Ereaders. the iPad--Is That All There Is?

The device industry is blowing a great opportunity to revolutionize reading

R. David Lankes

Illustration by Leo Acadia.What makes me nervous about ebooks and the crop of ebook readers from Apple, Amazon, and Sony, isn’t what you might expect. Digital rights management (DRM) and pricing schemes don’t worry me. These are mostly imposed by the publishers, and we saw how this played out in music with the market eventually lowering prices and pulling back on DRM. And I’m certainly not worried that ereaders are some sort of move away from physical books and that such a shift endangers the future of libraries. Libraries are about knowledge and facilitation, not artifacts and stuff.

No, what worries me about the recent spate of ereaders is that they’re so boring. I actually found myself angry and disappointed after Apple’siPad was announced in January. I’d expected so much more. I’m a little apprehensive about sharing these thoughts because I haven’t actually seen iBooks, the reader app that you download onto the iPad and one of the features touted at the iPad launch. For all I know, Apple may well have addressed all of the issues I’m about to raise before it shipped the first batch of iPads this month. If that’s the case, Apple, my bad: you’re exempt from the following rant. On the other hand, if you haven’t done much of anything, what were you thinking?

Apple and Steve Jobs have a reputation for reinventing things. The iPod and iPhone were amazing because they did things I always wanted to do, or they did something I’d been doing and suddenly I realized there was a much better way to do it. Cool.
However, to look at Apple’s latest foray into ereader apps and hardware, you’d think that what I was craving was a color display and a really cool page-turning animation. Really? When I looked at the iPad’s original promo video, it was like watching a clip of someone reading a hardcover book and calling it digital.

I love that with ebook readers like the Kindle and Nook, I can buy a book with a click of a button and immediately download it—and each title becomes part of a list that you can scroll through. (On the Nook’s color touchscreen, your library is represented by book covers.) While with the iPad, a little wooden bookshelf  (pictured) appears that displays your titles, no more than 20 or so at a time. Please tell me there is more there.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January a dozen or more ebook readers and tablets were trotted out as the wave of the future. Since then, Apple has revealed the iPad, Sony has started shipping a touchscreen version of its eBook, and Spring Design has started shipping its Alex reader. They all introduced some sort of nifty spin, from screens that actually bend and ones you can draw on to inset color displays and split screens. But they also move me to tears with such a parochial sense of reading in the form of pages, whether on paper, eInk, or screen, that get turned in sequence while the reader is alone, cuddled up on a comfy couch in isolation.

Here’s where talking with a librarian would help. First, we understand that reading is inherently social. Readers choose their next book based on recommendations. They share books to stimulate discussion. Students and lawyers alike highlight passages of reading material for themselves and to share with others. Librarians also understand that books must be arranged in some way other than by title. This is not about Dewey and classification; it’s about people and their bookshelves. Sure, I put science fiction together, but I also assemble varied books and other content that I’m reading, let’s say, for a class.

Pardon my bluntness, but after a few centuries can we just go ahead and say that there are better ways to organize books than bookshelves?

What excites me about ebooks is not that they’re easier to carry around but that they’re digital documents. Couple that with a digital network, and now we’re talking about reinventing reading.
So what should an ebook look like? With a ubiquitous network connection, not only could I take notes, but I could access them along with cited passages and share them with colleagues and friends in real time. If you’re struggling with a passage, let’s say, imagine reaching out to a colleague in real time to work through your confusion right there in the text. Or while reading a book on the iPad, Kindle, or Sony Reader, imagine engaging in conversation with the author, a friend, or coworkers as you’re reading. Picture a device that’s more a social access mechanism through text than a simple display.

Now ask yourself, with those capabilities, is an ebook really a book at all? By turning printed text into 1s and 0s, are we not, in fact, creating more profound change? Is an ejournal that allows real-time commenting and annotating the same thing as a printed journal on a screen? The answer is no.
When movable type enabled the mass-produced book, the printer’s goal was to mimic illuminated manuscripts as closely as possible. It took centuries for the book as we know it to evolve, along with related conventions, elements such as the table of contents, page numbers, glossaries, and indexes. Where printers once produced cheaper illuminated manuscripts, we now have a whole new beast with its own conventions.

Almost any book you read today is in fact an electronic document that has been bound to paper. Even if an author renders her work by hand, it’s transcribed and turned into digital text, which is edited, formatted, and finally printed. We maintain the physical form of books for convenience and to perpetuate a business model centered on items with hard boundaries, among other reasons.
Why, for instance, do I have to finish writing a book? I could release it as I am writing it and continually add to, edit, and prune it. I could open it up for you to do the same. Is it still a book? Why wait for editions when I could use wiki-style edit histories? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to finish the book and create editions (version control, for instance), but they are now choices, not rules dictated by the medium.

This is the reinvention we need from ebooks, not pretty pages and a new store. You want to reinvent reading? You want the iPad to be a revolutionary product? Then see reading for what it truly is: a conversation in which authors, readers, and an entire community can use the book to build knowledge and exchange ideas. Let me scribble in the margins and have those notes appear in real time in my friend’s copy. Sure, color images will be great, but instant messages in the margins would be amazing. Make my next book a “bibliocast,” where, as with podcasts, revisions and commentary are automatically downloaded and synced. And throw away the bookshelf and replace it with a tabletop where I can make piles of books I like and ones that I hate, and let me share those stacks with my social network.
Give me a way in the new bookstore to assemble “course packs” of books and materials tied together with a multimedia lecture and an online discussion. Let me show my friends and my students not only what I am reading but why and how these elements relate.
There has been much made of the coming Kindle versus iPad device war. In fact, we’ve already seen the notice of Apple’s iPad forcing Amazon to renegotiate book prices with publishers. Rumor has it that Amazon is hard at work on a color touchscreen version of the Kindle. However, if Amazon really wants to get its lead back, it might consult a librarian. Instead of seeing the school or public library as a collection, look at the people. Librarians read aloud to groups. And students not only read texts but discuss them in literary circles with their peers and go on to create books, podcasts, and other multimedia of their own. In fact, we should look to youth to see what conventions will evolve around ebooks.

The next evolution of the ereader should go beyond the artifacts of learning to engage the act of learning itself. Not textbook knowledge but what is derived through reading. We discover ourselves in the struggles of Holden Caulfield. We see the best of humanity in Atticus Finch. This isn’t about some romantic ideal around the love of reading, but a more fundamental need to understand. You want to change the world, give me an iPad or ereader that facilitates this; true learning happens when books and friends, writing and understanding intermingle in a rich soup of participation.
If you, as a school, public, or indeed any librarian, see your primary responsibility as being the books and other material on your shelves, shame on you. Our duty is to the reader and the community that comes seeking that book or Web page. And right now that responsibility requires you to look beyond the technology offered us and imagine and demand what our communities need.
  The iPad has already driven Amazon to reconsider its relationship with what it sees as a primary partner, publishers. Perhaps in this moment it will see that the stuff that publishers offer is only a small part of the larger reading experience. In fact, librarians can provide a stronger partnership because they connect readers with materials and knowledge. Let’s take this opportunity to present to the ereader manufacturers a richer and more compelling picture. Take to your drawing programs and whiteboards, and let’s flood the blogosphere with images of what an ereader should look like. Go ahead and buy a Kindle and an iPad, but don’t lend it out. Keep it and team with students to build the next killer device.

I love my ebooks. I read on the Kindle, I read on the iPhone, I had a Sony Reader, and before that a Rocket eBook. I actually prefer to read fiction in ebook form. And I look forward to reading my professional literature and technical work on an iPad. But it’s time for someone with vision to step up and imagine what ebooks can become, and it’s not about pretty page animations and a faux wood bookshelf. And that someone is you.


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