When it comes to ebooks, I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place.
Like the iPod before it, the Kindle announced the arrival of a new era, an era that heralded the end of paperbacks and hardcover. The Internet had already ushered in the death throes of the newspaper and the magazine. Ebooks were around before, just like mp3 files were around before the advent of the iPod. But today, I rarely buy a CD, preferring instead to buy mp3 from Amazon, even if they be an entire album (the latest acquisition is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, an album I never grew fond of, but which is all Maya listens to these days). But Kindle changed the game just like the iPod did.
Friends and colleagues were suddenly talking about it. Knowing my love for reading, they enquired about my experiences with one, assuming I had already bought one. Like the iPod that I didn’t acquire until the Nano was in its second generation, I haven’t purchased or even thought of buying a Kindle. The main reason I hadn’t purchased the iPod was because I so rarely listend to music with a headphone (I still don’t). The other reason was that using it tied me to having a Mac or a Windows PC and using iTunes to managing it. I run Linux as my primary platform and Apple is horrifyingly restrictive when it comes to opening up their devices. I also didn’t like to support iTunes because of its sale of only DRM’d music. Furthermore, I couldn’t move songs from the iPod and a computer, at least iTunes didn’t let you do that. I loved open source and open information and couldn’t bring myself to allow the creation of a world that restricted my rights as a user. I could buy and sell CDs freely without stepping over any corporate’s legal toes. Until I could do the same with the music files, I didn’t want to nourish the ecosystem it thrived in. That I used Linux almost exclusively, that I rarely listened to music with headphones, that I supported the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons, all reinforced each other and made difficult, if not impossible, for me to feel the allure of an iPod.
I have not always lived a life removed from new technology. My father may have been one of the few hundreds or thousands of people in India to have purchased a Sony Walkman when it came out (it was Walkman II, to be precise). In the middling provinces of the country where I lived, the effect it produced was the equivalent of strutting a stunning rock on the finger or the ears. I still remember the day he brought one home from his visit to Bombay (it was Mumbai then only in the vernacular of its state). I luxuriated in the feeling of listening to music in the privacy of my room, without disturbing anyone else. It played all the tapes I had and so I didn’t have to acquire a whole new stack of the stuff I already had. The only things that prevented me from playing the Walkman more were my father’s fear of spoiling the thing from overuse, his fear that listening to music with the headphones would prove damaging in the long run and its rapid consumption of batteries (quite expensive in those days in India). I still remember how I’d endure listening through a song that I didn’t care or avoid repeating the song that I did care about, just to extend the battery life and not damage the motor on the Walkman by fast forwarding or rewinding the tape (of course, the life of the tape mattered too). To this day, I don’t hit the repeat button much, while Maya is so used to skipping and repeating.
Before the advent of the Walkman, we were among the first families in a little town called Gulbarga, to acquire a television. When the local TV station was opened, my parents were in the invited audience, something I was subject to over and over again by the repeat broadcasts of the ceremony over the next few weeks. There was scarcely a handful of programs at that time. And by program, I mean a single broadcast, not even a form of a serial. The only thing that didn’t repeat was the local news. There was a program of a lady singing “Kamana billu kamanu katti de modada nadina bagili ge” (The Rainbow is framing the entrance to the land of the clouds) that was repeated so often in a single day that I still feel sick when I hear that song.
Returning to my Luddite days, the allure of a portable mp3 player began to change once I started running regularly. I don’t find it appealing, running to music. The first year or so I ran without ever listening to music. Then, I started to listen to one just to get me going on days I didn’t feel the mood to. Even then, I listened only for the first 15 minutes or so, till I was warmed up. I found it difficult to find music that matched my running rhythm and unsyncopated music and running lessened the pleasure of both. Even now, I rarely listen to music when I run, though there are more days when I’ve listened to music for almost 40 minutes. So, to get over the slow days, I wanted an mp3 player. I found one for $50 or so that worked with Linux and there I was, quite satisfied. But the player didn’t last. It soon developed some problems and I was back in the market looking for an mp3 player. And truth be said, I can’t say that the allure of an iPod hadn’t affected me. Linux support was available and well documented for the iPod now, unlike some of the other unbranded or cheap mp3 players with which things were pretty much a toss up.
After I got an iPod nano, things went back to very much the way they used to be. I used it occasionally for the odd run or two when I had difficulty getting my shoes on, but nothing more. Instead of music, I started adding mp3s of radio programs that I enjoyed listening on the local NPR station, but couldn’t get to any more because of various constraints. When I hit 10 years with my current employer, I opted to receive a 30GB iPod as the gift. While I happily loaded up my entire music collection onto it, I must say that it started gathering dust even more rapidly than the nano, primarily because my running had become quite erratic by this time (about which I’ve written elsewhere). And that was the state of affairs till the Kindle came out.
The Kindle had only one thing going for it, in my book (if you can pardon the pun). And that was convenience. If I had a Kindle, I no longer had to lug around all the books I was reading. Especially when it came to travel, Kindle seemed to provide an optimal answer because I tend to travel with more books than I eventually read. But then, that convenience came at an expensive price, a price too high to pay. Lets run down the list.
I couldn’t transfer the books I already owned into a Kindle. Even with an iPod, I could easily transfer my existing collection by ripping out the CDs. But that didn’t happen with the Kindle. I had to start over. It was akin to the time when CDs starting taking over tapes as the common format for music. But with CDs, there came a clarity that the tapes lacked and so forking over the money seemed OK. Moreover, when the CDs came out, my tape collection wasn’t too substantial, at least the collection that I wanted to continue to own. Just not listening to lo-fidelity music any more and being able to rewind and forward songs was blessing enough. But even with the CD, the players that came out initially had both a CD player and a tape recorder. So, I didn’t lose my collection. I could upgrade to a CD only the albums I cared about. One could argue that this true for ebooks as well.
The next problem is that I can’t buy and sell an ebook. My book buying tends to be driven by wanting to own books that I like to read and reread. I read them first usually by borrowing them from the library and if I really like them, then I tend to buy the book, but usually used. Its cost effective and I don’t destroy more trees in the process. Two days ago, I walked into Sunnyvale Library’s book sale and bought 6 books for $6, books that were in excellent condition, books that I wanted to own. Similarly, when we relocated to India for a couple of years a few years back, we culled our book collection and donated most of the books we didn’t care to own anymore to the library. The other day, I picked up Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate from a friend’s about-to-be-culled collection.
A variation of this problem is that I can’t loan a Kindle book to a friend. There are other ebooks now that permit some form of loaning and borrowing, ebooks such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook, that weaken this argument. But that leads me to the other big problem with ebooks.
This inability to loan also prevents me from borrowing Kindle versions of the book from a public library. My book buying habits were drastically cut many years ago, coinciding probably with the discovery of the quality of the public libraries in this country. Why bother buying books, when I could borrow them from the library. The books were more than available at the library and the collections so vast and diverse that I could borrow a few more books on the same subject instead of resorting to buying one based on a cursory read at the bookstore. The ebook collection at the libraries is slowly picking up, but they’re not Kindle versions. They run a different software and encode the books differently from Kindle. The ebook collection is also far more mainstream than their older paper cousins. They tend to be pulp fiction mostly, stuff I haven’t read in a long time.
Which brings me to one of the bigger problems. Ebooks are not in one standard format. Today, I can buy books from any bookstore and I can read them. The books are completely interchangeable. However, I can’t buy a book from Amazon and read them on a Nook or vice-versa. So, I’m tied to a company now. If Amazon decides to quit the ebook business, I’m out of luck. My books, books that I forked cash over for, are now inaccessible to me. A less mainstream book reader company called Kobo offers DRM-free versions of the book (when purchased for their ereader) so that the books can be used with any other ereaders, but their selection is not as sizable and they’re more expensive. But consider the effect of a non-standard version on large aggregators of books such as a library. They have to be omniscent and bet on the right technology before they buy any book or their collections are not worth the paper they’re not printed on. Furthermore, they’re either forced to choose a format and thereby tilt their hat towards one publisher over another or they have to purchase multiple versions of the book, one for each popular format. Different libraries may choose differently. The chaos is unbounded. Even in the fledgling days of book publishing or CDs, this was not an issue.
Publishers are also tightening the screws on what our rights are once we buy a book. Consider a policy they crafted recently in light of libraries. Today, once a library buys a book, it is theirs to do as they wish. The publishers realized that unlike paper versions of a book that can spoil with use and time and so must be purchased again, an ebook never spoils. So, there is zero chance of a repurchase because of wear and tear. To counter this, the publishers are now saying that a library must repurchase the book once a book has been loaned out 26 times or so (that’s roughly every year assuming the loan period is two weeks). That puts a huge dent in the library’s budget, especially in these parched times.
The DRM nature of book publishing is as stifling as its music industry cousin. And for that reason, more than any other, I never bought music from iTunes.
People have criticized my position. Some say that the environmentalist in me should be pleased that we’re no longer chopping down trees to enjoy an activity I regard so highly, reading. But they forget the cost of manufacturing an ereader, the life of one and the potential cost of upgrading one (and disposing of the other, adding to ewaste) when they break. People can say that if iTunes hadn’t been as successful as it was, the music industry would never have loosened the reins on the music format and stores like Amazon mp3 store would never have happened. That libraries will eventually start supporting ebooks, that the various formats will eventually converge and an ecosystem not unlike the current one for hard copies will eventually emerge. That maybe so and when that happens and the appalling restrictions are removed, I’ll consider investing in this technology.
A puzzled reader may wonder now, if I’m so opposed to ebooks, why do I say that I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s because they’re convenient. Since most ebook distributors have an app for most of the smartphones and their computer siblings (but not for Linux yet), I don’t have to acquire one more device to use them. Consider for example, the convenience of a guide book for San Francisco. Now that we visit the city much more often, a guidebook would be a useful thing to have handy. With that in mind, I bought a guidebook for the city through Kindle. I have Kindle installed on Shanthala’s phone too and we both can look up things to do and places to visit at the same time. So far, this has been my only concession to the ebook world and my only purchase.
Powered by ScribeFire.