Scattered thoughts on e-books and libraries

A very nice article about paper books vs. electronic books here.

A few semi-related thoughts and a giant rambling tangent on electronic libraries follow.

* * *

The first thing you notice when using an e-ink screen is the flash.

That flicker of an e-ink screen — going to negative, then becoming the next page, as you press the turn-page button — is really disturbing at first. Then you get used to it, and stop noticing it.

Here’s a comparison: when you’re reading a paper book and turn the page, you’re flapping a flange of paper closer to your face; the text on all the four pages is visible in horribly distorted elongated shapes; and then the page is turned and you go on reading, not noticing the sheer horror of what turning a page looks like.

The e-flicker is like that, and not different in the amount of time it takes, either. (And unlike turning physical pages, it’s getting quicker!)

* * *

I’m mostly positive about the e-book thingie and the eventual slide of paper books into special luxury objects instead of the main method of consumption, like vinyls vs. CDs vs. digitally downloaded music; but I have one giant sweating source of terror and unease about the whole thing.

Namely DRM. (Hey, the same problem as with music!) I abstain from raving about the matter, but the Correct Opinion is I shall not buy books I won’t get to own; it’s my partly irrational sticking point and a source of much pontification. (Hasn’t been a problem so far because (a) e-books aren’t good enough yet to be my major method of consumption, and (b) it’s so easy to get e-books, even legal ones, in formats without user-crippling: Gutenberg, Mobileread, even occasional publisher and author giveaways. Not to mention the cases where the ease of reading long blog posts is worth the bother of getting them to a more portable and paper-like screen.)

What I’d like would be if the books I buy came in unprotected files I could (the horror!) tinker with; as I suppose a paper book I’ve bought can be ripped apart and turned into underwear padding, so I wouldn’t see anything wrong in taking a few cuts into something electronic I’ve bought. Especially if its metadata is a soddin’ mess and screws up my e-book library.

A somewhat relevant example: some musicians take the last track of their albums, add a minute of silence, and then some “hidden” extra. No problem, unless your musical files are so locked you can’t snip away the silence and separate the extra into a track of its own. No problem with mp3; big problem with DRM. (“Huhwhat? Did my music player just die? Oh, it’s that two-minute silence after which there’s the half-minute drunken guitar-bashing that’s tacked to the end of the strongest song on the album.”)

* * *

The idea of “throwing away books” comes up often in the comments of the article linked to above. If you ask me, only monsters do that. Give the book to a library, sell it, do bookcrossing, anything.

Then again you shouldn’t ask me, because this is not a reason-backed opinion of mine. Books have been good to me, and I love the cultural main method of communion with minds distant in space and time (and didn’t that sound lofty!); and thus I try to give respect to the vessels. Even if the book’s a real stinker.

And don’t even mention bookburning or I’ll fly into an incandescent rage. (Well, I make an exception for all holy books, because sometimes people need to be shocked out of excessive reverence. Also, the wonderful cathartic feeling of blood-soaked irrational ravings going up in smoke, ah!)

* * *

The usual complaint: “E-book readers cost too much; waah!”

The three usual answers:

“Huh? Your mobile phone is an e-book reader. So’s your computer. They don’t ‘cost’ anything as such if you already have them for other purposes. I’ll give you the first taste for free: go grab a bit of excellent Doctorow and have a go with your phone; scroll down to ‘entire book for Java-enabled mobile phones’.”

“Huh? Okay, sure, dedicated e-book readers, like the Cybook and the Kindle and the like, they do cost hundreds — euros, dollars, pounds, doesn’t matter which currency you use. But you don’t need to buy a new one for each book you buy! Granted, you need to pay for the books you read, but there are free ones too. If you ask me just the ability to read Project Gutenberg ‘book-like’ instead of with backlit screens or crude print-outs is worth it!”

“Huh? Well obviously dedicated e-book readers cost a lot of money and kind of suck. But do you know what the first computers cost? And do you know just how terribly they sucked? Have you heard the phrase ‘Insert disc 11′? Just wait a few years… decades? and the price of a passable reader is equivalent to the price of a single hardback. More, of course, if you need an A4 screen or millions of colors. People will be buying a new reader if they can’t find the old one with five minutes’ looking around.”

* * *

I hate Luddites.

As I am physically inept, occasionally I find turning the pages of a book difficult. Haven’t had difficulty with pressing a button yet.

I hate the smell of old books. To me that’s putrefaction and small crawling things more than age and added value. I dislike the crinkliness of old yellowed pages, the tears, the smears, the stains, the torn covers, the bent spines, the missing pages, the bent corners, the notes some half-wit has penned in and over, and the like. I love books; but I’m not that sure about old books. Or maybe I just love books and hate readers? (Old typefaces and fonts are lovely, but they’re not a physical thing, right?)

I’m near-paranoid about the spines of my paperbacks, too. If you open a paperback too forcefully the spine cracks and you all of a sudden have a book with a special marked spread indicating the spot where the reader needed some violatory gymnastics; and people who do that to poor defenseless books are scum and should be beaten with hammers and chisels.

I have read the existing volumes of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I have Caro’s The Power Broker and the Burrows-Wallace Gotham waiting, and I’m reading Reclaiming History in short bits. Believe me when I say the weight of a book, the sheer physical heft of it, can be a bloody bother. (I actually bought and read Four Days in November, a 688-page excerpt from Reclaiming History, as a separate book because I didn’t want to go into gymnastics through the whole immense bulk of RH. And I’m in all dimensions heftier than your standard person; RH could kill entire families if it fell out of your hands.) As an e-book all these combined would be lighter than a whisper.

Put an e-reader and a paperback in a plastic bag and take them with you to a bath, if you dare. (I don’t.) Which do you suppose will be a teensy bit difficult as far as turning pages is concerned?

There don’t seem to be books that will really drive you mad; but there are font sizes that will, and paper books don’t change their font sizes no matter how you prod them. (Also, I hate endnotes and flipping back-and-forth and dealing with the whole hassle of two bookmarks. I also hate footnotes that continue overleaf. Both could be so simply and sweetly replaced by a pop-up in an e-book.)

Henry Darger wrote a book called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which is 15 145 pages long. I don’t think it’ll get published in its entirety any time soon, but would you be willing to bet on the probabilities and prices of paper and e-book versions?

* * *

Objection: “What about format obsolescence? Can you really read an e-book published today a hundred years from now?”

Possible point: “Assuming the publishers won’t be dicks, yes? The problems are hardware (‘do you have a reader for floppy discs?’) and software (‘do you have the reader program for this file?’); the first can be bypassed by vigorous hand-waving about continuous copying, hardware independence, and a cloud out there somewhere; the second is unproblematic unless the files are purposefully made difficult to use and understand, that is, the are-publishers-dicks issue. And really, if the file’s made to be read, no DRM can really make it unreadable, so why bother and alienate your customers and the future?”

* * *

Computer implodes; e-book destroyed.

House hit by flash flood; cellar flooded; paper books destroyed.

Anarchist wielding EMP gun arrives; all your digital copies of books are destroyed.

Your house burns down; all your paper books are destroyed.

Then again, “off-site copies” of e-books are possible; but only Zen masters can make a paper book be here and not-here at the same time.

* * *

My e-reader (Bookeen Cybook Gen 3) is, like e-ink readers currently are, black and white, with a few shades of grey. This isn’t a problem 95% of the time.

The rest is spent looking at book covers and fuming.

As I think book covers are important, to say nothing of pictures, I think e-readers will eventually be in color even if the color isn’t necessary 95% of the time — and who knows, maybe there’ll evolve ways of writing that will make it necessary. (“I don’t like italics. I use #9933CC, pale rotting dead salmon, for angry emphasis instead. For horrified emphasis I use—“)

* * *

Unsolved problem: What’s an e-book lending library?

(Just remember: I’m a rank amateur, rank impractical mathematics graduate student level 3.)

Paper libraries are “area-limited” by practical considerations; your average library-user will visit only the closest ones. As a digital library doesn’t need to handle physical objects, it could work just as well on the Internet — but does it then have to limit itself to serving only some arbitrary set of “locals”, or be swamped by a rush to a popular book? (I think most Finnish libraries would be happy to give you a lending card no matter where (within Finland) you came from; I had one, when young, to the neighboring municipality’s library because it was bigger, a veritable cathedral of books.)

Paper libraries have some fixed number of copies of individual books, lent out if available. It must be so, because a paper book can’t be in two places at the same time. Digital books can exist in as many copies as one (or one’s corporate overlords) want; a limitation to X simultaneous loans is arbitrary. I don’t think it’s a good idea to build a system where the limitations are not essential, but just mimicking the flaws of the former system.

Paper lending libraries have an emphasis on the lending aspect — you take a book, and you get to keep it for a month, extensible unless someone else really wants the book. If you could keep the book, there wouldn’t be a library, just a place handing out free books, plenty of publishers howling, and soon after, empty shelves. A digital library could hand out the same book forever and ever, never exhausting it’s supply; and even if a copy was “loaned” for 30 days, it could be re-lent with a push of a button; hardly a bother. What then; some aggravating artificial barrier of “you have lent this book once within the past 128 days; you can’t have it again”? Surely, please, no.

A part of the problem is this: paper libraries are not a threat to publishers because:

1) Libraries do pay publishers, in various convoluted ways. Firstly by buying the books in the first place; secondly (and here are the convolutions) often in some way compensating in some way tied to the number of loans. (Which I think could easily kill libraries dead if implemented too hastily and harshly for e-books.)

2) Libraries don’t serve the maniacally possessive part of our psyches. Library books are sunsets, not mementoes: you have them for a while, and then they go away, leaving only a fond memory. If you want to have and hold a book, you have to really buy it. But what if you can loan the book for forever; or loan it and keep re-loaning it again and again? (Tangential: Will there be a “sticker” saying where the book’s loaned from?)

3) Libraries are not everywhere. Airport book racks and other impulse buying spots aren’t threatened by libraries… unless a library is everywhere only a push of a button away.

4) Library books are not your own. Suppose you drop a book of your own and a library book in a bathtub. Only one of them is guaranteed to have unpleasant aftereffects. (Well, in my case there would be spasming conniptions of horrendous guilt over both, but I’m (senti)mental and all.) All decent people are careful with library books; they’re not bath readers, not something to take with you when traveling, and so on. There is no such need for delicacy when the book is electric. You can even “doodle” in it, because an electric copy will be “wiped clean” anyway!

See — even I can think up lots of problems, and I’m a rank amateur! A library-type professional could easily come up with dozens more. (And, just so this doesn’t come off as an insult, let me tell you I think librarians are wonderful, nice and by all my experiences always helpful and courteous people, excluding a few clueless summer interns. Librarians are priests of knowledge, and their profession is, even the mundane bits of it, as close to sacred as things can get in a secular world such as ours, and this is Mr. Militant Atheist speaking, mind you. Also, the general concept of a librarian has pleasant sexual possibilities, no matter whether we’re talking of Buffy’s Mr. Giles or a hair-bunned beglassed lady… but I may be going into too much detail here. I like librarians, that’s that.)

After a bit of reflections like those above (no, a bit more above), a tiny oily voice within me usually whispers: “Well then, then libraries will become book clubs: pay a monthly fee and get access to all the books they’ve bought from the publishers”; but soon after that the tiny voice is drowned out by angry giant bellowing of “pay? for library use? I’ll sooner cut out my testicles and use them to play ping-pong! Paying for libraries is abomination, and I’ll go Guiteau and Zangara on the fool who does that!” — my voices within tend to be a little histrionic at times, and I believe too strongly in the transformative and educationary power of free and unfettered universal access to a great number of books to be light about it.

Here’s an idea: Libraries pay publishers to buy “library versions” of their e-books. The library versions cost the same as a “normal user” e-book, but have some compensation scheme, say X cents per loan for the first Y loans and then no more compensation. (The publishers would prefer “…and then no more loans”, but I know my eyes would pop out like two red tetherballs of rage if I tried to write that. I think libraries need to have some kind of permanence, which means they need to have and own the books in some way that doesn’t make them go away. Otherwise come autumn, withering, winter, death.)

The “library versions” could be loaned out to registered library users; and since I find unnecessary loan limitations offensive, maybe I should suppose the orthogonal limitation instead: the user can loan the book for as long as he or she wants, and as many users as do can loan the same book simultaneously (thus the need for “library versions”); but a single user can simultaneously have only Z books “out”. That’s still an unnecessary limitation, but at least it doesn’t simulate what was an actual limitation of the former system! (Paper book libraries have a Z, too, but it’s usually high enough and people are averse enough to lugging huge piles of books around for it to seldom become a problem.)

I think there needs to be some limitation, because otherwise there’s no reason to buy the books instead of lending them; and then either publishers strangle libraries, or booksellers die as they have no customers; and the system where booksellers are replaced by libraries seems like something that would bankrupt either the libraries or the publishers. Or then force user fees to fund the system, and then all honest good people go all Zangara and Guiteau, which is not desirable.

It would seem sensible that some libraries would be free to users, paid by government for they would be an essential service; these would have some geographical limitations for their users. Some libraries, the private and/or specialist ones, would be open to all but take a yearly (or per-loan!) access fee from their users. (I can easily imagine signing in for an “H. P. Lovecraft studies library”. There are lots of those books, they’re hard to get, and they cost a long buck.)

Not a working system, I guess; but I study mathematics; did you really expect me to come up with something practical? (I won’t even think about the technical aspects of distributing the book copies; otherwise I’ll be raving about DRM all night long.)

2 Responses to “Scattered thoughts on e-books and libraries”

  1. Iason Ouabache Says:

    Great post! I’m loving my Kindle so far. Thanks for the link to MobileRead. I usually get my e-books from gigapedia and AvaxHome but I’ll give it a try.

    I really hope color e-book readers come along soon because they would be perfect for comic books. It would revolutionize the entire comic book industry.

  2. Akheloios Says:

    The most important thing about libraries is that they employ Librarians. These selfless individuals that spend their entire lives carefully cataloguing books, by Author, subject, title, subject matter and edition.

    These selfless individuals will then, at relatively low pay, are able to refer curious individuals, via the library’s extensively detailed sorting system, to such arcane matters as the mating habits of the lesser spotted Albanian sand shrew, the cycles of the vernal equinox, where to find the latest boddice ripping best seller, and where to find that book that you read once, that told you when that man, he had a mustache I think, did that thing, you know, that cool thing that he did.

    That’s why Libraries will live on, even though we might lose a big library, with hectares of bookshelves filled with papaer and ink, and have to live with a few computers with eBooks instead.

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