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Belmont Club

The Pros and Cons of Electronic Readers

July 25th, 2013 - 3:31 am

After resisting the temptation to get “yet another electronic device” I finally purchased a Kindle paperwhite reader. The argument against it — or  a tablet or high-end smartphone — were that I already had a laptop which could do everything better than any of these  appliances individually. A reader would be just one more device to maintain, charge and sync.

But the two problems with the conception of a “laptop for everything” were power and use-case. The laptop had real four hour endurance, was nearly invulnerable with an SSD drive and started as fast as you could open the cover. But four hours is not a lot of time really when you’re on a flight or out for an all day walk. Plus there was the inevitable worry you’d slip and fall into a creek, which was something even an SSD driven laptop would not survive.

Moreover there was the use case. People on trips or hikes didn’t really want to fire up the programming IDE or post up on Twitter. What many wanted to do was read a book. And there’s really nothing better for that purpose than a dedicated reader with a battery life measured in weeks, not hours. Of course you could tote the traditional paperback. The arguments against that approach were twofold. One was weight, the other cost.

An electronic reader will store upwards of a thousand books in local memory. You can actually have many more but leave the ones you aren’t currently reading on the cloud, which you can think of as your ‘home library’, downloading only the books you want into your traveling library. A thousand is all that will fit on the device and for most that’s more than enough. If you want something from the Cloud, you can download those. If local storage is full then you can temporarily delete a few volumes to make room for the newcomers. Later, you can re-download the ones you previously deleted at no charge.

A thousand electronic books are good deal lighter than their paper equivalents. You can tote around the equivalent of a good-sized private library at something the weight of a cell phone. For cheap, too. Not only are electronic books generally cheaper than their paper equivalents, it turns out that lot of the classics, like Crime and Punishment or Plato’s Apology — and many many others — are actually free. They cost $0.00 dollars.

This opens the prospect of creating a do-it-yourself liberals arts course. Of course a Kindle paperwhite or similar device is not going to provide the same aesthetic experience as a full color coffee table book. For openers the Paperwhite won’t display color. You can get a Kindle model that does, but the battery life goes down. And anyway the real benefit of a dedicated electronic reader is that is perfect for filling in the odd corners of your time with something worthwhile; while waiting at a dentist’s office, on the subway, on an airplane, or stuck like Snowden in an airport.

The other thing that a reader achieves is because the devices are so limited in functionality compared to laptops or smartphones, they screen out distraction. You can’t do email or YouTube. You can’t send pictures of yourself to others. All you can do is read. And maybe if all certain political candidates possessed was a reader they wouldn’t be in the fix they’re in today.

For some a reader might actually fit their self-image.  If you’ve ever dreamed of emulating those old-time adventurers who marched off into the unknown carrying only a Martini Henry, a canteen of water and a slim volume of poetry it’s the 21st century device for you. In those days it was fashionable to pack something for the mind as well as for the body when you went to take a long walk in the woods, hole up in a cabin or went away to sea unsure whether you would ever see home again.  Of course that was also the era of the cold-water shower and the weevil-infested biscuit.

When reading was cool

Guy Gibson after the Dambusters Raid, when reading was cool

Reading on a field of flowers after blowing up the Third Reich’s dams has pretty much gone out of fashion now. Nobody reads poetry any more when they can rock to an MP3. Oompah-oompah-oompah. But if you’re sentimental but not a luddite electronic readers are a good compromise. They are cheap enough to be expendable yet modern enough not be totally laughable. It’s not like you haven’t heard of electricity. If one falls off the boat or gets crushed by a rampaging sasquatch rooting around the cabin you’ve just abandoned, the damage is about a hundred bucks. It will hurt but won’t break the bank. And you can re-download everything you’ve purchased once you are in range of the cloud.

The biggest benefit of the readers, I’ve found, is that you can shift between volumes. When the classics get too heavy you can always switch to something more tradesman-like. But perhaps that is properly considered, a disadvantage. The one thing the old timers had on us is they had so little in the way of portable information they were forced to discover drama in nature or find it in their own thoughts. They preferred poetry because verse is compressed; full of suggestion, not exposition.

We have lost the art of being alone with ourselves in a world of universal connectivity. Readers give  back some of that experience for those who still value it.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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