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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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Top Rated Comments   
In The Great War British officers brought their Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse to the trenches. It was not slim. Officers and troops also gardened when shelling permitted. It was what men did. On the other hand the American pocket sized bible will stop a bullet. Happened all the time. I saw it in a movie. No plastic toy will do that.

The Cloud is problematic at best. Punditarian has a good point. Do you really want the Eric Holders in this world, with no probable cause or court order, going over spreadsheets of the content of your Cloud and checking for patterns? Remember how the Left hyperventilated over the Patriot Act because they feared that Darth Cheney would send Secret Agents to terrorize Librarians? Their protests and accusations are often projections of what they want to do. Now the same people are cool with compiling data bases of license plate locations and recording the locations of random cell phones that have been turned off.

Leather chairs, dark wood and real books are good for the soul.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (33)
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Richard, as usual, your post is interesting, inspiring, and somewhat mirrors my own feelings and tastes about the issue. Like you, I'm a computer professional and have generally been a technology "early adopter". However, the options and complications with readers, I-Pads, Android pads, and ever smaller laptops has "frozen" me in place.

To be honest, the one thing I desire most in my life is reduced complexity. I'd gladly trade all the volume's on my shelves for digital ones, except for the fact as a tech guy, I end up reading 5 books at once plus 20 online BLOG's or support web pages, switching between them at will. That is tough to do with a reader alone.

Plus, an Android phone plus laptop is already one too many devices in my life. My laptop used to be with me most of the time, however, since the "engineering laptop" replaced my desktop and the android phone technology began overlapping with the laptop functionality, my laptop remains tethered to a desk and the phone becomes my portable-Swiss-Army-Knife technology device.

As amazing as the Samsung III is, I'm still all thumbs with it and the 7" screen still isn't quite large enough for tired old eyes. I've looked at I-Pads and Android pads for the past couple of years, as well as the Kindles, but there was always something "missing". I'm really looking for the "single device" to provide most PC functions (web, email, texting), a library and research function, computer terminal functions (e.g. for my technical work), and which accepts a conventional keyboard, trackball/mouse, and sync with the laptop.

The technology is nearly there. I've added a PC Kindle and picked up my first half dozen books. The interface in a laptop enables me to work as I would with physical books and manuals, to some extent, but it's not quite the same. Moving this to an I-Pad or Android pad might give me the device I want.

Ultimately, I see the retreat on phones to a much tiny, more easily portal telephonic dedicated device about the size of a bluetooth earbud, an I-Pad style device for 95% of current PC uses, expanding that functionality using the cloud, and both PCs and Laptops retreating back to hard core computing support functions or dieing altogether.

Again, looking long term, I think most people will take perspective I have, i.e. the less complex the better, the less change and learning required the better, the smaller and less dependent (e.g. chargers) the better, and ultimately, the fewer devices to manage the better, and ultimately, the more control I can maintain over the technology the better.

The technology companies are still tying to replace Microsoft, to "capture the market" via format, to control the consumer via portal pages, clouds, etc.. They will fail, and the "startup" which creates the most open, ubiquitous, functional device will own the market - in about 5 years from now. Jobs and Apple more or less proved that people will tolerate some format control and inflated costs for quality and innovation, while Bill Gates and Microsoft proved that universal formats (e.g. DOS/Windows over Intel and Intel clones) and cost considerations fuel mass adoption.

Somewhere between the two, the next "killer application" or functional device will be found.

For now, I'm sticking with the laptop, and planning my first tablet purchase "towards the end of the year", just as I was in 2011 and 2012 :-).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm a bit surprised that no one has mentioned 24th century Captain Picard's preference for books over Star Trek's ubiquitous tablets.

Slightly off topic, there's an ad on this very page for "Tiles" a one inch square, 1/4 thick gadget, that allows you to track anything its attached to, anywhere with your iOS device or cellphone. "Attach a Tile to anything and track it with your iOS device" the ad states. Cost: $24.95 and you can have up to 10 of these per account. Big Brother is no longer 'right around the corner', it's here now...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Americans should think long and hard themselves about the possibility of Obama backing America in a dispute with any one.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There's nothing to think about. It's a given, a cast iron cinch, that Obama will not back America under any circumstances. Obama has repeatedly indicated that he believes America to be "the focus of evil in the modern world".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I forgot something. The extra cost leather cover is indispensable. It turns the Paperwhite almost into a "real" book; all you do is flip open the magnetic cover to turn the Kindle on. And it adds a degree of protection, or ruggedness, to the Kindle.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I bought the first generation Kindle. It really turned me off; I could not get used to that flashing negative image every time I turned a page. Then I got along with Kindle software on my laptop. Last month I bought a paperwhite. I can live with it. It still flashes the negative screen, but only about every 3rd or 4th page. It has a slightly "variable" response to turning the next page. It seems to require a varying finger pressure changing from one page to the next. Or maybe that's just me, some quirk. But I don't like my attention span interrupted.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I long resisted the Kindle and Nook. First, I am a book person. Raised with the Chinese respect for the written word, and last time we counted [15 years ago] we had 4500+ hardbound volumes, at least that many in paperbacks, and I collect old classics. The ebook reader offended my sensibilities for all the reasons cited. And Amazon's ability to edit the holdings against the owner's will flat angered me.

I admit to a certain mellowing. I acquired a 3G Kindle at a thrift store silent auction at an absurdly cheap price. I admit that the ability to get the classics for free was the reason. Haven't spent anything with them yet. Currently reading Apicius' "Dining and Cookery in the Roman Empire", the oldest cookbook in the Western world, and something I could never have read otherwise. And am reading a Kipling book from WW-I that I had never heard of before and found in the free collection. In the queue to read is Machiavelli's "Discourses" which I had wanted to re-read but had lost my copy. And a lot more waiting on the Kindle.

I do not view it as equivalent to buying real books. When the organic waste encounters the rotating airfoil; power to keep them charged will not be there. But if you consider it like RAM memory, it will do. I will still buy hard copies to keep for darker times.

My Kindle lets me organize into "collections" that sound equivalent to your "Shelves". You may want to try that. I found that in the Kindle manual, which I downloaded and printed online. And there are PDF to ePub converters you can download. Hope that helps.

Subotai Bahadur
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm considering getting a Kindle or similar device because I had to throw away my brother's huge collection of classics (in paperback) due to mold damage. That sucked.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Incidentally: I advise commenters to use Firefox or any other browser than IE, because IE is atrocious, and freezes up when I try to create a long comment post. Firefox also auto-spell-checks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I purchased a Nook Simple Touch for $59 at the Black Friday sale. I previously got a Kindle as a gift. I prefer the Nook to the Kindle, for a number of reasons. First, you can more easily organize books and documents by creating Shelves on the Nook. I have 400+ books and documents organized into 20 odd shelves. Kindle doesn't permit this level of organizing. Either put them into Documents or into Books. It can be very cumbersome to scroll through hundreds of books. It is much easier to locate a book or document with the Shelf system. As you create your own Shelves, you tailor the Shelves to your own preferences.

Second, the Nook does a better job with PDF documents than the Kindle does. Not only are a number of books available as PDFs, but many documents downloaded from the Internet are PDFs, so ease of reading PDFs is important to me. The Nook can change fonts on PDFs, whereas with a Kindle, all you can do is zoom in or out, and/or change to landscape, which is VERY cumbersome. For pictures and maps, zooming might be better, but it isn't for words.

The Kindle can read more types of documents than the Nook. This advantage was considerably diminished when I found out that while the Kindle can read Word docs, it scrolls down them instead of clicking to turn a page. I find scrolling down pages much more inconvenient than clicking to turn a page. The solution I use is to change a Word doc to Txt, then use Calibre to change it to EPUB. While that is an inconvenience, I find it more convenient than scrolling on my Kindle.

Not everyone wants the same things out of an e-reader than I do. I don't need an e-reader with lighting, so am not going to get into a debate between the Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight. Some want an e-reader that also functions with Internet access so they can look at e-mail and such. I want an e-reader only for reading books and documents. My PC can read e-mail. The Amazon website is definitely more user-friendly than the Barnes and Noble website for purchasing books. This is a wash for me, as I use the Nook primarily for free books from Project Gutenberg.

I have purchased about the same number of books from Amazon as I have from Barnes and Noble- not many. While my B&N purchases for my Nook are not as many as the company would like, I have purchased more books and music from B&N in the last 8 months than in the last 8 years- and I live near a B&N store.

While the Nook has less capacity for books and documents that are not purchased from B&N, memory cards are an inexpensive way to add up to 30 GIG to the Nook.

One reason for getting an e-reader was for reading large docs downloaded from the Internet. E-readers are definitely easier for reading docs than computer screens. I have about 5-10 minutes of tolerance for reading off computer screens.

I now find it more convenient to read from an e-reader than from a hard copy book. My reading has increased since I got e-readers. For a variety of reasons, I prefer the Nook to the Kindle.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

It's now proven that Hastings could certainly have been murdered electronically.

The LA Corner has been reported to have fired Hasting's corpse into ashes -- without family permission.

Very weird.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Could do the same with a pair of pliers and a couple of springs.

Of course the car companies need to harden the electronics, but this stuff is hardly news.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I got my Kindle six month ago. Can't put it down. If fits nicely in my hip pocket or inside jacket pocket.

Having planned a re-read and expansion of my knowledge of the classics I was blown away at the prices = $0.

Somewhere, everywhere, always, there is a place for something that does one thing extremely well.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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