A bibliophiles conclusion on e-book readers: ‘It’s all good’

Novel way to read a classic novel: Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities, can be read in electronic form now. Frank Palmeri sees both good things and bad — the best of reading and the worst of reading — in this.

An e-book is an electronic version of a traditional book that can be read on a computer or on an e-book reader like a Kindle from Amazon.com or a Nook from Barnes and Noble. About two years ago, I purchased a Kindle.

I liked it, but, around the same time, I seemingly became a magnet for regular books; I started picking up cheap or free books from the library, all kinds of charity events, and even my old books from my parents' basement when they moved.

For a book lover like me, this was just terrific, so I rarely used the Kindle. Lately, though, I decided to immerse myself in the Kindle, just to see, once and for all, what the e-book experience is really like. When it comes to real books versus e-books, I think one phrase the kids like to use is appropriate: It's all good.

My Kindle is called the Kindle Touch. There is only one main button on the thing — when reading, you simply tap the screen to turn pages.

If you're thinking of giving a Kindle as a gift to a book lover, the one caveat I'd say is that the person has to be at least semi-literate with a computer to take full advantage of it.

For example, I could take a Kindle, load it up with a hundred books, and give it to my mother, who does not use computers at all. I'm sure I could get her reading on it pretty quickly, but many of its functions and features would be so unfamiliar or unavailable to a non-computer user like her as to make the experience more frustrating than fun.

The last thing you want, when you give someone a gift, is to see it used once and then tossed in a drawer.

E-reader pros

Here are the pros of an e-book reader like a Kindle:

— Anything that gets more people reading is a good thing;

— You can literally carry thousands of books around with you;

— Besides books, there are newspapers, magazines, shopping, all kinds of games, and more;

— You get access to thousands of titles, many free or dirt cheap, at the click of a button;

— Font size can be changed on the fly. This alone is one terrific reason to read on something like a Kindle;

— E-ink (electronic ink) technology is really great. Though currently limited to black and white only, the stark black text on a plain white background looks just like a page in a real book. Unlike a computer monitor or a tablet screen, e-ink is very easy on the eyes, even for long periods;

— E-ink e-book readers have really long battery life (e-ink uses no power when just displaying a page). You can go a month without recharging;

— Just tap on a word to get its definition;

— Think about how much less shelf space you'd need if all your books were e-books;

— E-books are very environmentally friendly since there's no paper required;

— You can take out e-books from the library from the comfort of your home;

— You can lend and borrow e-books from friends with e-book readers;

— A specific word or phrase can be "x-rayed" to show all places where it occurs;

— Passages can be highlighted, and you can share your highlighting and view other's highlighting;

— There is a text-to-speech mode, where the Kindle will read out loud to you. You can choose male or female voices and the rate of speech, but it's so robot-like as to be almost comical; and

  • You can share what you're reading with social media like Facebook if you want.

E-reader cons

Now here are some cons of an e-book reader:

— Even though the battery lasts a long time, you still need to carry a charger around;

— Who really needs to carry a thousand books with them?;

— The user interface is not great: The book title and chapter title should be on each page, and, to read footnotes, you have to tap on the asterisk, leave the page, then use the go-to function to get back to the page or location where you came from;

— With so much storage, you need to spend lots of time sorting books and applications into Collections, or else you wind up with yet one more cluttered mess to deal with;

— It's too easy to use the thing just to play games;

— Any mechanical device can break at any time;

— Be careful how you hold it, because an inadvertent touch can change a page or do something unwanted;

— Like any gizmo, it will become outdated;

— It's not good for technical manuals (diagrams are too small; it’s hard to bounce back and forth between text and diagrams; and it’s not easy to photocopy specific pages);

— E-ink is currently only black and white;

— E-ink is hard to read in the dark (newer models have supplemental lighting);

— Giving or lending a book requires the receiver to have an e-reader as well; and

— It’s harder for older people to use all the features without at least some computer skills.

Book advantages

Of course, there are plenty of plain old books available. The pros of regular books are:

— No battery required;

— Excellent user interface;

— Available everywhere, often free or really cheap;

— Books can be dropped without any problems;

— Easy to copy diagrams or pages from technical manuals; and

— Easy to borrow, lend, or give away.

Book drawbacks

The cons for regular books are:

— You can't change the font on the fly;

— If you lose it, it's gone;

— Highlighting a phrase makes in appear black when you make a copy;

— Some are too expensive, big, heavy, or no longer available; and

— Many don't lay flat, which can be a pain (think recipes or technical articles).

Recently I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair on my Kindle. This is the classic workers’ rights book from 1906 that inspired the cleanup of the meat-packing industry. Reading this book on the Kindle was seamless and wonderful.

Then I wanted to borrow and read the e-book versions of New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell's latest books, Outliers and Blink, from the Guilderland Public Library. (Anything by Malcolm Gladwell, like his earlier The Tipping Point, is well worth your time, trust me).

For both of these, I was put on a waiting list — just like with popular real books, popular e-books are often all "out" at the same time. When they finally became available, reading them was fine. Getting to read two great books for free simply by using my Kindle, without ever having to visit the library, was great. Can't beat that with a baseball bat.

Since using a Kindle means you can take advantage of the library without ever visiting it, I'll include here a little song I wrote that was inspired by trying to make a left turn onto Western Avenue when leaving the Guilderland library.

If you've ever tried to do this, especially during rush hour, you'll get the drift I'm sure. You can sing this to your favorite blues riff or play along on harmonica:

Left Turn at the Library Blues

The Guilderland Library
is a place I like to be for programs, books, magazines,
seminars, movies, and DVDs.

All's just fine 
'til it's time to leave
'cause then you have to wear
your heart on your sleeve.


Look out left, look out right. Don't jump out
before the time is right!

Look out left, look out right.
Maybe someday
we'll get a traffic light.

A traffic light
would make it right;
hope no one gets killed
before they see the light.

Repeat Chorus

The community gathers
at the library
so coming and going
shouldn't be so scary.

Repeat Chorus

Go west, young man,
is what they say
but at the Guilderland library,
better hope it's clear and OK!

Repeat Chorus

E-book readers like the Kindle certainly have many advantages, and I'm glad I'm finally making full use of mine. Still, there's nothing like the tactile feel of devouring a good old-fashioned page-turner by someone like Tom Clancy or Mary Higgins Clark that you got at a used book sale for a quarter. Truly, it's all good.