E-Textbooks

I found this piece at the Chronicle of Higher Ed timely. I would certainly have been among the professors interested in trying the pilot project. I’ve been using my own Sony Reader for a few months now, and it really is an interesting case of balancing the advantages against the challenges. We are used to thinking of a printed book as a “perfect technology,” and yet depending on what you want to use that “technology” for, there are in fact some limits, particularly in an academic environment. There are physical limits, for one thing: books are heavy, and their sheer bulk can become a disincentive to actually reading them, whether you aren’t able to carry them around or pack them, or just find your arms getting tired. Students are particularly vulnerable to this problem. My students may need to bring Bleak House to class for me along with a hard-cover biology textbook, a short story anthology, a psychology textbook, etc. Imagine if they had all of those books in one elegant device weighing no more than a few ounces: more of them would show up with the text you want to discuss. It’s hard to search for things in a printed book, too. Most of us who read for a living have developed our own navigation aids, but there’s always that moment when you think, “didn’t it say this somewhere?” and it is extremely difficult and inefficient to check (again, imagine Bleak House as your text). Searchable e-books solve that problem brilliantly.

That said, e-books turn out to have their share of disadvantages too. As the article points out, all electronic devices need power to run, and though my Sony Reader’s batteries are impressively long-lasting, there still comes that moment when you go to flip it on and remember you forgot to recharge it overnight. A printed book always just works. Annotations are another issue. My version of the Sony Reader allows me to bookmark and annotate; I would consider this an essential function for any academic application of e-book technology. In fact, I have found that with a little forethought as I create my notes, I can generate a custom index that becomes extremely helpful when you need to draw on your reading. On the other hand, I haven’t figured out a way to move those notes from the device into any other document (there may be such a way, but I haven’t learned it yet). But then, things I write in my physical books also need to be rewritten into my word processor–and it’s at least as easy to find the right bit in the e-book version. But again, there are no page numbers in the e-book, because the whole point of the format is that you can resize the fonts (another plus, for my aging eyes), but that means in S something may be on page 153 that is on page 295 in L or XL. So how do you direct your students to that key passage in Bleak House? You’d have to use the fairly minimal pre-set internal bookmarks (usually chapter or volume beginnings) or the search function, either of which is less efficient than saying “everyone look at the paragraph at the bottom of page 110 in your Oxford edition”–but then, not everyone buys the assigned edition anyway…

Of course, e-books are also available for use on multi-purpose machines, i.e. computers. I do find the actual reading experience more pleasant, and less tiring for my eyes, on my Sony Reader (I’ve recovered from my initial disappointment about the glare created by the touch screen, partly because I really like the touch screen). The e-paper really does make a difference. But the Sony Reader does terribly with PDFs, which is a drawback for academic research, and Adobe Acrobat includes annotation functions that seem to integrate better with Office software. There’s much speculation that Apple will come out with an iReader someday, and they are very good about integrating their devices with each other, so if there were such a thing, its contents might well move easily between devices and programs. Overall, I’m enthusiastic about these developments and curious to see the direction they go. I love books, but my Sony is a pretty toy too, in its own way, and easier to tuck in my purse than most paperbacks.

If any publishers want to send me e-books to try out, textbooks or other, I’ll be happy to continue my reading and studying experiments and report back! Crucial to speeding up both the learning and the adoption curve is surely getting early attempts into the hands of actual users to find out what works and what doesn’t. One thing that will inhibit my move towards electronic versions is that academic e-books (of the scholarly, rather than classroom, variety) is that they seem to be very expensive. Maybe this is a missed opportunity for publishers; sales of scholarly books are typically very small, but I for one would usually prefer to have my own copy rather than rely on a library one that needs constant renewal. I wonder if personal sales would take off if the price point for the e-versions came way down.

Sony Reader Update

As promised, here’s an update on my experience with the Sony Reader. I’ve owned it for about a week now.

Short version: I’m torn.

Long version:

I love my new Sony Reader PRS-700 because:

  • it lets me store, carry, bookmark, highlight, and annotate hundreds of books in one sleek, lightweight package (and believe me, for a Victorianist, the contrast with carrying around the ‘real’ thing is substantial)
  • it also stores easy-to-read versions of Word documents
  • in these ways it makes it possible to have a large percentage of the material I need for my ongoing research (and teaching and just plain reading) handy in any location, while also letting me interact with it in ways that make the electronic device feel a lot like working with paper
  • the touch screen is cool (actually, the whole thing is cool)
  • there aren’t a lot of buttons cluttering up the unit and the page-turn button in particular is conveniently located
  • overall, then, it is a remarkably user-friendly and practical device for someone in my line of work…except,

I hate revised to struggle a bit with my Sony Reader PRS-700 because:

  • the cool touch screen results in glare that makes it difficult to read the books–which is, after all, the primary reason for owning the thing in the first place
  • the display, though impressively crisp, has poor contrast compared to the less expensive PRS-505 model (which also does not have the same problem with glare)

I’m also not fond of the software Sony provides (but there are alternatives, including this one which is Mac-friendly), and all the reviews that say the Reader is no good at handling PDFs are quite right. But I knew these things going in. I also knew that some people had complained about the glare and the contrast, but others had said ‘no problem,’ so the annotation functions seemed likely to outweigh them. But do they? That’s where I’m stuck.

Do I keep this one for its multi-functionality (there’s a nice techno-geeky word), accepting the trade-off of the text not being optimally visible? (Depending on the lighting you’re working in, the LED lights that Sony has added to this model help with the contrast problem, but not with the glare, and as one of the other attractions of the Reader was the e-ink technology which I hoped would not tire my eyes the way back-lit screens do, I’m annoyed at resorting to this. Also, the lights run down the battery faster.)

Or do I trade down for the earlier version, so that I can store, carry, and really read the books, and just keep on taking notes by hand or on my computer? Maybe Sony was right the first time: an e-reader should do that job well, not try to be all things to all people.

I think I have to go back to the Sony store and do some side-by-side comparisons. I’ve read (on my computer, until my eyes were bugging out) all kinds of reviews and comment threads on these and other e-readers, but it does seem to come down to how well it works for your individual eyes and purposes.

Have any of you tried an e-reader? Or do you just read electronic books on your computer? And it’s no use recommending the Kindle (1 or 2) because it’s not available up here.

Further update, in case anyone cares: I did a more sustained reading test last night, reading the final volume of Silas Marner all on the Reader. In the right light, it was no problem at all to read it: what you need is fairly bright diffuse light. As the best location I found was actually in one of my usual favourite reading chairs with a good lamp beside it, that doesn’t seem an insurmountable problem. So, most likely I’ll hang on to this version, though I’m going to try a couple more experiments just to be sure.

This Week in My Classes (March 3, 2009)

We’re back from reading week, and in true Maritime fashion the second phase (I think of it as the downhill rush) of the term was ushered in with snow, ice pellets, and several hours of freezing rain, meaning an awful lot of students didn’t actually get back. Maybe that will be the last storm of the season. Ha. (Remind me again why the first European settlers in this region didn’t just keep moving on when they realized what they were letting themselves in for? I guess you do have to go pretty far away from here, though, to get to a temperate, never mind a warm, climate.)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction this week, it’s P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is one of the few books on the course list that I would actually read just for my own pleasure and interest rather than out of professional obligation. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy many of the other readings, but I consider James a good novelist, not just a significant mystery novelist. Unsuitable Job reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories (really, I suppose, it’s the other way aroud)–not in any specifics of the cases, but in the attention to evocative atmosphere and compelling characterization achieved with considerable economy. The lectures I’ve worked up on Unsuitable Job emphasize the continuities James herself identifies between her work and that of the 19th-century realist novel, particularly in terms of the novel’s insistence on the centrality of ethics. Though, as with all mysteries, there is a strong puzzle component here, a problem to be solved (and a grim one at that), I think it is Cordelia’s development that the novel is really about, particularly the way she grows into the strengths she has by virtue of her compassion and strong sense of justice. Detection is pitched (by others) in the novel as an “unsuitable job for a woman” because of the presumably masculine qualities of toughness, objectivity, and rationality it demands, but she shows, first, that a delicate-looking young woman can have those qualities too, and that she can exercise them in the service of “softer” and more conventionally feminine values including empathy and love. James’s usual detective, Adam Dalgleish, is notable also for the strength of his humanity and insight as well as intellect. Insofar as The Maltese Falcon is an indictment of modern society for making survival dependent on refusing to “play the sap,” I find Unsuitable Job a kind of antidote, because Cordelia refuses to abandon those she loves but incorporates justice to her feelings for them as part of her larger quest for what is right. I find her confrontation with Ronald Callender suspenseful less because we know there’s a murderer in the room but because it pits genuinely competing values against each other. By giving one set of them to a particularly repellent murderer, of course James is tipping the scales–but no worse, perhaps, than Dickens does by giving fairly similar values to Mr. Gradgrind.

In my Faith and Doubt seminar, we have moved on (sighs of relief all ’round) to Silas Marner, which is growing on me every time I read it. I so appreciate the rewards of re-reading George Eliot. In this particular case, the novel’s engagement with religion is more interesting to me after several weeks discussing the ways other writers responded to the challenges to their faith in the period. I think she is both sharp and subtle about the ways religion is experienced and understood by people who are caught up, not in abstract theological disputes, but in human needs and desires, such as the need for one’s labour, or suffering, to be (or at least feel) purposeful, and about the intricate ways in which religious practices are as much social and personal as spiritual or devout. We talked a bit yesterday, and I hope will talk more tomorrow, about the contrasts between Lantern Yard and Dolly Winthrop’s version of church-going, for instance. We also had some interesting discussion about the genre of the book, and what seemed perhaps a fruitful (or perhaps just an unresolved) tension between its fabular form–the pressure in it towards standing as a parable, a secularized version of a fall, a casting out from Eden maybe, and then a humanistic redemption–and its realist aesthetic (or George Eliot’s more general commitment to realism). After our work on Darwin before the break, I particularly enjoyed looking at the scenes which on the surface are most contrived and artificial, such as the convergence of Dunstan’s crime and Eppie’s appearance, the replacement of the gold coins with her gold hair, and seeing how these seeming coincidences or acts of what might (because so hard to explain at once) be attributed to divine (or just novelistic) intervention, are given such detailed backstories, so that we are reminded to be cautious about providing preternatural explanations when we are simply too ignorant to account for things naturalistically. Of course, that is one variation on GE’s consistent theme that the good and bad in our lives is attributable to human actions and complicated circumstances.

In other news, I’ve become the proud owner of a Sony Reader, which I requested as part of a grant with an eye to making my research materials more portable and my research overall more ‘sustainable.’ The portability is a huge thing for a Victorianist, I must say. It is dazzling to think that in that small machine, I already have about 20 nicely formatted Victorian novels (I had fun picking my 100 free classics from the Sony ebook store) and soon will have several books central to my Ahdaf Soueif project. No more debating at the end of the day which books to bring home from my office! And this model has an annotation feature that seems quite simple to use. I find reading on computer screens quite tiring, which is what made this seem a better option for a reading-intensive project (and person) than something like a Netbook, which is nearly as portable. I’ll report more on this later on, in case anyone else is brooding about the usefulness of an ebook reader for research or other purposes.