DRMed books (not because I’m file-sharing them, but because, since I’ve been reading for so long, I want to know that my library will be available to me in 6 iterations of software and hardware. So far, I haven’t lost anything, but… )
  • If the ereader has an ebookstore attached (this is not necessary), that store must be as easy to browse as a dead-trees bookstore. If I’m going to look for books, I should be able to both go directly to X book by Y author, and browse for recent fantasy/SF/historical mystery/19th century European History/whatever I’m looking for. Also, if I buy X, Y and Z books, the bookstore should recommend A, B, and C as things I might like. (Amazon does this extremely well; Barnes & Noble is a bit more hit or miss.)

Apple’s iBooks pretty much fails my ereader test. It does have user selectable orientation, but the screen doesn’t dim enough, doesn’t have a white on black (or better, eggplant/navy/slate on black) mode — which, for people with visual impairment, can be an absolute necessity — and fails to support other formats. While I can put my own, user-created documents into iBooks, it’s much easier to use Stanza (a free iBooks competitor that can read many more formats, and works well with Calibre.)

At this point on my iPad, I have five ebook readers — Stanza, Nook, Kindle, iBooks and Google. I use Stanza, Kindle and Nook most, because they pass the above tests best. Google is still stuck in portrait only orientation, so it gets used only when I can’t find a book in that format. iBooks… I never use it. Worse, the iBookstore is awful — Half the time, it can’t find what I’m looking for, and it has no reasonable browse capabilities. (If I wanted to read Dan Brown… well, I’m never going to want to. I dislike the iTunes store for the same reason, though somehow, their music programmers understand genre just a little better than their bookstore programmers…)

For me, the iPad is the best ereader, and if I have to switch to the Nook or Kindle because Apple is being greedy about getting a cut of every book purchase I make, I will be right royally peeved. I’ve been reading with a backlit device for years (and while I keep hearing rumors about this eyestrain thing, my eyes — which aren’t perfect by any means — have stayed stable for the last many years) so a Kindle is not an option. A color Nook would be okay, but given that I already have a somewhat significant Kindle library, as well as an extensive none-of-the-above library (which all work under Stanza) I would not be happy to have to convert everything, and I do have a problem with being locked into a device and platform. At this point, I really like having one device that can do everything, and I will fight to keep it so, if that means jailbreaking the iPad to do what I want. (I own the damn thing, and I own the damn books.)