E-Readers are Limited by Technology, Publishers

By Pierre Lourens

Staff Writer

Reading, for me, is an experience I cherish; the smell of books, the sound of flipping pages, and the beautiful artwork and typography that are essential in transforming a manuscript into a novel are sometimes as important as the words penned inside.

For many of technology’s early adopters, however, this experience of reading is falling for a new, more radical approach.  Enter the world of e-books, where mega-providers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com are offering both printed books and electronic books.

The Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble nook proved to be some of the hottest gadgets this holiday season.  At first glance, the e-readers, which both have a 6 inch display and functions like search or over-the-air book browsing, seem perfect; they hold thousands of books, are as thin as a pencil and offer extraordinary battery life.

However, in the cloudy, wrapping paper-filled haze after Christmas, many of the devices’ new owners are discovering the problems of owning a dedicated e-reader.

Both devices utilize an “E-ink” display which only consumes power when changing what’s on the screen.  Without a backlight, it uses very little energy so charges on both devices are expected to last for days.  The screens for both devices are manufactured by E Ink Corporation, whose product is based on research from MIT.  Since the technology displaying the actual words on the screen is the same, expect the devices to be comparable for reading comfort.

While reading extensively on the Kindle is not painful (my family owns the latest edition), the e-ink technology just cannot compare to crisp, printed words.  The background is a dull gray.  The experience would not be so bad if I did not have 17 years of experience reading well-printed books.

Thankfully for e-ink, the customizability that is offered as a trade off for the poor quality makes some buy the devices.  With the ability to change fonts, font sizes and orientation, the e-readers  offer options to those seeking them.

But for me, that is not enough to warrant spending upwards of $250 on a device that allows me to books.  Here’s why:

Books have what I call artistic merit.  Designers are employed to create a dust jacket that reflects the book’s innards , and details as simple as the typeface make a physiological difference in the reader’s experience.  Have you ever noticed the intricacies of the font in the Harry Potter series, with its spiked edges and old feel?  Even if you have not, the point is that these details subconsciously change our experience as we read.  No amount of customization on the Kindle or nook can echo this experience.

In addition, both devices take away one of the best parts of owning a book: sharing.  In my personal library, I constantly loan books to friends and family.  This allows me to discuss how I felt about the author’s social commentary, style or mood.  Even if I just want to share a book because I enjoyed it, I can do so without constraint.  Contrast that freedom with the nook’s lending policy: only books approved by a publisher can be lent; books may only be lent for 14 days; books may only be lent one time, ever.  The Kindle is worse because it has no built-in sharing capability.

I suspect this limitation is exerted by publishers, which is understandable because electronic copies of creative content spreads like fire.  Just look to the music industry’s efforts to thwart online music sharing for an example.

The easiest way to avoid this authoritarian control by publishers is, ironically, to buy the publisher’s hard copy.  Thankfully for the publisher, hard copies have built-in intellectual rights management because they can only be lent to one person at a time and are difficult to reproduce.

Be certain that the book world is changing, but as with any new technology, early adopters will continue to buy the Kindle, nook, and (relatively obscure) options from Sony.  For the true, diehard readers, though, books will remain the tried and true medium for indulging in prose.  The traditional form’s artistic merit and freedom means that even though Barnes & Noble will be selling plenty of nooks, they won’t stop selling books soon, either.


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