The Chronicle Review

Do You Like Your E-Reader?

Six takes from academics

June 13, 2010

James J. O'Donnell, provost and professor of classics, Georgetown University

My Kindle's great. It's just not a book. I use it to read, and I don't use it to read. What it has done is make me look at my own reading practices and those of colleagues, trying to understand some of the many different behaviors that we call "reading," and how they flourish or don't flourish. It makes me wonder if's Jeff Bezos really likes to read­—or what he means by "reading."

The Kindle is great for reading the way ancient Greeks read, on papyrus scrolls, beginning at the beginning, proceeding linearly, getting to the end, absorbed in one book, following the author's lead. That makes it just fine for lots of fiction for entertainment or diversion. It has its annoyances, but next generations of devices are pretty good at removing annoyances.

So when I was given my Kindle for Christmas, I started loading it up—and found that there was lots my good intentions could acquire quickly, some even for 99 cents, on the Kindle store. Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne's Essais, the King James Bible (I'll read it for the prose), an unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and Three Men in a Boat. I've read chunks of all of them on the Kindle at odd moments, but not a lot of any of them yet.

And of course, I'm grumpy with the selection of what's available so far. They say there are 500,000 books, but the Kindle store still feels like the old B. Dalton, with best sellers, schlock, and not much selection. It has no Nabokov, and only three Sebald volumes, for example.

But even for what's there, I haven't been able to make myself buy Kindle books very readily for the $10 or $15 or higher that many cost. What I have bought include a meditation on higher education by a public intellectual (zoomed through it in two hours one night), a scholarly book in my field that I know I won't like but should have a good look at, and several short novels people recommended for airplane reading.

So what's going on here? Some part lies in the idiosyncratic reading habits of the scholar. I need particular books, and I need to have several of them open at the same time (with a specialized reference shelf handy). I need to take and "export" notes (we didn't call it that when I was putting 3-by-5 cards in a file box, but that's what I was doing), and to do that while flipping back and forth easily through the volume I'm reading. I can reproduce and even expand on many of those practices on a networked desktop or laptop, but not easily on any of the e-readers out now.

So for now, I'm a little stuck. Like a French bulldog, I'm overbred for reading and very fussy about my intellectual treats. The Kindle's world, on the other hand, began as fast food and is, to its credit, moving forward rapidly. Using that analogy, we're up from Mickey D's to something like Panera Bread or Pret A Manger, and while I do eat at all those establishments, I'm fussier about my books than I am about my food. For now the Kindle remains a travel appliance, a convenience, and an idea whose time has almost come. The art of reading, I'm pleased to realize, is still far ahead of the art of making e-readers.

Alice E. Marwick, doctoral candidate in media, culture, and communication, New York University

I'm a voracious reader. Besides the endless stack of academic books and articles that I absolutely must read before finishing my dissertation, I read a lot of contemporary fiction. But like most graduate students, I'm intensely parsimonious, and spending $10-$20 on a new book is out of the question. I also read very fast. So I get my ever-flowing supply of paperbacks from thrift stores, used-book stores, friends, free piles left on stoops, sidewalk sales, my mother, and of course, the New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston Public Libraries (grad students move around a lot). There are books stacked on my nightstand, coffee table, bathroom sink, and floor. I love books.

A year or two ago, my boyfriend's mother generously sent him a Kindle as a birthday present. I eyed it with suspicion and left it alone; he, preferring to read economics blogs when not programming, followed my lead. The Kindle sat there gathering dust until one of our friends asked to borrow it for a lengthy vacation. She came back raving about it. Finally, my curiosity piqued, I took it back (she immediately bought a new one; she has a real job) and started experimenting.

First things first: Reading on the Kindle is easy in bed, in direct sunlight, and on public transit—I can hang on to a subway strap with one hand and click the "next page" button with the other. The Kindle is much lighter than hardcover books and makes packing for vacation more pleasurable.

But here is a list of things you can't do with the device: Borrow library books. Trade books with your friends. Download anything that isn't fairly mass-market (which cuts out approximately 99.99 percent of academic books). Mark important passages with Post-it flags. Highlight articles. Write notes on articles. Cut and paste text into other documents.

When you pay for a Kindle book, you're purchasing a license to read content on a single Kindle for as long as Amazon or the publisher allows. Some authors make their books available through free licenses on Creative Commons, but they are a small minority. Sure, you can find books to download in the public domain, but thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, those are restricted to books published by authors who died more than 70 years ago. Anything more recent, you pay for. You can't transfer a purchase, copy it, print it out, or do anything else without violating at least the Kindle terms of service and at worst the copyright act. Naturally, there is a thriving trade in pirated e-books, as well as in software that converts files so that they can be read on the Kindle. That is all highly illegal.

The Kindle works best for one type of reader: She who buys new books and discards them immediately. I'm not that kind—I'm not sure anyone is. Even if I were, I bristle at anything that takes away my highly valued reader's rights. I love the idea of e-books, but publishers and manufacturers need to be more realistic about the many ways that people read, share, acquire, and enjoy books for me to love the Kindle.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate professor of English and media studies and coordinator, media-studies program, Pomona College

I'm an early adopter and an Apple zealot, so I pretty much knew as soon as the iPad was announced that I'd be getting one. I preordered it through my college's bookstore and picked it up the morning it was released. And I've been thrilled with it so far as an all-around media-consumption device: I've used it to read and watch videos on airplanes, as well as to keep me amused and busy while stuck in bed sick.

It's a great digital reading device, in no small part because of the multiplicity of its channels. Rather than being restricted to one reader application or digital bookstore, I've purchased and read books from both iBooks and the Kindle apps, and I've imported epubBooks from the Internet. I tend to like the feel of reading in iBooks, with its facing pages in landscape format, a bit better than in Kindle, but the selection of books available for the Kindle app is significantly larger, so I've wound up using it a little more.

But there are other ways of reading on the iPad. iAnnotate, for instance, provides sophisticated markup tools for PDF's and synchronizes the annotated documents with a designated folder on your computer. And, of course, there's the Web: The iPad's Web-browsing capabilities make it a powerful online-reading device.

The iPad goes more or less wherever I do, and it's taken the place of the paperback book and the Moleskine notebook I used to carry around. I use the Evernote app to take notes during lectures and meetings, then synchronize them to the Evernote applications on my laptop and desktop computers. And I always have a good selection of material to read during those random moments of sitting around waiting.

To this point, though, I've used the iPad mostly for pleasure reading, in part because I'm in the finishing-up stages of a project (for which I already have the necessary texts in hard copy), and in part because of a few kinks that need to be fixed for it to work the way I'd like. The iBooks app, for instance, allows a reader to bookmark and highlight within any text, but to copy and paste only within DRM-free texts, texts that do not have copyright or other limitations—meaning that books purchased from the iBooks store are excluded. The Kindle app similarly allows bookmarking and highlighting as well as text annotations, but it doesn't permit copying and pasting at all. I like taking notes in my books, so I'm happy to have annotation tools, but I also want to be able to take notes in a separate text document. My hope is that updates to the iBooks and Kindle apps—as well as the multitasking of iPhone OS 4, which will be available for iPad use in the fall—will apparently permit that kind of note-taking. That means more research-oriented reading.

Leonard Cassuto, professor of English, Fordham University

I saw my first iPad in action last week while I was commuting to work. A young man on the train was using it to read a graphic novel. The machine was graceful, compact, and altogether beautiful, and I gazed hungrily at it for awhile before I returned to the newspaper I was holding.

Perhaps that tableau marks me as hopelessly old-media. And perhaps I am: I'm writing this for a newspaper, after all, and I love newspapers. Though hardly what the industry calls an "early adopter," however, I remain open to the blessings of the digital world. But I'm also cheap with my money and time. I don't want to buy anything, or invest the hours to learn it, unless it helps me do my job better.

E-readers haven't yet been able to help me with my job—but they're almost there.

In digital terms, the main obstacle for me has been interactivity. I need to be able to write in the books I read, and if I own the book—whether in the form of pulped trees or as a collection of magnetized zeros and ones—I want to be able to take notes in it.

Let me put it another way: I don't collect books. Instead I collect what I write in them. The novelist Elizabeth McCracken, a former librarian herself, describes a library as a giant "exosomatic memory." My library, with its collection of my own thoughts written between its numerous covers, is my personal exosomatic memory.

E-readers are still primarily designed for people who want to read books, not work with them. The latest versions allow users to work with documents, but copyrighted books remain difficult to manipulate, partly to prevent people from distributing them free. The latest version of the Kindle does allow the reader to annotate the text, so I borrowed one and tried it. I quickly discovered, though, that the annotation function isn't easy to use, mainly because the keyboard is very uncomfortable. So I gave up—for now.

But I realize the defeat is just a pause. The thought of being able to comment on and search book text, together with my notes on it, makes me salivate even more than the screen of the iPad does. Now, that would make my job easier. So for me, here's the question: Is it yet possible to annotate a copyrighted e-book (the ones in public domain are easy to use and available at online textual archives) and then save the annotations to a word-processed file on my own computer?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that question is how hard I had to look for the answer. A friend works in the e-reader business, and even he wasn't exactly sure. The industry evidently doesn't cater to readers looking to compile exosomatic memories, but I kept searching. The answer, I eventually discovered, is still no. So I'm not yet ready to buy. But I still think about the sleekness of that iPad on the train. My e-reader is coming soon.

John Palfrey, professor of law and vice dean for library and information resources, Harvard Law School

I like but don't love to read on my Kindle. It's a fun, intriguing device, but it has not yet displaced the hardcovers that I prefer for both professional and plain-old-fun reading. If I'm on a long trip, I'll bring the Kindle as a way to have multiple books and articles with me, while saving my back from carrying a whole slew of them in printed copy. Too often, though, I find myself with a dead battery at an inopportune time or a sore hand from clicking the pages from one to the next. I'm a believer in the possibilities of reading on digital devices, especially during interstitial moments in the day. But the user interface and the industrial design have a ways to go before I, for one, am a total convert.

I've been thinking about e-readers from another angle, though, which is as an author. I've just begun writing a book with my friend Urs Gasser, executive director of our Berkman Center for Internet & Society, on the topic of interoperability and the way that people, data, and code can interact with other people, data, and code. We've written articles and case studies on the topic, and now we're building a more sustained argument. It's gotten me thinking: In the era of the iPad, if that's where we're heading, how might the book be improved? Might we find a way to link it back to the articles we've and others have written? How might we authors create a richer experience for our readers, given what we know they might be able to do via networks and over clever devices like the iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, or what will inevitably follow?

My sense is that the book as a sustained argument—primarily in text with more than 70,000 or 100,000 or however many words—will persist. And for good reason. But I think that we can do better than we have in terms of making such a sustained argument more engaging, useful, and perhaps even entertaining.

As a thought experiment, we might try conceptualizing a book as an application that would run on an iPad. The application would launch a window that would have a series of ways into the argument of the book. One link would take you more or less to the e-book version, much as you'd see a book on your Kindle after you've downloaded it from But the book you'd download would have many more links embedded in it, to other information that might be of value. The links might draw you out into the Web at large, to access other data or metadata that would help you to understand the concepts discussed in a richer context.

The application might also draw you into other forms of argument beyond the text. The author might have recorded a series of videos with leading figures discussing the same topic, but from different angles—much like the interviews that a reporter for a newspaper or magazine story might record and make available as primary source material. More fancifully, perhaps an interactive game or quiz or discussion space would draw the reader into a community of people interested in similar topics.

The book-as-application might open up new avenues of human interaction with ideas and with one another that would take us beyond e-readers that save our backs from hauling large bags of books on planes, only to have the battery die halfway between New York and Shanghai.

Mark L. Sample, assistant professor of English, George Mason University

I am a geek and a lover of gadgets. I've got Apple products, I've got Microsoft products, I've got Linux machines, I've got Android machines. I blog. I tweet. I'm a mayor on the social-networking site Foursquare. I teach and conduct research on contemporary literature, new media, and video games. I read. A lot. You'd think I'd be the first person around to have a Kindle, a Nook, or an iPad. But I don't. I don't have an e-reader, and if I had one I wouldn't be able to use it.

It's not because I'm in love with the materiality of books—their heft, their smell, their thereness. It's not because I am unwilling to give up the ivory-tower vision of a book-lined study. It's not because I'm staking out an ideological, technological, or pedagogical position.

The truth is, e-books are simply not interesting.

The iPad and the Kindle before it are marvels of engineering and commerce. They're endpoints on a publishing-and-distribution chain. They make book-buying quick and easy, and by most accounts, they make book-reading easy, too. Yet they also reinforce the most conservative of publishing and reading practices. The iPad is the height of 21st-century consumer technology so far, but the e-books you might read on it are much less experimental than any paper-and-glue book.

Consider one of the novels I teach in contemporary-literature classes, Mark Z. Danielewksi's House of Leaves, published in 2000. It's a monstrous book, about a monstrous house, written in a mind-bogglingly complex form. It's a novel with footnotes, which is not anything particularly new. But those footnotes have their own footnotes, and each of the narrative voices has its own typeface, often laced with encrypted messages. There's an index with entries that aren't actually in the novel; entire pages of distressed typography. It's a crazy, shambling, labyrinth of a book, and it'd be impossible on any kind of e-book reader.

And I don't just teach House of Leaves. It is the kind of book I read for pleasure as well. Books like Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would also be impossible on existing e-readers. So would some of the older books I value, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man.

But the real problem isn't so much that e-readers won't let me read books that experiment with form. The real problem is that most novelists are writing books that don't experiment with form. Generally people still think about e-books as, well, electronic books. And they imagine the only difference between books and e-books is the screen's replacing the page. Jay David Bolter, a professor of new media, has famously described the tendency to think of new forms of media in terms of the old as "remediation." I call it a rut.

For me at least, e-books won't become compelling until writers and publishers begin taking advantage of the native capabilities of e-readers. Imagine a novel whose plot changed based upon your location. Imagine a novel that was infinitely scalable, infinitely malleable. Imagine a novel that incorporated other media—a video clip, a song fragment, a dynamic map. That novel would not be an experimental novel. It would be, at long last, a fully realized realist novel. That's the kind of e-book I want to read.