Jesse Brown: Why the latest multi-purpose e-readers are great for everything but reading books

Jesse Brown: Why the latest multi-purpose e-readers are great for everything but reading books

The Final Chapter
The smell of an old book. The heft of a thick novel. The sensation of turning the last page of a ripping yarn with a freshly licked index finger. It’s all a bit silly, and kind of gross.

Old books smell because they’re rotting. Heavy books require dead trees and burnt fuel, as millions of them are shipped around the globe each year. Digitization preserves books forever while all but eliminating their environmental consequences. There are good reasons to resist e-books, but erotic fixation isn’t one of them.

The advantages of paper books arise not from their weight, their texture or any other feature unique to them, but from the features they lack. You can’t check your email from a book. Books don’t suddenly serve you pop-up ads in high-resolution video. Books don’t allow you to instantly stream porn or play addictive bird-flinging games whenever a narrative gets dull. Books are made to be read, and that’s all they’re good for. They are dedicated hardware.

Until recently, e-readers like the Kindle, Nook and Kobo have also been single-purpose machines, designed for nothing but book reading. Since the iPad, that’s changed. To compete with Apple, e-readers have become fully functional general-purpose computers. You can still buy basic e-ink devices, but these will soon be phased out as the new versions take over. On the new gadgets, book reading is just one of many apps, and not a terribly popular one: Google Books is ranked number 63 on the Android charts, behind Netflix, Pokémon and a video game called Drunken Pee. Apple’s iBooks sits at number 53, behind Sudoku and a Tim Hortons app. The fact is, the new e-readers aren’t electronic readers at all. They’re tablets.

Consider the homegrown Kobo. Its most recent iteration, the Vox, is a full-colour, backlit Android-powered slab. It can surf the web, stream video, launch video games and run apps like Twitter and Facebook and thousands more. Readers who upgrade to the Vox from the old monochrome Kobos may be disappointed to learn that they are no longer able to read while sitting on a park bench or lying on the dock at the cottage, as backlit displays catch glare in direct sunlight. Another flaw: the Vox needs to be plugged in for a recharge every four to five hours, not every few weeks like the low-powered e-ink readers.

Backlit colour tablets are great for futzing around online, where eyeballs dart around the page and fingers click constantly. But when you put away Twitter and settle into a book, your eyes focusing on line after line and page after page of text, strain soon sets in. You are, after all, staring directly into thousands of tiny light bulbs—basically curling up in bed with a TV screen, as a friend put it. Headaches are common, and bedtime reading can tweak you out. Studies by neurologists at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University suggest that the blue light shooting from backlit displays into your eyeballs from a few inches’ distance can suppress your melatonin levels and keep you from sleeping.

This news is unlikely to slow tablet sales. Almost 100 million tablets have been sold worldwide so far, and the figure is expected to quadruple in the next three years, ultimately overtaking desktop computer sales. Hopes are high in the beleaguered publishing industry that all of these new tablets might draw new readers. But technology won’t create more book lovers. If you didn’t read books before buying a Kobo, Nook, iPad or Kindle, why would you start now? Of course, technology won’t stop anyone from reading, either. It will, however, drastically change reading. It already has.

While it’s too soon to tell exactly how the medium will change the message, early signs point to e-books that are short, loud and cheap. Amazon is heavily promoting its Kindle Singles imprint of novellas and long-form journalism—formats that were basically unmarketable in bookstores. A handful of new titles experiment with the questionable addition of interactivity, music and sound effects. Meanwhile, self-publishing is flourishing as basement novelists bypass publishing houses and release e-books independently. Some of these unknown scribes have dominated bestseller lists by pricing their books at the oh-why-not price of 99 cents apiece.

There is also a predictable attempt to sell the social potential—a shared, screen-based reading experience. Kobo has launched Pulse, a virtual book club of sorts that lets readers announce to their friends what they’re reading, “like” their favourite passages and comment on specific pages. When you approach a page that your friends have commented on, the Pulse icon throbs with anticipation.

Kobo also has a Reading Life app that treats literature like high-performance sport. It tracks stats: how much time you’ve spent reading, how long it takes you to finish a novel, how many pages you read per hour and what percentage of your library you’ve read. Kobo sends you virtual awards when you hit reading targets—gold stars for grown-ups. Is this the future of the written word, or a cheap gimmick? Kobo may not care.

Six years after Indigo’s bricks-and-mortar bookstores began ditching books and morphing into what Heather Reisman dubbed “cultural department stores,” the company sold Kobo to the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten. Rakuten has as little interest in books as Indigo. A Rakuten executive recently explained to the BBC that the e-reader business isn’t really about reading—it’s about having a device in people’s homes with which to sell them “other digital goods,” like music, movies and games.

It’s a strategy borrowed from Steve Jobs. The first iPad commercial hyped it as the ultimate e-reader, featuring books and newspapers above videos and music as media the tablet handles best. Print media lavished attention on the iPad, perhaps because the journalists writing about the device were desperate for a saviour. Magazine publishers like Condé Nast sank millions into iPad versions of their glossy titles, but digital subscription numbers have been disappointing. And it seems telling that Apple doesn’t release sales figures for e-books and e-magazines the way it does for music and videos. Why would they? Books are more important to Apple as a marketing device than as a market.

Books haven’t been mass media for a while now; a book is considered a bestseller in Canada when it moves a mere 5,000 copies. Yet being a bestselling author still means something to us. The real value of books in the global marketplace is symbolic—they have cultural capital. Apple uses them to convince us that spending $600 on an iPad is a “good for you” purchase, even though we already have expensive smart phones and laptops that do the exact same things. Amazon uses books to lend dignity to their brand—we still think of Amazon as a bookseller, when in reality it’s the online equivalent of Zellers. Indigo has retained the feel of a bookstore while largely doing away with books, exploiting the aura of literature to fuel the sale of stationery, fruit bowls and stuffed animals. Pundits, celebrities and chefs write books as loss-leader totems to fuel the sale of their personal brands. So don’t let anyone tell you that books and commerce don’t mix. Books are good business for everyone but the book business.