Limitations to e-Readers

I’m a big, enthusiastic, giddy fan of e-readers. You’ve probably got this figured out from my multiple posts filled with exclamation marks about the Kindle, the e-reader I happen to own. Nonetheless, I a) find plenty to gripe about in the current Kindle, and b) don’t think even the ideal e-reader will be the preferred medium for all books. I’ve written about books in category b), the Gutenberg books before, and soon I will succumb to my need to gripe and write all about a). However, the point that I’d like to make here is that we should distinguish a) from b).

There are limitations to the current e-readers that are the product of the prevailing state of the market. They are in no way inherent to the readers themselves; they do not need to be part and parcel of e-readers; in fact, these limitations are likely to morph or be eliminated as the market for e-readers grows and the technology improves. I think it’s important to us to keep in mind how nascent this technology is. Widespread use of e-readers came about, at the earliest, only 3 years ago — the first generation Kindle was released in late 2007 — and as of May 2011, only 12% of adult Americans own an e-reader.

As the technology matures and e-readers penetrate deeper in the market, I expect that readers offering much more functionality and customization will become available. There are a lot of things that the current readers do not do, among them: good typography, easy file sharing, adequate PDF views, reselling ability, and a host of other things that I can get really riled up writing about. Nonetheless, I would note that most of these problems are can, and probably will be solved, once their manufacturers figure out a way to make money by offering these now-absent functions. They are not intrinsic problems to e-readers, but rather economic and technological issues. They are certainly annoying, but I expect them not to be around to annoy us forever.

On the other hand, there are problems that e-readers, no matter how advanced they are, and in what market conditions they are designed and sold, cannot solve. They’re not going to replicate the experience of the Gutenberg books; they make rather poor artifactual objects; and they probably don’t decorate a room very well. In short, e-readers are never going to perfectly imitate physical books.

That said, I believe there are two caveats to the immediate preceding paragraph. First, it’s difficult to predict how tastes may change. Nobody decorates their living room with e-books now, but does this mean that some kind of projection cannot be made from digital files in the future so that images of e-books fill a room? Likewise, few valued Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible as an artifact when it was first published either. May the first prototype of the Kindle not one day enjoy the same prestige that Gutenberg’s Bible now does? This is a bit farfetched but not impossible.

Second (and last, I promise), why is it that when comparisons are made between e-readers/e-books and physical containers/books, the ideal type of the latter are held up to be compared with the current, flawed former? After all, there are plenty of physical books with ugly typeset too. How can we, without qualifications, say that physical books offer better typography? Are we even sure that the average p-book is typographically better than the average e-book? Surely, it’s the case that the best p-books have better typography than the best  e-books, but shouldn’t these classes of books be made explicit in our comparisons?

There you have it — a spirited, biased defense of e-readers by an avid fan. I don’t (always) play favorites, however. I’m happiest when a title I want to read is available, ideally for free (go libraries!), and then only for a certain type of books, do I have a strong preference for reading it in one format or another. Free reigns supreme above all.

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