Monday, February 20, 2012

E-books, and why I'm apparently worse than Hitler.

I love reading. It is a huge part of my life, and it is my go-to when I don't know what to do with myself. Sometimes I schedule time in my day (when I'm really busy, which can be fairly often) to read. I read before going to sleep (in fact, I can't sleep unless I've read a couple of pages of whatever is sat next to the bed). I enjoy train journeys where there won't be loads of people crammed in like sardines so I can get stuck into something that I've been meaning to get a good run at, and if I weren't too distracted by trying to see what's on the ground I'd be reading on planes too.

Books have a hold on me; I once pledged to give 50 books to a charity shop. This was a total failure, because I gave away 17. Out of the thousands of books I own, I gave away 17 and I can remember what most of them were. Books make incredible furniture, ice breakers, friends, companions, comfort blankets. They're food for the mind and soul. They smell incredible. They last for years, even after you've dropped them in the bath, spilled tea on them, carried them in a backpack for months, taken them up mountains and down valleys. They whisper to you, tell you things that you'll dream about, educate and enhance your life. You'll probably only have time to read maybe 8000 books in your entire life (at current rates I've got another 4200 left in me, assuming I don't get hit by a bus). Many people won't read a tenth of that. A few will read more.

So, why is it that as soon as people buy an e-book reader they go nuts on the Amazon store, buying ebooks because they only cost a quid, of things that they will never, ever read? I know people who have bought kindles and then downloaded the entirety of Project Gutenberg. There are 32,000 works on Gutenberg and nobody - and I truly mean nobody - will read all of them. This is the equivalent of buying a 160Gb iPod and then filling it with a third of a years worth of continuous music. You'll buy all this stuff from iTunes and listen to it precisely once, and skip it if the shuffle ever brings it up. It's the same for downloading movies, or vast swathes of text from Wikileaks. Why do people do this? Are they collectors of media they will never, ever see/read/hear? Finish something, for goodness' sakes!

I actually have several problems with ebook readers; that they encourage you to download and collect far more than you'll ever need, which leads to option paralysis and thousands of things started but not finished is probably my biggest bugbear. But: they're not allowed to be read when planes are landing. Not even Lady Chatterley's Lover is banned on planes (any more), but you could be trying to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your offspring and be told off by the crew for endangering the lives of you and everybody around you for using an electronic device during landing.

Hypothetically, you could read your ebooks in the bath, although if you drop it in then... well. It'll cost you a couple of quid to replace that copy of Sense & Sensibility if it were a paperpack. Ditto reading a battered Chris Brookmyre in the rain on a Welsh promenade, or on the beach with a sudden sandstorm. If you spill your tea on Lord of the Rings it probably won't even get past Rivendell, but on your Kindle? You could lose everything. And I've been able to read Eric Newby on the top of mountains; would the battery on your shiny electronics hold out in subzero temperatures? Speaking of which; I've never yet had to recharge an Agatha Christie just when Poirot declares his denoument. Did the butler do it? Probably not, but all I have to do is turn the page, not find a computer with a USB cable.

Sure, I could carry around every book I've ever wanted to read in my satchel. Except until the next model comes out, at which point format incompatability kicks in. So like the White Album I'd have to re-purchase something I already own (or rent; if you read the T&Cs on most ebook suppliers you don't actually own what you buy) just so I can continue to read it. And I lend books to people, too. Can't do that with that electronic version of Nights at the Circus - it's a T&C violation, even if you could be bothered to hack the DRM out of it. And you can't sell on ebooks, or even donate them to Oxfam.

Point any of this out to someone who has drunk the Kindle Kool-aid and sold all their books, or freecycled, or - heaven defend us from these people - thrown them away, and you'll get a strange look, like I'm some kind of wierd luddite. Press the point and you get all kinds of arguments thrown at you, about how the future is here now and I'm stifling progress. How I'm destroying the planet with my dead-tree-loving ways (as if paeleolithic trees were being used to make the paper, and the ink to print was hand-squeezed from Kraken), and how gazillions of gallons of water is used to make my planet-killing books. If I mention the Congo or other African conflict regions where rare minerals are mined to make electronics then conversation rapidly decends into Godwin. So now I don't push the issue.

However... I could find a use for an ebook reader. I read a lot of PDFs for my day job and reading on a monitor is unpleasant for any length of time. I end up printing them off, which is a bit pointless when there are devices that could, in theory, read them. The problem here is that ebook readers can't natively render PDFs. They have to be converted, which defeats the point of a PDF in the first place - you lose formatting, pictures, graphs, page breaks. Don't mention the iPad, please - that's £400 of something accident-prone people really shouldn't be allowed in charge of.

Show me something that could natively render PDFs properly and I might be able to find a use for an ebook reader. But otherwise? You can keep them.


It occurs to me that I've not actually started redirecting people over to Beyond Guardian Leeds yet. Which is bad, because it's been going for eight months. That's at least one post every weekday (apart from 2 weeks over christmas) since the end of May last year.

So, go to Beyond Guardian Leeds for daily news aggregation posts about what might be going on in Leeds and West Yorkshire. You can also follow us on twitter as @BeyondGdnLeeds. A couple of us use that account, so don't try to contact just me personally on it.

FWIW, my personal account is @nalsa on twitter. Not sure I should have said that out loud.