Minor e-book criticisms

When I first bought my e-book reader about eight months ago I was initially sceptical about it. Most of that scepticism was put to rest on the first day when a combination of the bizarre beauty of electronic ink and the ease of buying a book and immediately reading it on the train were so wonderful that those initial concerns just faded away. I have since become a near complete convert. Now when I hear of a new book my first act is to look it up on the kindle library to see if it is available. When I discover one that is not I click the ‘tell the publisher I want to read this on kindle’ button, and then impatiently order a paper copy anyway. I am happy to have e-books and traditional books alongside one another and am comfortable reading either, but e-books are fast becoming my preference.

Whenever I get involved in the occasional discussion on the relative strengths and weaknesses of e-books over traditional books I tend to take the side of the e-book, often to the point of sounding suspiciously like an Amazon salesperson. The most often cited reason for not liking e-books that I hear is simply that an e-book is not a book. (Amusingly, when I bought my kindle I had it delivered to work and one of my colleagues looked over my shoulder at it and said ‘Oh, do you not like books then?) The look, the feel, the smell, the tradition; inevitably these things are missing, but I question how important they are. While I agree that there is something very pleasing about a nice edition of a good book the fundamental of what we buy books for, the words, can be delivered in an equally satisfying way electronically.

That said, my experience with e-books is not solely and wholly positive. But this is not because of some inherent failing in the technology. More this seems to be because e-books are still in their infancy. The largest criticism I have so far is simply that not all the books I want to read are yet available on kindle and this is no ones fault. I can remember a time when the only DVD available was Twister. Now, years later, it is hard to find a film that isn’t available on DVD. It seems fair to give publishers time to catch up with an enormous back catalogue. Additionally there are some books that just demand to be read as regular paper books. It is hard to imagine how House of Leaves or The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet could be read on a kindle. Also there is a moment toward the end of Sophie’s World where the feel of the remaining pages in the hand of the reader is referenced and used within the narrative which would be inevitably lost electronically. Though the number of books where concerns like this would be at all relevant is small I am sure.

My criticisms are relatively small points. If anything they are more opportunities for improvement. E-books are not books, and it doesn’t make sense to criticise one for not being the other. But it does seem worthwhile to criticise e-books for not being better in ways that they certainly could be. I will list my ideas for such improvements in the satisfying form of a list demarcated by pleasing little bullet points.

  • Blank pages serve little function in an e-book. The book I am currently reading ends each chapter with a dedicated end-of-chapter image, followed by a blank page, followed by the next chapters title page, followed by the next chapter. That’s four clicks of the next-page button to get from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next. That same blank page in a print book would provide some needed space within the proportions of its pages. An airy little pause which can be skipped over quickly but provides some actual physical distance between chapters that makes sense within something that has an actual physical presence in the world. With e-books the act of clicking the next-page button and then waiting a moment for the flash of the screen updating provides that same pause but the physical distance seems irrelevant. Blindly mimicking what works in print won’t benefit e-books.
  • Get your formatting right. In fact, this isn’t a small point. This is the difference between a book that can be read and a book that can’t. I have a book on my kindle where some of the pages are set to be too wide for the screen and each sentence is cut in half. This is like buying a pair of shoes and getting home to discover that they don’t have soles. Incredibly the book in question was advice regarding breaking into publishing.
  • Start at the start. I have quite a few books that went to the effort of including a greyscale version of the cover but then bypassed it by making the first page of text the page that you automatically go to when opening the book. Let me see the cover.
  • For books that feature tables the first row of each table, the row of headings that tell you what the different columns contain, should be repeated across pages in which the table is broken. Clicking back and forth to remind yourself in order to make sense of the information the table contains is frustrating in an e-book in a way that it may not be in print. That said, even in print this is a good idea. This is something I learned to do when typesetting pharmaceutical leaflets containing very dense tables of medical information, but it makes as much sense in other books.
  • I don’t know if this next point is something that could ever be resolved but e-books do not lend themselves well to books that are not intended to be read from cover to cover. The search function makes reference books somewhat usable but the pleasant exploration of a book by opening at random and reading what you find is lost. E-books can be searched adequately assuming you know what you want to search for, but the blind adventure of flipping through pages is not possible. You could type in a random reference number and see where it lands you I suppose, but this seems to lack something as compared to rifling through the book, that short glimpse of the pages as they tumble past you acting as a small preview should you decide to stop there and read. I have one such book on my kindle that I rarely go to but that had it been a print copy would possibly be very well thumbed by now. This is a small point though, there aren’t that many books that suffer from this.
  • Get your formatting right. I know I said this already but it’s a point worth making twice. As per my previous point about not inserting blank pages you should insert forced page breaks where they would make sense. This provides a book with a rhythm, a syncopation that breaks up what could otherwise be a relentless stream of text. Additionally links in and out of footnotes, as well on chapter pages, provide functionality unique to e-books and it’s always a shame to see it go unused.

So there you go, not great complaints, rather small niggles that I have encountered on my journey through e-books. I am sure I will discover more as I continue to read, and I am sure they will prove to be equally small and insignificant as compared to the boundless benefits provided by e-books.

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