The BS column: Make mine a memorizer

(Published in the Business Standard, July 13, 2009, in a fit of frustration at the quality of e-readers on the market. Quick summary: “What kind of reading revolution can you usher in with blunt swords such as these etc?”)

In A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller imagined a world where reading was banned, books contraband, ideas feared. In this world, a small group of monks work as bookleggers, concealing books in kegs, smuggling them out when possible, and as memorizers, committing works of literature, history, science to memory in giant, library-shelf sized chunks.

Like many book lovers who struggle with the downside of maintaining large and unwieldy personal libraries, I’ve often wanted a memorizer of my own—a highly efficient reading machine, trained to understand your tastes and regurgitate the texts you want. But as Plastic Logic and Cool-er join the ranks of the Kindle and the Sony e-reader, I’ve gone from e-reader evangelism to scepticism, watching in dismay as the industry gets it dead wrong.

Those who’ve followed the e-reading debate over the last decade will know that most of the discussion has focused on the pros and cons of reading on a device versus the familiarity of the dead-tree book. But the real question is what we get and expect from a book versus an e-reader, and this is where the manufacturers have messed up. It’s been nine years since the first iPod came out, but none of the present e-book readers seem to have learned anything from the music industry. Here’s a short list of what I want from an e-reader, and what’s missing from the current generation.

I want a wide choice of books: The Kindle restricts readers to what’s available on Amazon, the Borders e-reader offers books from the Borders stores and the easiest way to get books on the Sony e-reader is through CONNECT. This is theoretically a wide enough range for most readers, and some argue that it mimics the bookstore experience, where you’re restricted by the bookseller’s choice of what to stock. But you’re buying a device, not a book—and that device should be a portal into all online bookstores. The current situation would be analogous to buying a car and being told that you can only drive on certain roads.

I want to buy books at a lower price and in a choice of formats: Currently, e-books are cheaper than paperbacks—but not by a large enough margin. If I’m sacrificing some things—print quality, paper size, reading ease with some e-reader screens, comfort levels—in order to buy an e-book, I want it to be as relatively cheap as the average iTunes download. I also don’t see why I have to be stuck with bad design, or a font I don’t like, in an electronic format. Not every reader is going to want to turn book designer, but enough of us want at least the ability to fiddle with the text. The biggest problem here is that e-readers, priced roughly between $199 to $300, are too expensive, especially when you factor in the cost of electronically replacing your personal library, and the strong resistance to e-reading from old school booklovers.

I want to be able to share, loan or resell my e-books the same way I do with my personal, dead-tree library: According to students at Columbia Law School who’ve been studying e-book contracts, what readers buy is more a license to read e-books than the ability to own them. As with the music industry, the publishing industry is caught between the need to protect authors against piracy versus the need to let customers own their reading material. Currently, customers lose—and I don’t like the idea that I wouldn’t be able to share an ebook in the same way that I can share my paperback collection.

I want to be able to organise my e-book library with the same flexibility with which I can organise my 3D library: This is a big surprise, but none of the e-readers currently on the market have actually thought hard about letting readers organise their content. I expect this will change pretty fast, but there’s no e-reader equivalent of “playlists” or decent cross-indexing. If you’re trying to use e-readers to read and store magazine or newspaper articles in particular, or if you like rearranging your virtual library shelves every so often, this is a serious negative.

I retain my faith in e-reading itself. It offers a way out for a beleagured publishing industry, and could, theoretically, make a huge difference to the number of readers that the average author might be able to reach. I love the idea of being able to store my library on one device, of not having to wait until books trickle in from the US or the UK.

But until the e-book industry gets it right, I’m considering hiring a monk with a naturally large RAM drive and a yen for memorization. He may require chanting music and a light sattvic diet, but he won’t drive me mad with bad formatting, a truncated reading selection and a reluctance to share texts with my friends.

3 comments

  1. Just the way this generation never learnt to know the smell of freshly cut grass, maybe the next will never know the scent of crispy paper sliding between their fingers. Not to mention the curvy spines and the gentle friction of smooth, printed white on the palm.Gutenburg must be stirring in his grave.

  2. That's a beautiful image (enjoyed your previous comment on the blog as well, Dheeraj). And yes, there is some nostalgia for the book. But two minor quibbles:I don't think ereaders will kill off the book that fast, though the number of paper books out there might shrink (think of CDs and the online music market). Some theorise that while book marketing will change, you might see a rise in print-on-demand. If eink and epaper become cheaper, we might end up with "flimsies"–books that are much thinner, and printed on plasma screen-type plastic instead of paper. You'd have disposable flimsies (paperback equivalents) and more permanent flimsies (hardback/ coffeetable). Quibble two: I had a marvellously nostalgic moment thinking of the "scent of crispy paper", and yes, there is a certain kind of book that is beautiful in itself, as an object. But look around you–how many books are printed that way these days? There's often a mass-produced, three families of fonts fit all, feel to most books, and few publishers bother with really elegant work for more than about 10 per cent of their catalogue. I'm not at all nostalgic about the kind of book that you find in circulation today, with the Wonderbread spine, the generic cover, the boring typesetting and the utterly unromantic flimsy pages. I'd exchange those for an ebook in a heartbeat–basically, I'd keep perhaps one bookcase worth of "real books" and put the rest on an e-reader quite happily.IF they'd build a decent e-reader, that is.

  3. True. Agree with you very much on both fronts. Book binding needs a kick up the back side, and maybe it's time for the e-readers to do the same. Lest the book may surely die, sooner than later. I know there isn't much logic in arguing against the 'etherisation' of the written word, seeing that it also, more or less, accomplishes the author's eternal dream – the permanence of words – in both the figurative and physical sense. Even Gutenberg would agree.My issue with the e-reader vs. the book was only to do with the romantic ideal of 'holding' the words in my hand, the joy of 'possessing' those tiny pieces of life etched into black figures in crispy white resting against my palm. Every realm of human communication has been, or is in the process of being, invaded by the elusive tyranny of ether (no one needs to be reminded of the tragedy of the case of the email vs. the handwritten letter) and to a nostalgic puritan like me, the book represents the greatest of the last surviving manifestations of that grand old tradition.This is like clinging to a fast collapsing pack of cards, I know, I can feel it crumble between my fingers. But still, if I were offered a choice between an e-reader with a million books stored in its mindless memory and my classic edition of Borges' "Collected Poems", I don't think there would be a choice. Because, you know, as I know, and Borges very well knew, there is always more to a book than just the words that make it up.

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