On April 4, the Pew Research Center's released an extensive report on the country's e-reading habits as part of its Internet and American Life project. It is, as is oftentimes the case with Pew reports, quite interesting and exceedingly bland. (You can find an introduction to the Pew report here; the full report is also available online or as a free download.)
Which gave me an idea: Why not tap into our collective brainpower and organize a roundtable? My role was mainly one of gentle facilitation; the other participants are the inimitable Mr. Zimmer, who, in addition to being the DtU fall guy, has extensive experience in publishing both "traditional" and e-books; Maia Szalavitz, who has written about memory and e-books; and io9's Annalee Newitz, who was already a e-reader vet by the time the Kindle came on the scene. The conversation will be broken into three parts; the first entry is below. --Seth Mnookin
Seth: If there’s one thing the Pew report showed, it’s that e-reading (and e-books) can mean very different things to different people, so let’s start out by talking about our own experiences. I was an early Kindle user: I bought the first iteration, back when it was many hundreds of dollars, and am on my second or third one now. (My current Kindle is a 3G Kindle keyboard; I’ve had it for over a year.) I don’t own an iPad, although I’ve been allowed to borrow my wife’s when I’ve wanted to read e-comics (which I love) or iPad-specific apps (like David Eagleman’s e-book app, which I reviewed for DtU). I’ve also used the Kindle iPhone and iPod touch apps, although not a huge amount -- I find it’s almost always worth it to me to just carry my Kindle with me.
Three or four years ago, I read a couple of books on the iPhone’s Stanza app -- mainly to see what the experience was like. (Surprisingly not bad, I found -- although I do much prefer e-ink.)
Over the years, I’ve found my Kindle reading has settled into two primary areas: pleasure reading and “work”-related non-book reading -- e.g., articles and studies, either emailed to my Kindle account or sent directly through a browser plug-in. This is much preferable to me than reading long documents on a computer screen, both because of the advantages of e-ink and because I can highlight and make notes that I then download directly into a text file.
My ebook pleasure reading has, for whatever reason, been lots of mysteries and crime novels: I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on 3 am purchases of Rex Stout and Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake) books. Most, if not all, of the time, I was spending more on ebooks than I’d spend on the same book if I bought it online.
Carl: I’m old school. I had a Palm Pilot back in 1999. I got it at first as a calendar, but then I figured out how to move Sherlock Holmes stories from Project Gutenberg onto it. Living in New York at the time, I rode the number seven subway a lot, and it was often just too crowded to open up a newspaper. So I flipped my way through “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” and the rest, on a grimy little screen. It was fantastic.
Flash forward a decade: I got my Kindle a couple of years ago, because I was working on my ebook Brain Cuttings and wanted to be able to see what it looked like. It was like a fancy Palm Pilot to me--the same drab grey shell, the same push-button controls. But it’s a lovely little machine. Later, I got an iPad to try out test versions of a digital version of an evolution textbook I’ve been working on.
I’d say now that I try to do most of my reading for work--scientific papers, background articles, and science books--on my iPad. Gone are the days when I packed my desk with photocopies. But I’ve found myself moving backwards to paper for some things. Big novels work best for me in print; in electronic form, I tend to get lost. I do use my iPad to read for pleasure sometimes: I read ebooks that can’t exist in any other form. I suspect I’m a bit scattered compared to the typical reader surveyed in the Pew Report. A lot of people get one device and stick with it. I think that’s partly due to the strategies of the companies that make the readers: they want you in their walled garden. But if, as Charles Stross suggests, digital rights management is going to disappear as publishers fight Amazon, then people may juggle devices more.
Maia: My mom got a Kindle a few years back and her raves about it convinced me to try one, which I now use almost entirely to read for pleasure. I don’t have an iPad and really can’t see a reason to get one because I do so much reading on-screen already that it doesn’t seem like it would give my eyes the break that the Kindle or regular books do.
But I do find—as I wrote about here for TIME.com— that I don’t remember what I read on the Kindle nearly as well as I do when I read on paper. I’ve always been dependent on spatial cues for recall and the Kindle just doesn’t provide them since there is no “upper left corner” or “lower right” or any sense at all to anchor the print in space. When I’m reading detective fiction, it doesn’t matter all that much if I forget details (though it is annoying to lose track of character names) but I just don’t see how I could use it to read for work where I do need remember as much as possible in order to write about studies.
The thing that shocked me most about the Pew survey, however, was how little most people read. I suppose I already knew that to some extent, but I had no idea how much we all are outliers.
Seth: That’s interesting--I was struck by how much people read. I’m not sure where it’s from, but I feel like I’ve heard dozens of times over the past several years that the average American adult reads less than a book a year. Given that possibly apocryphal factoid that’s been lodged in my brain, the notion that, as Pew reported, more than 20% of all adults had read an e-book in the past year and a shocking 28% of Americans age 18 and older own at least one specialized device for e-book reading kind of blew me away. It also made me wonder a bit about whether their definitions a little too fluid: That 28% includes tablets, and I think most iPad users don’t regard their iPads as a “specialized device for e-book reading.”
Annalee: The first e-book I ever read was Heart of Darkness on the Sony Libre, the first e-ink device, which I was test driving for Wired in the early 2000s. I don’t think the Libre ever got sold in the U.S., though its underlying technology is what makes the Kindle so nice to read in broad daylight. I remember sitting on the bus with the little device, reading Joseph Conrad’s gooey, beautiful prose, planning to stuff the thing full of every other public domain novel I could.
I wanted to use that e-reader for preservation more than anything - as a place to stow history. And that’s probably why I didn’t pick up another e-reader until a couple of years ago, when I caved in and bought an iPad 1. I’d been leery of the Kindle because it seemed too bound up with Amazon’s creepy DRM-driven business model. Despite the fact that the iPad’s gated garden business model was even creepier -- so creepy, in fact, that I wrote an article at io9 about how it was “crap futurism” -- it was just too sexy to turn down.
And you know what? I’m glad I gave into my base instincts to get that hot little thing into my hands. Because suddenly I was reading the newspaper every day again. And reading comics! I realized I’d been avoiding both because their form factors were just too flimsy and annoying to hold. Somehow, reading the Guardian newspaper and Scott Pilgrim books became much easier when I had them on my book-shaped iPad.
Seth: There’s an equation I’d like to see: How sexy does something need to be to overcome its creepiness?
Annalee: I think the quick answer is that you have to be able to use the device to read/view open media formats. So if it’s sexy enough to have some openness, then go for it. Or jailbreak it and then go for it.
Coming tomorrow: The perils of Amazon's walled garden and the sorry state of traditional publishing.