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The Book and I: How the iPad has changed my reading life


Last week, I picked up a copy of The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter at the library. The book was sitting there on the shelf. I had heard some reasonably good buzz about it. So when it caught my eye, I did something I haven't done in a while. I checked out a dead-tree version.

I also did something I had never done before. As I was reading the book, I stumbled across an unfamiliar word and, rather hilariously, ended up tapping the printed page until it finally occurred to me that the book wasn't going to offer me built-in dictionary and Wikipedia access.

It's odd how three years or so changes you. Although the Kindle debuted in 2007, it wasn't until 2010 that I really jumped on the e-book bandwagon. My entry was due to the iPad. In fact, it was the iPad 2 even more than the original that firmly grounded me into the e-book world. Between the light, thin design of the tablet and my aging eyes, the iPad with its built-in iBooks app and the add-on Amazon Kindle reader app, I have become a devotee.

I love e-books. In addition to in-line definitions and searches, I can zoom up the font however much I desire, read in the dark and lie in nearly any position while comfortably reading. My iPad also weighs significantly less than my hard-bound copy of Name of the Wind.

In a way, the transition has been similar to the iPod revolution of the early 2000s. Instead of carrying around CDs, cassettes and so forth, the iPod made it possible to bring your entire music library with you. With the iPad, my library travels with me as well. With advances in connectivity, I'm now just a few taps away from buying and borrowing books while I'm on the go.

I am now regularly borrowing books from the Denver Public Library. More and more local library systems are offering digital loans, and many of them deliver directly to the Kindle app.

Admittedly, library culture hasn't quite caught up to the technology. The collections are often slap-dash and poorly curated. For example, here's a screenshot returned from a search for new Science Fiction arrivals. As enjoyable as My Fair Captain may be (Hi, Megs!), I suspect it doesn't really fall into the Science Fiction genre in any meaningful fashion. You're generally better off finding recommendations over at Goodreads rather than trying to spontaneously discover items through the library.

Buying e-books has its occasional challenges as well. Take the new Moist von Lipwig book, for example. It debuted this November, in 2013. The e-book, however, won't launch until March 18, 2014. This shift, called "windowing", isn't an isolated incident, although it's not exactly a trend either. Publishers don't always release e-books at the same time as their print versions.

For example, in the case of A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series, I ended up skipping the last volume entirely due to the shifted dates rather than wait several months for the e-book. (I did however read the Wikipedia entry, which had a vastly reduced amount of crossed arms, skirt smoothing and sniffing.)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden tells me that windowing was much more practiced a few years ago. He says, "I think most of the editors and agents I know would agree that the practice is in decline." Instead, some books such as the re-release of Charles Stross' Merchant Princes novels are actually going digital first, appearing in the US several months before the print version to match up with their UK releases.

So why is windowing still around? Nielsen Hayden says, "Some [publishers] were genuinely anxious about losing hardcover sales; some were doing it because their bestselling authors (or those authors' agents) were anxious. And for a lot of other reasons, most of which are summed up by William Goldman's observation about the entertainment industry in general: 'Nobody Knows Anything.' But here at the start of 2014, I think there's a growing consensus that, in commercial fiction publishing at any rate, 'windowing' isn't going to be the dominant model."

I appreciate the way I can now download many e-book samples before buying. When a friend recommended I check out Cinder by Marissa Meyer, I was able to pick up a five-chapter trial version before splashing out my $8 on the full book. Turning that around, I was then able to pass along that recommendation to my friend Judy, giving her and her daughter a chance to try before buying.

When buying e-books, I have had to perform major mental shifts. The whole "you don't own that" DRM approach means that at any time, I could possibly lose access to major parts of my collection. Baen Books and Tor are notable exceptions to this rule and I encourage you to check out Baen's e-book policy page and Tor's blog post about the change.

I can't hand off books I no longer want to friends, to charities, or sell to pre-owned bookshops. Nor can I count on my books being there five, 10 or 20 years down the line. Fortunately, my children de-sentimentalized me pretty early on. They have completely different tastes in reading than I do. The special books I put aside assuming they'd love them (Nesbit, Eager, Wynne Jones, McKinley, etc.) have long since found new homes.

I'm the first to admit as an early adopter that the technology has a long way to go. Both iBooks and the Kindle app are pretty awful at cataloging and organizing books. They haven't gone far past the "read the book" challenge into the "manage your library" one.

My iPad collections are stuffed with items from various bookstores, from Project Gutenberg, and public libraries. In fact, the only way I have found to remove long-since-read-and-returned library items is through the online "Manage My Kindle" page.

Despite this, I am more committed now than ever before to e-book reading. The comfort, convenience and overall experience blows the old dead-tree-style books out of the water. Stumbling across print-only books, such as John McWhorter's What Language Is, leaves me blinking and shooting off emails asking when the Kindle edition will finally debut.

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