I was an e-reader skeptic.
Hard-copy books were good enough for me growing up, and, when they weren’t, well, dangit, I could read EPUBs on my phone and PDFs on my laptop. Why would I want another gadget taking up space in my life and outlets on my precious power strip?
Luckily, a couple Christmases ago, Fiancé ignored said skepticism and bought me a Kobo Touch.
At first, despite my gratitude, I persisted in my suspicion. Would this new device make any difference to my reading habits? Would I use it enough to justify the expenditure of Fiancé’s hard-earned cash?
Privately, I assumed the answer was “no.” I had a perfectly good reader app on my smartphone and my tablet that was already connected to my public library account. Didn’t it make sense to have all my entertainment on one device? Especially one that I already carried around everywhere anyhow?
Besides, I had a bad habit of not finishing borrowed books unless they were a physical presence on my shelf. What was the point of having an expensive device to store my expiring DRM-restricted files that I was never going to read anyway?
I tried it out — of course I did — but I found myself getting frustrated with the touch interface. It responded too slowly and made it difficult to do simple things I felt should be quick, like accessing the table of contents or reading settings. Sometimes it didn’t respond at all. Sometimes it flipped two pages instead of one.
Not to mention, my phone’s Internet connection was way faster and more reliable. And even if it weren’t, I could download books directly onto my tablet or phone. To put books on my Kobo, I’d have to connect to my desktop via a micro-USB. Ugh, extra step! Not to mention that to borrow books from the library, I’d have to install proprietary software (Adobe Digital Editions. Double ugh: Adobe!) and open an account and wrangle permissions just to read the book I checked out. And then boot up my desktop again when I wanted to return it. Triple ugh!
(Okay, obligatory pause to acknowledge that these annoyances are small miracles of technology, that I live in a time and a place and a body full of privilege to have these experiences. Regarding the latter, yes, of course. That’s why I’m tongue-in-cheek complaining about this on my blog instead of in person to random people who can’t escape. Regarding the former, that argument is super annoying and, as a trained historian of technology, I feel like it ignores the context surrounding technology. Telling people not to complain about the design/experience of technology is smugly forgetting that technologies embody politics and social context!)
So, as you may have guessed from the title of this blog, I did wind up changing my mind. Why? I’m not entirely sure — all the inconveniences still exist. Maybe it’s for a few reasons:
1. One key reason was, I went through a bunch of hardware changes. I swapped my tablet and former laptop for a Microsoft Surface. I accidentally smashed one phone, and then, about eighteen months later, another died on me mid-subway ride. The e-reader was particularly great for commuting during phone-less days.
2. Speaking of which, it’s really light and easy to toss in my bag. Fiancé was kind enough (and knows me well enough) to buy a protective cover for it. So I just flip it shut, let the magnets catch, and I can throw it right in there. I have to be more careful with my phone and laptop (as you might gather from Reason #1 above). Plus, the very multifunctionality of those devices makes me less likely to want to treat them like books. I rely on my laptop and phone to do my work, serve as communication hubs, access online content, watch videos, listen to music… If I lost or broke one of them on my commute, I’d be screwed. It’s less worrisome to have my e-reader on me instead.
3. Plus, the e-reader screen really does outshine (but not literally) the screens on my devices. It’s much nicer to read than an LCD. The text feels crisper, more textured, and the brightness doesn’t hurt my eyes.
4. Maybe because e-readers are single-function devices, the battery doesn’t deplete as quickly. My phone can last for maybe a day; my Surface for about half that, depending on what I’m doing. Like the Energizer bunny of old, my Kobo can keep going and going and… etc. Sometimes, it lasts about a week. But that means I don’t have to worry about being stranded textless on the go or weigh how much I want to read a book with how much I also want to be able to do my work when I finish my commute.
5. I know it’s a money grab, having the Chapters store built in to the Kobo, but I do like being able to buy books too. Sure, I could always have done so, but there didn’t seem to be much point when hard copies were roughly the same price and I already knew I’d rather read them on paper than a bright-white screen. I’d pick up free e-books, but you get what you pay for: public domain classics with less-than-ideal layout. But commercial e-books are much more visually appealing. When I was a kid, I used to carry the Chronicles of Narnia everywhere with me. Now I can again! Only, with less back strain!
6. So, it’s true: Adobe DRM and connecting through USB are still irritating. But my new home-computing organization scheme makes them less so. This is still a bug, not a feature, but storing a short micro-USB cable in a handy drawer turns it from a Goliath beetle to maybe a gnat. (You’d think someone going all History-of-Technology above would remember that effectiveness is all about human interaction with technology and systems of use, not just embedded affordances.)
7. I guess it’s handy that the e-reader automatically remembers my place. Though it would be handier if it would still remember my place when I have to re-download a second copy of the same book after my library loan expires. You’d think it would be easy to do, what with the unique identifiers to help with licensing issues.
8. But the biggest reason I’m enjoying my e-reader more than I thought is the existence of the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive system. If I couldn’t borrow e-books from the library, I almost definitely would forget about my Kobo overnight. (Or if I had another model of e-reader that isn’t compatible with Overdrive.)
Borrowing e-books has several advantages over borrowing hard copies. First, I don’t have to drag my lazy butt out of my computer chair and into the cold. That’s great — this semester is really busy, and some days I just don’t have the energy.
Second (LISTCEPTION!), fewer patrons borrow the library’s online holdings. Not everyone has an e-reader, and many who have access to one still prefer paper copies. That means shorter hold periods.
Third, unlike the library’s online catalogue for hard-copy materials, the library’s catalogue for e-books allows patrons to make wish lists separate from holds lists. That lets me sort books I might want to read but have no desire to continually “deactivate” for the next several months as I get through other reading material.
Fourth, the library recently re-vamped their e-books site, and one of the things they added was the feature I missed most from the regular site: the ability to renew e-books when they expire. Well, sort of. One click re-enters you in the holds list for the same e-book. You still have to re-download it, and, if others are in line, you’ll have to wait again.
Fifth, since the library’s e-book collection is still growing, they are really quick to react to recommendations. If they don’t have a copy of a book, you can request it. Once they buy it, they automatically give you first dibs to check it out. This would be good, but what makes it great is that they seem to go out and buy requests right away. It’s as convenient as buying the book yourself, but less expensive.
Sixth, Adobe DRM isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve discovered that the e-reader verifies permissions only upon opening a book. So, if I just keep an e-book open, I can guarantee that it’ll stay readable until I’m finished. (This is a great way to make sure I actually finish those long draggy ones without getting distracted by shiny! new! check-outs.)
There are still frustrating artifacts of the hard-copy model: 10 patrons can’t borrow Pride and Prejudice if the library owns only 3 copies because there are only three physical books. But 10 patrons still can’t borrow Pride and Prejudice if the library owns only 3 licenses for its e-copy, even though there is no similar physical bottleneck. Somehow, that latter is more frustrating: the restriction feels arbitrary rather than logical.
The convoluted check-out system is also obnoxious (check out the e-book, download the Adobe server verification for that book, use Adobe software to use the server verification to download the e-book, add the e-book to the Kobo), but since, on the whole, it’s still less inconvenient than hauling tail to the bricks-and-mortar down the street, I’ll survive.
So, as you can tell, I’m not a 100% e-reader convert, but I sure have come to appreciate the many ways it makes my life easier. Thanks, Fiancé!