Friday, January 22, 2010

Media: Want an e-book backlog?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - More and more people I know are purchasing e-book readers. While most media attention has focused on the Amazon Kindle, most people I know are actually purchasing models by Sony or simply reading e-books on laptops and other general-purpose devices like the iPhone. I've wondered what the inventors of a century ago would have thought if they were told that someday a phone would be used to read a book. I suspect their response would be "why?" which is the same question I still ask. While there are some clear answers to that question, I'm still not eager to enter the digital book era.

In December, the Christian Science Monitor ran an extensive article on the rise of the e-book. The article emphasized education, as this is the place where the advantages of the e-book become most clear. Those of us who hated toting textbooks around see the advantage of being able to access seven or eight classes worth of texts in a single device likely lighter than any of the individual texts. The ability to take electronic notes and share them with others is also clearly valuable to anyone who had trouble finding something they knew they had highlighted but couldn't find (the electronic search function is wonderful) or ever had to look through someone else's illegible margin notes.

Many of these advantages do carry over to the world beyond the classroom. When going on a long trip, it would be very nice not to have to carry physical magazines and books to read, particularly when flying. I have already reaped the benefits of digital photography in that regard, as photo albums used to be a significant portion of my carry-on. While I rarely take notes on what I read anymore, being able to use the search function to quickly find a passage of interest is clearly of value. Other niceties, like not losing one's place on a page (or the page entirely) when transferring between subways would clearly also be a benefit.

Yet, I look at the stack of physical reading materials representing my current reading backlog--a combination of alumni magazines that I plan to at least skim if not read fully, magazines and newspapers that stacked up during my recent five week trip, and books that include gifts from the 2008 holiday season, and I shudder about an electronic backlog. I've commented on this blog before about how podcasts changed the dynamic of audio listening, and not necessarily for the better as there was no longer any excuse to miss programming. With e-books and periodicals costing money, the digital book dynamic would not be exactly analogous to the digital audio one, but just like one can carry around days of podcasts, one can carry around many weeks worth of reading materials without really noticing how big the backlog has become. With the physical stack of backlogged material on my dresser, it's easy to say "No! I don't have time to read it!"

I'm not a sentimentalist that needs to feel paper under my fingers and turn pages (though maybe I would miss that if I actually left it behind). When e-readers become as easy to pull out in the subway as the latest edition of Chemical and Engineering News, then it will be very hard not to convert. However, until I get figure out a way to better regulate my digital life and prevent digital backlogs, I do not plan to cross the next digital barrier in my life.

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