Sunday, January 8, 2012

A traitor to the cause

That's me.

I've betrayed book lovers everywhere. Not to mention made myself a hypocrite, flouting my own blog posts decrying the trend.

Yes, that's right. I bought an e-reader.

While I'm admitting, let me admit this too: I'm glad I did. I think.

Once I was handed a gift of the money to get one, and the price dipped below a hundred dollars, and I finished obsessively researching and comparing the various machines, and I quizzed everyone I know who has used one, and I tried several out, and once I woke up one morning too many with a painful neck from lugging fat books day in day out, I decided. And once I decided I quickly made my move.

I got a device by Sony, which was the first manufacturer of e-readers although it's now been eclipsed in sales figures and hype by others. The version I got is the company's latest, newest, called the Sony Reader WiFi, and I'm pretty darned sure I made a good choice. It's the only high-quality e-reader that offers full online access and still has an e-ink screen. The other newish readers with which you can go online all have shiny LCD screens, not good for reading for long periods. With e-ink this is not, of course, a device for gaming or movie watching or any of that crap but none of that crap is what I want to do. I want to read, books, newspapers, whatever, and for that this contraption is perfect. It's set up very nicely for quick easy library borrowing, for quick easy downloading of free books from Google or Project Gutenberg, for emailing, for reading periodicals, it handles any and every e-book format out there, and of course it lets you buy e-books. The latter I have not yet done. At this point I've got over a dozen books on my reader, and all are either free downloads, including The Communist Manifesto which I just love knowing I now have on my person at all times, or library loans.

A big disappointment, which has nothing to do with this particular device, is that it turns out there aren't that many e-books available for library borrowing. One reason is that there just aren't that many books available in electronic format yet. OK, fair enough. The other, however, is more sinister. Publishers--that is, capitalists who make books for the purpose of making money--are refusing to sell more than minimal numbers of e-books to libraries. Afraid that library loans will cut into their profits, they're trying to force people to buy rather than borrow e-books. And sure enough, I've found it quite tough to get the library books I want electronically. There are so few available copies that there are long lists of people lined up waiting their turn for every one of the scant e-books available. In my first online library session looking for books last weekend, I spent about an hour and only managed to actually retrieve four books. Well I'll live with that for now; after all it's not much different than the physical-world experience of using libraries, where I've often walked in looking for one book, not found it but walked out with several other titles.

There are other frustrations. The touch screen is sometimes too sensitive, sometimes unresponsive. I flew into a terrible howling rage on my second day of reading on the device when it suddenly froze up completely. I couldn't turn the page backward or forward, couldn't close the book, couldn't even turn off the machine. I'd been deep into a reading session, engrossed in a book—my god, can you imagine suddenly not being able to keep reading! No physical book has ever done that to me, just closed itself up and not let me continue. It really made me crazy, and I started yelling that I was going to return it—I mean, really, what's the use of the thing if it blocks you from reading?—but then finally after about 10 minutes, during which I'd been searching online for what to do about the problem, it came back to life. That has not happened again since, and if it does I now know how to reboot the thing. In any case I have one more week to decide whether I'm definitely going to keep it. There's a 30-day return policy, and if it freezes up again I might decide to return it.

I'm not going to return it. Who'm I kidding? Because here's the thing, the unexpected thing: I love it! I love its slim sleek metallic red pretty handle-ability. I love its near weightlessness. I love how easy it is to read on it.

Yes, it is. All my worries about how different e-reading would be were, it turns out, unfounded. It required no getting-used-to period. There was no learning curve whatsoever. I started reading a book and it was exactly like starting to read a book. I read a book. It was an identical experience to, you guessed it, reading a book.

It's worth keeping in mind, I think, that all these machines, e-readers, tablets, smartphones, all the touchscreen and related technologies, are in their infancy. The e-reader I got might be the third iteration of Sony's offerings, but in truth all e-readers are first-generation devices. No doubt considerably improved new makes will keep hitting the market. Those of another class who can afford to buy every new and improved version will continue to do so, upgrading every year or so, remaining always on the leading edge. Our class? We content ourselves with some variation on my approach: watching, waiting, then, if and when we feel the need and decide we can afford it, making our move, buying a good-enough commodity and living with it for as long as we can or until it dies and we're forced to either live without it or buy whatever we can afford again at that point. In fact, I'm currently at a similar stage with regard to my laptop. It's almost five years old, and true to the profiteers' planned obsolescence design, it's on its last legs so I'm searching for the cheapest available replacement that meets my needs. It won't be the newest shiniest one with the most bells and whistles. Over time, as ever newer and shinier models are marketed, mine will come to seem outdated and shabby even as it continues to perform the (really quite limited) functions I require, and no doubt I, for even socialists, at least the imperfect ones like me, are not immune to the marketers' want-want-want buy-buy-buy siren song, will wish for the latest, flashiest, coolest while continuing to make do with that lamentably minimal machinery, that which does what I need it to do.