Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune, where she has worked since 1996. She is the author of "News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist," winner of a Minnesota Book Award.

The convenience -- or not -- of ebooks

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel under Book news Updated: January 8, 2013 - 11:30 AM

 

 

On New Year’s Day, I got a hankering to read “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” a quirky novel that had popped up on several “best of 2012” lists. It was a lazy afternoon, a fire in the fireplace, me on the couch with a dog in sweatpants (no, wait, I was in sweatpants, the dog was naked). So I opened the laptop, clicked over to Amazon, and ordered the book for my Kindle.

 Yes, I have a Kindle—one of those plain-Jane first-generation models, with a red leatherette cover. My husband bought it for me for my birthday shortly after they first came out, assuming it would be useful for my job.
 
You read all the time about how handy e-readers are, how convenient, how easy! And as I heaved myself off the couch, disturbing the dog, and set off to (a) find my Kindle, and (b) find the charging cord, and (c) plug it in, I started thinking about this.
 
Yes, it was certainly easy to buy “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” If you’re looking for convenience of purchasing, it’s true—none better.
 
But what about for the rest of it?
 
Before I could read my book, the battery had to charge. Once I started reading, the Kindle malfunctioned twice---I’d close the red cover and go off to make tea, and when I came back the book had reverted to the first page, even though I was well beyond that. (You don’t really know what page you’re on with a Kindle; you only know what percentage of the book you’ve read.)
 
There’s a button, which I figured out by pushing a bunch of other buttons, that will “sync to last page read,” but when I pushed it the Kindle did some electronic thinking and then told me that I was already on the last page read. But I wasn’t. And then I had to figure out how to fast-forward through the book to get to the right page.
 
Perhaps a Kindle becomes intuitive after awhile, but I don’t use mine very often and so am constantly hitting buttons that I don’t want to hit and then struggling to get rid of screens that pop up: search screens, and highlighting screens and all kinds of annoyances.
 
I push MENU and HOME and click here and there and sometimes the odd boxes go away and sometimes they don’t. It bugs me.
 
Apparently these e-readers have all kinds of built-in automatic conveniences, but I don’t want them, don’t need them; that's not how I read a book. I like paging through a book. I like skimming back to refresh my memory about plot. I like flipping quickly to the index in the back, to see if a certain topic or person is mentioned. I know how to do all these things with a codex book; with an e-reader, not so much.
 
When I went to Romania in 2011 I was in the middle of reading a giant biography that I was reviewing for the paper. I did not want to lug this heavy book with me across the ocean, and so I bought it on my Kindle. It’s true, it was lighter weight and easier to carry than the book itself. But it’s hard for a critic—you can’t use yellow highlighter, you can’t fold down corners of significant pages, or slap on a post-it note with a scrawled few words to remember why that page matters.
 
And the battery started to die somewhere between Amsterdam and Bucharest, and I had to shut it down and wait until I got to my hotel so that I could charge it up again. (And did I pack a universal adapter? Ah, yes, I did)
 
I don’t hate e-books, though I do hate what they are doing to bookstores, especially indie bookstores. But mostly I am mystified by them. Why is it that people find them more convenient than books? You can’t drop them in the tub and let them dry off with no more damage than wrinkly pages. You can’t lend them to a friend, casually, without going through a lot of complicated electronic machinations. You can’t leave one on a beach and think, ah well, it was used, it was only 29 cents, no biggie.
 
The convenience, as far as I can tell, though I am open to other points of view, is merely for purchasing. There is no easier way to buy a book. But after that, you’re on your own.
 
An LA Times story we ran today (here's the link) talks about other concerns with e-readers: privacy, for one, and ownership. (You aren't technically buying the book; you are leasing it, and it can be taken back without notice.) The story is worth reading, if you own an e-reader or plan on buying one.
 
What do you think? E-readers, love 'em or leave 'em?
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