Ebooks, pleasure reading, and the planet

Naomi Alderman writes:

“A novel idea: curl up in bed with a virtual book”

Recently I’ve been intrigued by the idea that ebook readers could be a greener way to spread the printed word. And since I started using one my position has begun to evolve. Printed books are not what they were: many are cheaply produced, smell peculiarly of chemicals and bow or split before you’ve finished reading them. Many of my parents’ books, paperbacks bought in the 1960s and 1970s, are now unreadable: the glue in the spines has turned to brittle flakes, the pages are yellowed and fall out as soon as you open them. I always thought I’d keep my books but it begins to be clear that they, like so many other products, have a built-in obsolescence.

Meanwhile, my iLiad ebook reader is sleek and beautiful. It’s a pleasant object to hold, and with its useful page-turning bar, one-handed reading is simple.

Um, yeah. Get back to me in fifty years with your iLiad, eh? This part of the article makes no sense.

I’m not at all convinced that they’re “greener”, either, across the lifecycle, and the author struggles to justify her implication that it is. Is there such as thing as a formal LCA taking into account all issues, including heavy metals, disposal, etc? The article’s “electricity generation for an e-reader had less of an environmental impact than paper production for the conventional book system” doesn’t come close to addressing all of the issues.

And yes, I’m attached to paper books, and am not convinced that ebooks can substitute for all aspects of my reading pleasure. Just like I’m not yet nourishing my body with Ensure.

DRM is a huge problem, yes, but it’s not the only one.

Is anyone here reading ebooks for pleasure? Anyone tried it, and stopped? (I have. I prefer audiobooks for on-the-move pleasure-reading.) What are your thoughts?

Categories: environment, fun & hobbies, language, Life, technology


24 replies

  1. I haven’t tried one, and I don’t think her solution of having an e-book repairer will solve the problem of people wanting new models simply because they exist. Also, when the value of the old ones drop are we going to be willing to pay to have them fixed or will we just replace them for the same cost as fixing. You can’t fix an e-book with sticky tape.
    I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to books. I like holding them, putting them on the shelf, looking at them, reading them over again and I like that my kids can see how many books we have and how important they are to our lives and that they love books too. I also fear being out with an e-book and finding it drained of batteries.

  2. And also, when you read a book in the bathroom and it goes soggy in the steam you can always dry it out again. Do THAT with a Kindle/iLiad.
    Deus Ex Macintosh’s last blog post..Illegal abduction for peaceful protest

  3. Yup. When you drop a book it doesn’t break, and if you leave it out in the rain or drop it in the tub you’ve only lost one. Life cycle analyses will need to take those sorts of losses into account as well.
    Hardly any small consumer appliances are cost-effective to repair these days, so I think that idea is rather pie-in-the-sky. If there’s absolutely no point taking a microwave or a DVD player or a standard-issue TV to a repair place, there’s unlikely to be a big market in ebook player repairs.

  4. I can definitely see an application for things like technical manuals and reference texts. For a mechanic, for instance, it’d be great to look up a section of a workshop manual or a guide to a certain part, without having to make a printout or wait for the post. It’d be great for law students or anyone else who have required reading that changes frequently and regularly. For periodicals and journals, obviously.
    But no, certainly not reading for pleasure…

    one-handed reading is simple

    Whatever that pleasure happens to be.

  5. I believe that it’s the text of a book that’s sacred but I do have an emotional attachment to books as physical objects. As far as I’m concerned, the book is a brilliant technology perfected over thousands of years, and the modern-day paperback is perfection itself. I also love hardbacks of course, especially Everyman’s Library with their lovely paper, but they’re such a luxury.
    I love the smell of books, the texture of the pages, the cover design and typography, and the heft of a book in my hands. I love that there are books I can reread in the exact same copy whose pages I turned as a child.
    I’m not sure why e-book reader evangelists are so set on convincing us that e-book readers are so much better than books. When you consider the thousands of books held by libraries and the money that would be required to replace their entire collections with e-books, the initial outlay required to buy an e-book reader, and the fact that you can’t take them with you in the bath or use them without power, it seems as though e-books don’t have all the answers.
    Having seen shocking photographs of the disposal of waste electronics in China, I’m inclined to think your suspicion that e-books aren’t necessarily better for the environment is well founded. What will become of all those first-gen Kindles now that Kindle 2 has been released? Not only does the point about the iLiad make no sense because it will also become obsolete in decades, but it will probably be obsolete earlier than it absolutely needs to be since technology products are rapidly evolving, depreciating and being replaced.
    My aural abilities are far too pathetic to allow me to even consider listening to Audiobooks. I seem to learn and retain information best by reading and writing, though I suppose when I’m reading I am hearing the words in my head.

  6. Liam, hehe.
    Though, if you find you care to read one-handed, unless you’re reading from an old school church-sized bible, you can simply hold the book apart by splaying your hand and holding a side each down with finger and thumb. It’s just not that freaking difficult.
    Even though I see that it might be ‘easier’ to read in my preferred position of lying on my side in bed with something like this, I’ll struggle on with rolling over/bending pages back/the one handed read for the pure physical pleasure of pages in my hand, the smell of the pages, the rustle as they move. I understand it’s not ‘beautiful’ in and of itself, that I’ve romantically attached these things to the the joys of reading stories, but I don’t care. Love my books

  7. has she thought of… second hand books?
    Ebooks would certainly solve the problem of having to turn a light on when reading at night, though.

  8. I’m not at all romantically attached to books: many of my memories of reading them involve sneaking one of my arms out from under my warm bed covers and quickly flicking a page, trying to turn it and get warm again quickly, spending every second page dreading this impending process. And then having the trouble of keeping the damned things propped open without using my bare hands and without breaking the spine of a valuable paperback. (As you can probably tell as a child I lived in a house that reached temperatures below 0? at night in winter, but which was not an an area SO cold that bedroom heating was required.)
    I will switch to e-book readers at least part-time once I have enough friends with them that they will let me buy their second hand ones or try theirs out extensively to make sure the gadget is worth the money. I’m tired of library fines and of lugging books on holidays or having to be three months without anything to read while I travel, I am not at all convinced that this is a carbon footprint net positive either though.

  9. My aural abilities are far too pathetic to allow me to even consider listening to Audiobooks. I seem to learn and retain information best by reading and writing

    I am totally like this, which is why I started trying out audiobooks in the first place – I’m trying hard to develop my audio processing skills. I still can’t listen to really complex stuff, but for YA type fiction and light SF/fantasy it works ok for me. What clinched it was that I don’t get a crick in my neck/arms listening to an audiobook, and I can still keep an eye on my kid that he hasn’t run off or gotten into mischief. These are big advantages. One downside: when it’s the “wrong” voice, I just can’t listen to it at all.

  10. Speaking of temps, Mary, does anyone know whether ebook readers stay cool to touch in hot weather?

  11. That is another thing – it would be useful on long hospital stays or flights, when you don’t want to lug a box of books around. And obviously, the text could be enlargened for people who need large-print books.

  12. I am totally like this, which is why I started trying out audiobooks in the first place
    I always thought I was an auditory processor because I could remember a lot of lecture material even though my notes were minimal and so illegible as to be nearly useless, but after trying audiobooks I’ve had to revise that notion.
    As to voice: Martin Shaw reading The Last Legion– mmmm. I only remember about 30% of the reading but my, what a way to be lulled to sleep.

  13. I always thought I was an auditory processor because I could remember a lot of lecture material even though my notes were minimal and so illegible as to be nearly useless, but after trying audiobooks I’ve had to revise that notion.

    Oh, I can’t just-listen in lectures at all. If I’m not taking notes, I usually get lost in moments, the words swirl around and drift away and make no sense. If I’m writing or typing, I then look at what I’ve written or typed, and it all makes sense straight away.
    Those lecturers who get annoyed with people who keep taking notes, and yell at them about how they should just put their “PENS and LAPTOPS aWAY and just LISTEN!”? That doesn’t work for me.

  14. I, at least, don’t have any idea about the temperature of the devices: I know a couple of reader owners though, I’ll ask them and report back if I can.

  15. BOOKS OR DEATH. I can’t handle reading long texts off a screen. And no matter how not-like-a-standard-computer-screen ebook-readers are, I will *still know*.

  16. I’ve been experimenting with reading e-books on my XO laptop (the One-laptop-per-child device). It has a screen that folds into tablet configuration and I have a large collection of ebooks. To be honest I find I do not miss the paper – these aren’t classics, they are pulp fiction, sci-fi or fantasy.
    I can buy them online for less than a 2nd hand paperback but they last as long as the digital storage will – as I have loaded them onto the internet in a secure ‘container’ that may well be a very long time indeed.
    I also never run out of book anymore – once I have finished I just open the next one. This is very handy when travelling as I read voraciously and can at times go through 6 or 7 books a week and hate nothing more than being left without something to read.
    My biggest issue with the Kindle is that it ties you to Amazon’s format and their price structures.
    Oddly the iPod doesn’t give me the same reaction – perhaps the pricing helps.
    I will certainly purchase an ebook when I find one that is ‘right’ for me, but I’m in no rush and still have my floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to explore once again.
    Grendel’s last blog post..Please. . .

  17. Qot, have you seen the e-paper? I can’t imagine anything more like paper and less like a monitor.
    Grendel’s last blog post..Please. . .

  18. I read e-books from a particular author and their publisher because the publisher e-publishes the stories first and generally only does dead tree versions if the story is popular enough. But I do prefer paper books to e-books – often cheaper/tougher/won’t run out of power.

  19. I’m in love with the idea of some sort of electronic reader, and the most compelling feature of the Kindle2 is that it will read to me, making any book into an audio book when I need it to be. However, I doubt if the robotic reader is in any way pleasing or evocative, as a good reader can be.
    But here’s my personal green issue. I only buy copies of books that I’ve already read and loved. Books with less long-term value are slowly being divested. Otherwise, I make extensive use of my local public library. When an ereader comes along that permits me to read books without “ownership”, it’ll be worthwhile. How can I possibly justify the expense of a several hundred dollar reader, and $10 per book read? At the rate I go through books, many casually tossed aside when they fail to hold my interest, I’d be spending more than $3k the first year, and close to that each year thereafter.
    For that money I would end up with 1) nothing to donate to the library for the annual book sale and 2) nothing to pass along to friends and family as a recommended read.
    One yet another hand, a magazine-size reader which could eliminate the need for catalogs and magazines would be a boon, but only if I could get it in full color and without a vast (and separate) outlay to start with.
    Geek that I am, I still don’t want multiple separate proprietary gizmos to have to tote around and frequently replace. I suppose it’s a good thing that my budget doesn’t permit me to be an early adopter.

  20. I always thought I’d keep my books but it begins to be clear that they, like so many other products, have a built-in obsolescence.

    Yes, and clearly the electronic readers and formats won’t have that at all – they will last forever! Just like the 8-track! Wait…

  21. @ thegirlfrommarz:
    I think that point was the *everything* is subject to obsolescence, so why not just rely on the archivists to do their thing and look for the medium that works best in other ways, and are e-books a medium that does the necessary working better in enough ways or not?

  22. Everything may well be subject to obsolescence, but I have books from the 1800s – which I’m guessing is a hell of a lot longer than an e-book reader is going to last.
    That said, I think it would be quite good to have one on a long international flight, as the number of books I can get through in 24 hours is not so much fitting in the handluggage. But I wouldn’t go out and buy one.

  23. As far as archiving is concerned I think that both paper and microfilm win hands down.
    E-books for me are great for casual reads although I have made efforts to find ways to preserve e-books I own I find recording media unreliable. Basic RTF formats for saving text seem to work laterally across platforms and longitudinally as well. I’ve stored a number of documents on Google Docs that I intend to open in 20 years to see if it works out.
    Grendel’s last blog post..Please. . .

  24. I like reading e-books – I stick them on my phone* and laptop at the moment, because the readers tend towards proprietary crapware and I like a bit of freedom with what I choose to use. So I read most of the JD Robb series in ebook form last January/February when I was spending five hours a day travelling. I quite like ebooks because I find reading on my laptop or my phone comfortable. My laptop is nearly always handy when I’m at home, and my phone is a lot smaller than any book I’ve ever read. I still read paper books, and drag them around with me to places. I’m a librarian, so I definitely use the public library system a lot, but I really do find ebooks convenient. I just don’t like the dedicated readers.
    I cannot deal with audio books though. I just can’t do them. I’m the note scribbler in lectures as well, and the only time I’ve ever found I can retain audio information is if I process it in some visual format in my head (which led to the high school teachers who wouldn’t allow note-taking to call on me because I get the most peculiarly distant and probably stupid look on my face – tongue sticking out and everything). So audio books are useless to me – they require even more concentration than a regular book.
    *NOT iphone. Just a nokia from eighteen months ago that I got free on my phone plan.

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