Airminded Blog on Kindle

Stop the Press? Paper, e-books or both?

Welcome new readers. This post could also be titled “How not to launch a blog”. We’ve been testing the site with content for a little while with some archaeological content. Tomorrow our first post on this month’s theme Distance goes live, so I had a tech post scheduled for today.

This post has been shuffled through a few drafts. Before I bought a Kindle is was along the lines of “Am I a techno-curmudgeon?” After I bought a Kindle it became more “Duh! I am a techno-curmudgeon!” By curmudgeon I don’t mean Luddite. I mean people who can use technology but for reasons other than failings of the technology choose not to. Here’s an example that I might have agreed with till a couple of years ago.

Airminded Blog on Kindle
Airminded Blog on Kindle

I attended a couple of workshops on publishing, one involving academic publishers. The printed monograph was held up as the peak of publication to which all graduate students should aspire. And the emphasis was on print, not e-publishing. There was one go-to argument that all the speakers shared. “The problem with an e-book,” they would say with a sardonic rise of an eyebrow, “is you can’t read it in the bath!” We all laughed and ignored the fact that you’d be mad to read a cheaply bound ~£100 academic book in the bath. Still, if you feel this is a problem, not only can you read an e-book in the bath, you can read one in the shower and while diving at a depth of up to five metres, thanks to this waterproofing device.

If reading in the bath really was the killer app for dead tree books, then I’ve single-handedly revolutionised the publishing industry. In fact the problem is more likely that “The problem with e-books raise eyebrow is they’re not printed books.” True, but this is not a strong argument for nor against them. There are advantages in favour of both formats.

The unassailable advantage of hard copy for me has been its readability. I can read short texts on a computer monitor, but a monograph has simply not been practical. Long periods of monitor use give me eye-strain. The prime measure of any text format has to be ‘Can you read it?’. The iPad is readable, but I still prefer paper. The Kindle in contrast is extremely readable. Amazon has a difficult job selling it to sceptics because the display is essential to its success and its display is primarily shown to non-owners through a computer monitor, which kills it flat. If we are comparing default settings, then I still think a book beats a Kindle but it’s close. It’s not just that the dots per inch are better with a book, there’s a tactile experience.

If I’m reading a book I know roughly how far I am through it by the feel of pages in my left hand. A Kindle is light, but it feels the same regardless of whether you’re at the start or the end. The same is true for the lack of tactile sensation for other e-readers. There’s also a matter of turning pages. Turning a physical page gives your eyes a micro-break from the script. You don’t get this so much with a Kindle, and if you’re scrolling text you positively have to concentrate on moving script to keep your place. This is all part of the reading experience. But reading is not always default. I can change the settings on an e-reader and some print books have their own problems.

For example the Western Greeks by Caratelli is a lovely book and if it ever falls of my bookshelf and onto my head, I’ll be hospitalised. There are a few books I have that are simply too big to read comfortably. Book size is not a weight problem for electronic books. An e-version would be light enough to be hand-held and read for long periods.

Print-size is another obvious issue, or it will be as your sight gets worse. A great deal is made of the fact you can read a book after a couple of centuries. This is true. At the same time if your eyesight goes then the physical presence of your bookshelves are little comfort. E-books are more easily converted into talking books.

I’m also wary of how meaningful the claim you can read books after centuries is. You can’t read a centuries old e-book yet, but there’s a very obvious reason for that. Some of the scepticism is well-founded. There are unreadable electronic formats that are lost. I need to get a USB cassette player to copy an Orb album I have because I don’t have the physical means to play it and it was deleted on the day of release so there are no MP3 versions to buy. I also have unreadable floppy discs and USB sticks will pass soon. However, what is changing is that information is moving from fixed formats. My thesis went through several from .doc, .pages, .whatever-open-office-is, a brief period on Google Docs and finally .docx and .pdf for submission. There are, and will continue to be problems with readable formats, but ASCII is proving durable. Format translation looks like a soluble problem – though some texts may be lost.

In contrast hard copy books are tied to their physical format. Shelves upon shelves of them sit in libraries mocking e-books with their permanence. Libraries don’t keep empty shelves of all the books that have been lost. It may be different for modern historians, but if you’re working in the medieval period or earlier there’s a good chance that you’ll find key texts are missing. Again there are obvious reasons for that, but if we seriously consider the possibility that all electronic repositories could be turned off at the same time as a mark against e-books, then equally we have to accept the possible evolution of a self-igniting bookworm and the damage it could cause to physical books, especially those with painfully small print runs. The limit physical numbers of many monographs makes them susceptible to loss through reckless deaccessions or accidental damage.

The thing that finally persuaded me my preference for paper wasn’t rational was note-taking. Historiann (ignore the bath reference) makes a good point that it’s easier to make notes in the margin of a printed book. I thought you couldn’t with an e-book. Ignore the fact that I don’t write in books, and that even if I wanted to I’d never have a pen handy, it’s nice to have the option. There are reader programs that store annotations with a file, but usually the notes are tied to a specific file, and it’s a pain to cut ‘n’ paste the text into a document. I didn’t spot that book-written notes are tied to the one copy of a text till six months ago. About the same time I realised that cut ‘n’ paste from a regular paper book is rubbish.

It turns out that Kindle notes can be shared between devices, but that’s something to explore another time.

It wasn’t simply that e-books have their drawbacks, it was also that the ‘e-‘ leads me to have much higher expectations for the usability of an e-book. Concentrating on the limitations of an e-book meant I wasn’t considering in what ways an e-book is better and in some ways e-books are better. These days indices are afterthoughts in some books. Searchability is a big bonus. At the same time you have a lot fewer headaches if you accidentally drop a book and tread on it than if you do the same with a Kindle. I’ve done the experiment. DRM means it’s so much easier to lend a physical book. I don’t condone cracking Amazon’s DRM, and more importantly I don’t know how to do it yet. Academics could be asking why books need DRM, but for now it’s something we have to live with. There’s also no second-hand market for e-books which will make it more difficult to buy cheap gems in the future.

The paper versus electronic argument interests me because it’s the most serious challenge to paper books yet. This isn’t a genre shift like claiming film, television or radio will kill books. It’s closer to the shift from parchment to paper. There are good reasons why paper books are still a good idea, but the arguments are all stacked in favour of the one format. The one factor I have missed out above is that electronic publishing is potentially so much cheaper. This could be a way to preserve texts in both formats. The high-priced library market can still be served with physical books, but e-books should make affordable editions for personal use feasible. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but I don’t think it’s in the consumers’ interest to be forced into one format or the other.

For this reason something I’d like to do is experiment with a Kindle version of the blog. If the authors are happy, and time allows it’s possible we will produce a Kindle Single based on ‘Distance’. The first post on the theme comes up tomorrow. This is not because pinning the blog to a fixed volume makes it ‘better’. The new format is different. It opens the opportunity to access new audiences and new opportunities. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore what you can do with archaeology and new media, rather than fit within a rigid definition.

For Distance we have opinion pieces, some referenced discussions and a photo-essay. These will be scheduled on Tuesdays, and some Thursday. That leaves plenty of room on Wednesdays and Fridays for people to blog about other things. If you’d like to take part, leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

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Alun Salt

Alun Salt is an ancient historian / archaeologist based in the University of Leicester, UK. His PhD thesis was an archaeoastronomical analysis of Greek temple alignments in Sicily. He also has an MPhil in World Archaeology. His research interests include ancient technology, cosmology and colonisation processes. He is currently dividing his time between a few part-time jobs in the university and at the Annals of Botany.