E-books have become quite popular in recent years, largely thanks to Amazon’s Kindle promotion. I own two devices suitable for e-book reading – an iPad 3 and a Sony e-ink reader, comparable to the Kindle Touch – and tried a variety of content over the months. Sadly, the results were rarely satisfactory, and some recent articles explain why.
Let’s tackle the uncontroversial issues first. Michael Clarke’s Why E-book Distribution Is Completely and Utterly Broken (and How to Fix It) lists the various ways in which the short-sighted greed of publishers and retailers diminishes the readers’ experience: proprietary formats, annoying copy protection, purchases treated as rentals, and nonsensical territorial restrictions. Obviously, print books have none of these drawbacks. Amazon will close your account for daring to import e-books, but they will happily import print books for you.
Many e-books also feature surprisingly poor editing. In October 2011, Karen Dionne discovered that “E” Stands for “Errors”; one year later, Laura June still asks Why is an ebook ever riddled with typos? Errors proliferate in e-books, and only there – including expensive editions of new books. Apparently, many e-books are either lazily scanned from print editions, without anyone proof-reading the OCR results; or else they are directly published from the author’s electronic draft, again without the print edition’s careful proof-reading. Theoretically, publishers might at least use the e-book’s digital nature to send out corrected versions; in practice, Amazon does not even allow such updates.
Commercial misbehavior aside, our e-readers are fundamentally flawed in several ways. Lev Grossman’s From Scroll to Screen compares three ways of delivering long texts: ancient scrolls, traditional “codex” books, and e-books. Codices were clearly superior to scrolls, and one might think e-books represent another clear-cut advance. But except for their lack of weight, e-books regress towards scrolls in terms of practical usability. The codex format physically divides information into tangible page units, perfectly adapted for human hands and eyes. This facilitates a kind of non-linear reading and “focused browsing” which is quite cumbersome on any current e-reader. Working around this issue might require some form of touch feedback system combined with instantaneous screen updates.
There is another reason why the e-book’s attempt to ditch traditional codex pagination is misguided. Lukas Mathis points out that every display surface constitutes a “page,” i.e. a unit of spatial organization; and exploiting this fact allows better content presentation. But this clashes with the e-book’s need to work across many different form factors. Arbitrary HTML-style reflowing prevents thoughtful content placement, whereas fixed PDF-style layout imposes certain minimal and optimal sizes on the reader device. Print books don’t have this problem: each book comes with its own perfect form factor. E-readers would need a dynamically resizable screen to match that.
On top of all that, there’s the well-known dilemma of electronic displays: you get either e-ink that’s easy to read but monochrome and impossibly slow, or fast & colorful LCD that glares in the dark and vanishes in sunlight. Neither can compete with the high-contrast clarity of a printed page, which has a far higher resolution to boot. At least reflective display technology is slowly making some progress.
Certainly, e-books are good enough for pulp fiction that accommodates (half-asleep) linear reading. But I found them quite hopeless for complex technical documents that benefit from precise page layouts, and that require frequent paging back and forth as I form a mental image of the subject matter. Only a double-page PDF viewer on my big desktop monitor is borderline acceptable for such texts. Hand-held e-readers have a long way to go.
2013-04-21: Ferris Jabr’s The Reading Brain in the Digital Age cites a wealth of studies which appear to show that printed paper allows for faster reading and better comprehension than electronic displays. Unfortunately, most of his sources are paywalled so you’ll have to trust his brief summaries.