Tuesday, March 8, 2011

… in which I discuss e-Reading and my iPad

So, last July I caved to my consumerist half and bought an iPad even though I couldn’t think why I needed one.  I’m still not sure I need it but I do like it. 

I never intended that my primary purpose would be to read e-books and so far I really haven’t used it that way.  Way back when I bought my iPhone I had downloaded the Stanza app to try it out.  I can’t remember if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came with it or I downloaded it for free just to try the app out.  I know I downloaded Death Comes for the Archbishop.  I had never read it and I figured I would try out the app using a free book.  I assumed I would use it when I was unexpectedly waiting somewhere and didn’t have a book with me.

It is still unread.  Reading on a small device just never appealed to me so I never pulled it out and tried it.  If I do pull out my iPhone I use it for my Google Reader or for Twitter.

When the Kindle app came out for iPhone I didn’t have any desire to try it.  Two of my colleagues at work use it all the time and tell me they have read lots of books on their iPhones.  But, the thing is, I’m seldom caught somewhere without a book and the idea of reading something on such a small screen just doesn’t appeal to me.  I figured that if I ever bought a Kindle I might eventually download the app.  But until then I didn’t see a need to have it.

When I bought the iPad I decided to try out the iBooks app.  It came already loaded with AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.  I immediately read it and was amazed at how they had recreated the look of the original book on screen.  It was as if I was looking at pictures of the original pages of the book book, complete with the Ernest H. Shepard illustrations.  If I had children I wouldn’t hesitate to download picture books at a moments’ notice to keep them occupied if we were somewhere without a book. 

But I was less sure about reading an adult book.  I like the feel of books in my hand.  Last August I intended to join an internet read-along of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  I had never read it and always felt that I should (note that I didn’t say I’d always wanted to read it).  I figured a reading group led by someone familiar with the book was the way to go.  I think I envisioned it being like the 2666 reading group I joined last year.  We had a weekly assignment and it took a few months to finish.  It was hard to fall behind.  Well, this group worked differently and they moved along at a quite a clip, finishing the book in a few weeks.  I was on vacation when they started so I started out behind and I didn’t even own the book yet! 

To try to catch up I downloaded it onto my iBooks app (it is of course free) and started reading.  After a few days  I found that I didn’t have enough time to keep up with the reading group and I dropped out. But for the week that I tried to catch up, I read the e-version of Ulysses.

Let me start by saying that this probably wasn’t the best book to start with.   One of the things I found difficult was not knowing where I was in relation to the end of the book.  I like being able to see how much of the book is left.  I like to flip forward and see where the end of the chapter is and tell myself that I can certainly finish it in an hour or so. 

Ulysses doesn’t have chapters.  And there are multiple editions of the book so when the assignment was to read specific pages the leader would try to give a general description of what those pages encompassed so that those reading other editions would know where to end.   Trying this on an e-reader just frustrated me. 

Ok, I admit that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive about “time” but that’s the way I am.  And it drove me crazy not being able to estimate how much time it would take me to read the next assigned installment.  After two days I went out and bought a paperback.  (And then, as I say, I gave up due to lack of time.)

And that was pretty much it for the iBooks app for me.  I downloaded the US Constitution for free – because you never know these days when you might need to prove that something is actually in the Constitution.  But I didn’t feel like reading any more books on it.

Then, in October, I decided to rejoin one of my reading groups on a casual basis.  I decided that I wasn’t going to get all worked up about making sure I had read each and every book.  After all, no one else did.   But I fully intended to read the first book to be discussed when I went back.  The book they had chosen was a non-fiction book called The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Collett. 

Since this was a snap decision I headed over to Barnes and Noble to pick up the book with only three days to read it.  I couldn’t find it anywhere so I finally asked at the information desk and the clerk told me that they didn’t have it at that store but he’d check other stores.  After a few moments he regretfully told me that no other store had it in stock but I could certainly order it.  As I started to tell him that I didn’t have time to order it, he said “or it is available as an e-book.” 

I thought about it.  I of course didn’t have a NOOK and had no intention of buying one but I did have an iPad and I knew I could download the Kindle app or the NOOK app.  So I decided to try it (since that was really the only choice I had other than not reading the book).  I don’t really like Amazon and I order from Barnesandnoble.com all the time, so I went with the NOOK app and downloaded it.  And got it read before the meeting that week.  On the whole I would rather have read the hard version of it, but since it wasn’t a book I would have ever wanted to read again, and it wasn’t a book I could imagine giving to any person that I know, it was perfectly fine for the circumstances.  More about the experience later in this post.

Then a few weeks later I went to Florida.   On the day I was leaving to come back I realized that I had finished the book I had brought with me and I needed something to read.  I knew I could pick something up at the airport bookseller but I had really been wanting to re-read some Sherlock Holmes after watching the new BBC series.  So I decided to download it.  And this time I decided to use the iBook app to give it another try.  (The iBook store doesn’t have nearly as many titles as Barnes and Noble but I figured even they would have Sherlock Holmes.)  It was easy to find and download and I read a lot of it on the plane.  But, on the whole, I would rather have been reading the hard version of it.

Then, a couple of months ago I watched a TED presentation by Brene Brown that I really enjoyed and on the spur of the moment I decided to read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection:  Let Go of Who You Think You are Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.   I’m not really into self-help or pop psychology books but I enjoyed her talk so much that I wanted to give her a try.   I also wanted to read it right then when the urge was upon me so I downloaded it into my NOOK app and started reading.   Except for one small factor that I will get to later, I was perfectly content to read it as an e-book.  It had easy chapters, so I didn’t start to sweat the whole “time” factor.  On the whole, except for one small thing that didn’t matter much, I was content to read it as an e-book.

Then, a few weeks later, I realized that there was another meeting of my reading group and I hadn’t read the book.  I didn’t really care except that it had been a book that I had wanted to read:  A Short History of Women:  A Novel, by Kate Walbert.  That month’s meeting was the celebratory post-holiday Tea that we have on a Saturday afternoon.  It is intended to be a festive occasion and usually we watch a movie instead of reading a book.  I don’t know why we picked a book this time. I suspected that many people wouldn’t have read the book and those that did wouldn’t talk about it much.  So I really felt no pressure to read it.

But I also suspected that if I didn’t read it now I would never get back to it.  So, since I got home at a reasonable time on Friday evening with a few hours left before I would go to sleep, I decided to download it for the NOOK and see if I could read a few chapters and decide if I’d want to finish it the following week.  I read it all in one sitting. 

It wasn’t very long, less than 200 pages.  It had easily defined chapters.  I liked the writing style, I liked the story.  It wasn’t the best novel I’ve read in my life but it was very enjoyable.  On the whole I probably would have preferred reading it in paperback.  I could definitely imagine passing it on to other people I know who would enjoy it and that’s a problem with e-books.  But I was really glad that I could download it at 9:00 on a Friday night when the urge hit me.

So I’ve moved from not expecting to read on the iPad to expecting that I will read some things on the iPad, particularly things that I want to read on the spur of the moment.  But I also anticipate that I will continue to do my normal reading in real books because I really like real books.   And also because the e-reader is not perfect and I’ve found an annoying problem in a couple of the books I read – both of the non-fiction books.

Non-fiction books tend to have footnotes.  The NOOK app seems to be set up so that you can click the footnote and it will take you back to the note (in this case really an end note) where you can read it and then click the number again and it will take you back to where you were.  That is a great idea but it didn’t work.  It didn’t work in either book, but especially in Brene Brown’s book.  The footnote numbering was completely off and always took me to the very first footnote and then took me BACK to where the very first footnote occurred.  I eventually gave up and figured I’d read them at the end (and her footnotes weren’t full of interesting asides anyway so it was only a minor annoyance).  

I suspect that most books that I’m going to want to read on the spur of the moment are going to be non-fiction.  I only choose fiction on the spur of the moment if I’m in an airport.  And usually I’m more organized in buying reading book groups so I don’t need to buy them on the spur of the moment.   The rest of the time, I make lists of things I want to eventually read and I eventually get to them.   But non-fiction, for some reason, I often look for on the spur of the moment.  I usually do it on the Barnes and Noble site and have them sent to my office and then I read them as SOON as I get home.   A lot of the non-fiction I read has to do with French Colonial times and the fur trade, so there’s a method to my reading.   And the footnotes are important to me, sometimes more important than the book itself.  So if footnotes aren’t going to work well that will be a big problem.  I assume, however, that as ebooks become more ubiquitous they will fix that problem

The Elizabeth Marsh also had a problem with illustrations. As is typical with many biographies, the author had a couple of sections inserted into the book that contained a series of pictures – in this case reproductions of paintings of places and of people who were mentioned in the biography.  The pictures had captions identifying them (as you might expect).  The e-book version of the book made the pictures impossible to follow.  Each picture was put on a different page although I think the “real” book might have multiple pictures on one page.  Then the captions in the e-book often ended up on a different page from the picture.  It was quite annoying.  And there was no easy way to make reference to the pictures – to “flip back and forth” as you were reading as you could do in a “real” book.  It was a real flaw in the e-book version.

So there are a few glitches to work out.  I suspect the fiction books work better because they are more profitable.  In A Short History of Women I was concerned because there was a family tree at the beginning that I just knew I was going to need to consult fairly often.  But it turned out that the ebook was set up to very easily “flip” back and forth almost like you would do in a real book.  So where they have a financial incentive they take the care to make the ebooks work.  Eventually all books will work.

As I said, I doubt I’ll read many books on the iPad.  I mostly use it for my RSS feed (I use Reeder and I love it, I now find it hard to use plain old Google Reader) and my Twitter account.  The TED app is great.  ABC TV has a great app.  I wish hulu had a free app but they only have the paid service so I still watch hulu on my laptop.  But I watch streaming Netflix on my iPad.   I love real solitaire.  And I love the Words with Friends app.   And there are a bunch of other apps that I use occasionally but not regularly.  On the whole I like it.  But it’s a toy, not a necessity. 

A toy that I’m glad I have.