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The E-readers Excellency

A New Poste Wherin are divers Admirable Workes Wrought With Pixels. (and with acknowledgement to John Taylor’s Needles Excellency of 1631 as well as my esteemed blogger-friend, Historiann, who holds an opposing viewpoint on e-readers.)

E-readers, tablets, smartphones, e-books – the practice of reading is shifting in the electronic age. Not for the first time (consider how much the practice and use of journalism has changed in the past twenty years!) and not for the last. The book as we know it in the modern era (a bound volume of printed text) is apparently under threat as Amazon trumpets that its ebook sales have outstripped those of hard copies. Should we panic? Should we bar the barbarians from our fair citadel of Academe?

I say nay, partly out of principle, but partly out of the pragmatic realization that the barbarians (e-reader users) are well-ensconced in many parts of the citadel. We have met the enemy and he is us, to quote Walt Kelly. Well, to be honest, I’m your enemy if you’re opposed to e-readers and those who use them. But I don’t want to be anyone’s enemy: I simply want to share my perspective on the value of e-readers as a codex-loving scholar.

  • E-readers and Citations: Even historians can breathe easy as more e-books support pagination. The Kindle began to do so in February. The change is still rolling out so it isn’t universal, but I’m seeing more books with this when I look. If you have a Kindle book, you can see the ISBN of the print edition for which this holds. So it’s possible to provide a fully robust Chicago style citation for your e-reader texts although there is some talk about coming up with new models for e-book citations
  • E-readers and Costs: Yes, e-book prices aren’t consistent (either in ratio to print editions or within a genre). Some e-books are less expensive than either hardback or paperback versions (check out the prices for Jeanne de Jussie’s Short Chronicle which I’ll be teaching with in the fall$9.99 for the Kindle e-book, $25 for the paperback and $55 for the hardback). Other e-books are priced in-between the two (or just below a hardback version where no paperback exists). Still other e-books prices outstrip that of any new-in-print version. Sometimes the pricing is untenable (I’m interested in seeing the effect of Apple’s 30% price-grab on sales through apps. It’s already caused one e-book app, iFlow, to pull out of the Apple marketplace. academics are well-accustomed to dealing with whimsical and autocratic book-selling venues where pricing bears no reality to the costs of production or marketing: university bookstores! I’m not suggesting you buy e-books at any cost – I certainly don’t! But we can let publishers and distributors know what we’ll pay and what we won’t, both by our choices in the marketplace and our feedback to them as textbook adopters and frequent book-buyers. We all know what our personal price points are – time to let the business people in on the secret!
  • E-readers and Convenience: What sold me on my Kindle was the prospect of lugging around lots of books with a lot less weight and bulk. I spend a fair bit of time driving into the hinterlands of the north for family sports activities. While I’ve done some grading during the downtime, my preferred pastime is reading. With my e-reader, I bring a boatload of books with me everywhere and the prospect of more (3G connectivity has saved me more than once when I’ve run out of books to read while miles away from bookstores, work and home). I’m also accumulating e-reader versions of many teaching texts – not the big textbooks, mind you (their publishers seem to be lagging behind more conventional academic presses and trade publishers in making electronic versions widely available). I also download public domain ebooks from Project Gutenberg and other online archives. Lots of books, anytime, anywhere? It works for me. I can also convert documents that I have on hand into e-book format with
    Calibre – E-book conversion and management software. Literally, I have more to read on my Kindle than I have time to read. Just like my print bookshelves!

Yes, there are drawbacks and downsides to e-readers and e-books. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a major concern – do we really own our books? When proprietary systems interfere with your purchases, break down or are simply no longer supported, the results can be catastrophic. But for many readers, this may not be the galvanizing issue it is for the bibliophiles of the world and when your e-books are backed up at your distributors (as my Kindle purchases are), this may be enough to comfort many. Even with DRM, e-books are opening up to lending, whether privately by individuals or publicly through libraries. An e-reader can even break down but is print perfect? Hardly! You may think that print books are immune, but you didn’t see the effects of last summer’s flood in our university building!

I don’t know any serious academic who’s saying “Away with print!” There might be a few who’re doing it for show. But most academics can see an e-reader as an adjunct to their print library, especially as we grow to rely more and more on digitized content. It’s not going to be a requirement any time soon, though. I’m not ready to write the codices’ obituary quite yet and neither should you.


Don’t worry. There will always be tech support!

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