Speaking Volumes: Reading on rent: ebooks

(Published in the Business Standard, July 25, 2011. Will probably do an expanded version of this soon, with a greater focus on reader’s rights and how we stand in danger of losing them.)

It takes less time than you might guess to convert a reader wedded to the idea of the physical book into a Kindle or an iPad enthusiast.

As most ebook newbies have discovered over the span of the last few years, the switch to reading on a device is smoother and easier than anyone would have predicted. The smell of the pages, the feel of the physical book, the pleasure of flipping through a book; these are easily, and seamlessly, replaced by the screen experience.

I read faster on a Kindle than I do on the page; the e-ink and the ability to format the size of the font to my preferences on the page work beautifully for me. Scrolling through pages is automatic, and while I missed page numbers and think ebooks should offer both options, it’s interesting to use the percentage method.

Percentages make me evaluate more sharply whether I want to continue reading or not, in a way that page numbers never did. At 42% of the way through a tedious, limply written family saga, evaluating whether you want to spend precious hours of your life struggling with the remaining 58% becomes surprisingly easy. This can also be daunting: who wants to know that days of reading have taken them a mere 16% of the way through Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake?

Moving from the physical book to the ebook, the switch is both sharper and less threatening than I would originally have guessed: like moving between cities, rather than shifting from one house to another. The Kindle, the iPad, the Sony Reader and other devices answer the big fears we all had about shifting to ebooks. Yes, the ebook is portable; the few situations in which battery life or screen brightness are problematic are rare in real life. As I adapted to the fact that the Kindle allowed me to have a portable library, not just a portable book, my reading habits changed. It was easier to browse through six books on similar subjects when you didn’t have to hunt through your physical shelves to locate them.

Nostalgia for the printed word on the physical page ebbs fast, in the face of the very real conveniences of ebooks, the ability to make marginalia which will never deface the books, to customize the page, to buy books that are hard to find in India. Kindle readers downloaded George RR Martin’s Dance with Dragons two weeks ago—it is yet to arrive in Delhi’s bookstores. The ebook version of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower was available three weeks before the first Indian reviews came out. Unless publishers enforce a deliberate territorial lag on ebook versions, this is one of the joys of reading the virtual book: you don’t have to wait for weeks, sometimes months, for the books you love to come into your library.

But there is one thing missing from the ebook experience, and it’s a big one: a sense of ownership over your virtual library. In order to prevent piracy, the industry doesn’t allow owners to download books onto your hard drive. Looking at my virtual shelves, I am struck by the knowledge that these books are in effect, there on rent: Amazon, or the publisher, could delete them from my library faster than you can say “disapparate”. (This is one of the reasons why Richard Stallman militates against ebooks—he thinks that in their current form, ebooks offer readers diminished rights over their own libraries.)

For those who think that this is unlikely to be a problem, consider possible situations: a publishing house may recall editions, or replace a virtual edition with a cleaned-up, or bowdlerized, version. A regime may demand censored editions of certain books, before it will allow Amazon or other ebooksellers to set up shop.

Those paranoid about government interference point out that one’s Amazon wishlist or virtual library may be used as evidence against you, much as suspected Maoist sympathizers were recently being prosecuted on the ridiculous charge that they owned copies of Bhagat Singh’s speeches, in Chattisgarh. And there are far less sinister, more plausible, scenarios, where a customer’s dispute with Amazon or other booksellers might lead to their accounts and virtual libraries being frozen.

There are far too many benefits to e-reading for people like me to abandon the ebook.
There’s the not insignificant pleasure of knowing that you’re saving paper, dead trees and acres of shelf space. There’s the pleasure of cross-referencing within your virtual library, and access to the excellent Kindle Singles—standalone longform articles, hard to get anywhere else. Buying ebooks allows me to buy the most obscure, the hard-to-find, the out-of-print; or to get my hands on a favourite writer’s book faster than Delhi bookshops can get the book to me.

It’s not nostalgia for the physical book that we should be debating; that argument, sadly, is unlikely to move generations who are growing up reading on screen and on Kindle. But ebooks raise a whole set of questions about reader’s rights. At present, the shift from the physical book to the ebook has resulted in a loss of ownership, and a potential loss of privacy and other rights, for readers. That’s where the debate should shift, in the next five years.


  1. I haven't experienced a book recall as yet so only consider owning an e-reader an advantage. Other than those you've listed, I find it a big positive to quickly download free classics from feedbooks or Gutenberg without the fuss of borrowing from someone or scanning physical shops. I'm just loving easy acquisition and portability of books too much to miss the smell of paper :)Jyoti

  2. Nila,How does your memory for books work? Mine is vaguely photographic — I remember how paragraphs fall on the page, and how they are arranged around the central axis of the book's inner-spine (I have a feeling this is true for most people). The Kindle confiscates these mnemonic aids. Each page looks the same, and the zoomed-in screen is so small that it can't quite capture the macro-texture or layout of the book's paragraphs. And so, in short, my memory of the books I read on the Kindle falls far short of my memory for physical books. I'm worried about this. It keeps me from fully making the switch. Is this a problem you've faced? Do you think we'll eventually develop new Kindle-centric mnemonic techniques? Are you trying?yrsKaran

  3. Interesting you would say this; I remember plot and dialogue after I've read a book on the Kindle much more strongly than I can recall structure, and this probably has to do with the physical shift from page to screen. I think we change the way we read pretty much every time there's been a shift in technology. To put it another way, the shifts so far have affected writers more sharply than readers–this may be the first major shift in centuries that forces a big change in reading patterns. The differences I've noticed: reading on the Kindle makes me lazy about remembering page numbers, in the same way that the cellphone made me lazy about remembering phone numbers. The percentage system is a big, big shift, and gives me a way to build a mental structure of the book, but I haven't adapted to this yet. I "hear" Kindle books more clearly in my head; I "see" physical books more clearly than the Kindle versions. So for a reader like me, there's actually an improvement, because my memory is keyed more to the auditory than to the visual. For readers like you, I suspect there'll be an initial memory struggle before your mind develops other ways of photographing pages.Curious: have you tried reading encyclopaedias/ poetry on the Kindle? Is the experience different? Is it easier to remember, say, a long essay as opposed to a novel?

  4. hmmmm. interesting. i am watching the rise of book piracy sites (like the superb library.nu) along with the rise of the ebook retailers. and i am wondering about what this portends for the future of the book. i have a kindle. and i chafe about the fact that i can no longer lend or borrow books. that seems like a pretty serious curtailment of my liberties — deliberately highflown language but this is something i feel strongly about.and yet, at the same time, we have the rise of the book pirates who are democratising books — albeit in a very anarchic sort of a way.as for the loss of the physical library, yes, that is a shame, innit? i have a shelf dedicated to my fave books. and i love looking at them, pulling them down from the shelf, flipping through them, the works.at this time, ergo, the compromise is to read books i cannot get in india, etc, on the kindle. if, however, some book is truly masterful, i order a physical copy. expensive, i know. but there it is. cheersshekhar

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