I’ve been an early adopter of gadgets for a long time. I remember buying a Sharp TM-20 before a trip to Europe because I thought, Won’t it be bitchin’ to get my email by just holding this gadget to a hotel phone or pay phone! That was one of the few impulse gadget buys that worked out, the TM-20 really was bitchin’.
A few years ago, when the Kindle was launched, I ordered one on the first day. I was hooked on carrying around dozens of books instead of having to choose before a trip.
But I soon realized that it was better for reading linear stuff like novels, and not so good for reading technical books, in which flipping back and forth between chapters and index is a core pattern of usage. When the giant Kindle DX came out, I completely ignored the fact that the larger size didn’t make books any more flippable, and I bought one.
And then it really sank in that e-reader user interfaces till had a very long way to go, and I went back to buying printed books. Until a month ago, when I couldn’t see see the floor near my bed anymore because of the many stacks of books. I did some research on the latest e-readers, went to Best Buy to play with some, and ended up buying a Nook Simple Touch.
The Nook was perfect. It’s light and grippy. It has a crisp E-Ink display, and you can turn pages by swiping across it — no more buttons to press. You can look up words with a couple of touches. I’ve heard that there’s even software that will let you convert the Kindle books that you paid for and own for reading on the Nook. You can even highlight stuff in your books!
And that’s when I fell out of love with my Nook. Why in the world can’t I see or search my highlights across my books? Without this feature, highlighting is no better than sticking Post-It flags on pages in my paper books. In fact, Post-It flags are better because I can see across my bookshelf which books have them.
Another reason not to love e-book readers right now is that the eBook market still hasn’t figured out that charging more for e-books than paperbacks isn’t going to fly for very long. Sure, it’s convenient to carry dozens of books in one reader, but the cost of distributing eBooks is vanishingly small compared to printed books — the only reason e-books are so expensive is that the fat cat middle men from whom you buy e-books own the store, the reader, your library, everything. I could go on, but this isn’t a treatise on the broken e-book market.
Another reason I fell out of love with my Nook: I have a retired neighbor with whom I have an unofficial book club. Not the kind where cakes and cookies are served, literary theories are expounded, and husbands are gossiped about, but simply the kind where one club member says to another over a glass of whiskey, “hey, I just finished this crazy novel by this Irish guy Lorcan Roche, you might like it, here you go”, or the other says “I found this copy of Sterling Hayden’s Wanderer, have you ever read it?” Some Nook books are lendable, most are not. End of informal neighborhood book club.
There’s also something disturbing about stripping away all of the produced aspects of a printed book and normalizing it to an e-reader: the size, the cover, the paper, the font. And the bookmark from my favorite bookstore.
I’m not putting my Nook on craiglist just yet, but I’m going back to printed books for now. Maybe someone will disrupt the e-book market. And maybe someone else will invent a reader with a more book-like user interface. Until then, I’ll keep dreaming about the the best of both worlds.