Sunday, January 2, 2011

Classics and E-readers

Lifted from Shelf Awareness

Like many of you, I received an e-reader as a holiday gift.  My interest in it came as a huge surprise to me, given that I am such a Luddite that I have no smart phone and no flat-screen television--and no cell phone at all--and no TV at all, not even an old black-and-white.  Plug-in gadgets are pretty limited in our household.

What changed my mind?  When telling a cousin about my project, he informed me that classic books with dates outside of copyright are free through the Gutenberg Project among other places.  So I started looking into e-readers more--and after some exploring, I decided I was game to try one.

There are of course limits to what is provided for free.  Translations of old works must be quite old themselves.  Some of the translations are classic themselves--but even when they are, I am usually more interested in reading modern translations, especially when I'm reading a book for the first time.

For the myriad books originally written in English, free e-books are an amazing resource.  But again, there are some limitations.  The copies do not come with scholarly introductions and notes such as those provided in Oxford World Classics editions, Penguin Classics, Norton Criticals, and the like.

Although I am astonished by how comfortable I feel with an e-ink page, I'm not very practiced yet at flipping through a book.  Taking notes is somewhere between more convenient and less convenient, although I suspect as I get more used reading e-books I'll become more adept.  The dialogue I have with my books feels more personal when I am handwriting messy notes in the margin than when they are so neatly typed and organized.

The feel of the pages flipping under my fingers gives me an idea of where I am in the narrative arc of a story.  I know I'm halfway through simply by absorbing the weight and thickness as I read.  I don't have to think about it consciously.  And I resist the idea of thinking about it consciously.  When I look at the little bar at the bottom of the e-reader or check out the percentages, I feel like I'm just figuring out how fast I can finish the book.  When I absorb the information texturally, it helps me perceive how the plot is moving along.  If I think a book is about to wrap up and it goes on for another 100 pages, I'm likely to be displeased.  If I think we have a long way to go and the book ends abruptly, I'm not a happy reader either.  But if I can feel where it is going, I settle in for the right-sized ride.  I suppose I'll have to decide if that is important enough to me to spend my time consciously looking where I am periodically.

Perhaps the thing that troubles me most is that I feel almost defined by the books that surround me on my shelves.  Just a glance at this book or that reminds me of different periods of my life and of different friends.  I can't imagine letting go of that.  I can easily imagine that as soon as I fall in love with the book I am reading on the e-reader, I'll wind up feeling a need to purchase a physical copy.

The e-reader I received is a Kindle and I am quite pleased with it.  I know Amazon has its issues--but its major competition are devices from other massive corporations I'm not sure I want to support either.  Right now the low cost of the Kindle, its beautiful e-ink screen, and the device's emphasis on text versus image makes it seem like the best choice for me.  I'm one of those weirdos who preferred DOS to Windows, so perhaps you shouldn't take me too seriously on this--but for those of us who want to write extensive notes in the margins and hate touchscreens, the Kindle is a great choice.

What do you think of reading on an e-reader?  Did some of you get a Kindle, Nook, Sony, or other e-reader for the holidays?  Have you found that particular kinds of books make sense to read on the device?

For an explanation of why another reader--a non-Luddite--has chosen to stick with printed books, please see this beautiful post.


  1. The possibility of free classics is the argument most likely to get me to consider an e-reader--that and the fact that I someday will run out of room in my condo for new books. Right now, I hold onto books I expect I'll want to reread, and like you I enjoy having physical copies of favorites, but there are some books I think I may reread (and have therefore kept) that I wouldn't mind owning virtually instead of physically.

    All that said, until (unless?) I get my TBR pile down to a reasonable level, I'm not going to even consider an e-reader. The last thing I need is a way to easily acquire more books that I won't get around to reading for years!

  2. You may already figured this out, but many times it's possible to obtain the scholarly introductions in the 'free sample' downloads from Amazon, or you'll will be able to read the intros at the Amazon site. It's certainly not as convenient as having the intro/notes within the e-text itself, but it's doable.

  3. I read a lot of classics on my ereader in the last few months, but I have to say, if I love a classic - and I often do - I still want to own it. As in, own it in print. I have difficulty feeling I own a book when I read on an ereader, which makes me more hesitant to buy ebooks. I do buy them, I just feel buying printed books feels more "real". Maybe it is something that will change in time?

  4. Jason and I have owned our Kindle for almost two years now, but I rarely read on it. I have trouble being unable to flip back to earlier pages, so that the books start going through my head without sticking. However, after learning how to listen to audiobooks earlier this year (where you also can't flip around), I've gotten better at this aspect of the e-reading and I've read more in the last few months than the rest of the two years put together. I have a feeling I'll be reading more on the e-reader in 2011.

  5. I was also surprised that I was even prepared to consider an e-reader. but having bought an I-pad without realising that it had e-reader capabilities I found that I really enjoyed reading that way and so bought a kindle when they became available easily in the UK. I have a back problem and so the ability to carry several books around the university in the guise of one, not to mention being able to put my lectures on as well has been a boon and a blessing. There is also the question of space. There is simply nowhere else in this house that another square inch of bookshelf could be squeezed!

  6. From a teaching perspective, e-readers make so much sense. I went to an Apple seminar this past fall; and, to see the capabilities of how many more books our district could acquire to be used in the classroom through digital technology at a significantly less cost overall to the district, I was a very happy English teacher.

    I have a few students who bring their e-readers to class (this is 11th grade English in public school) to read their outside reading assignments, and a few actually do download the pieces we are reading so that they do not need to remember to bring the book to and from locker and/or home. If it helps them to be more responsible, then great, I'm all for it!

    All that being said, though, I really feel that something is being lost. The weight of a book in one's hands, the nothing of using our fingers to flip the pages, the ease of going back to something previously, the opportunity to tell my students to go to page___ for all of us to read the same printed words together in context are going to become by-products of the past. And, maybe it is because my brain is wired differently and I am not interested in teaching it "new tricks" that I am opposed to this use of technology. However, we know, as evidenced by the rapid rise in computer-related technology during the 21st century, that young people will grasp this easily. However, we also know that we are seeing a sharp decline in overall skills with students as well...yes, they are extremely, socially tech savvy...but their skills in the basics of communication are significantly waning.

    This sci-fi, almost paranoid notion that I have that we won't be able to control the written word as it was originally intended through an electronic device (oh, I don't know, maybe these thoughts are coming from my love of Bradbury, Orwell, and Vonnegut) gives me the willies as well. It is easy to hack anything. Amazon, in particular, has a track record of deleting text that people have purchased because it "doesn't represent the ethics of the company". I don't know about you, but that is a form of manipulation we know as CENSORSHIP, regardless of what legal loophole the company is able to find to get around it. And, that, in a growing society with little to no recollection of factual, intellectual history or government is downright scary! (think Animal Farm)

    Just my humble thoughts....

  7. I got a Nook for Christmas, after informing my fiance that I wanted an eReader and then deciding that's the one that I wanted. My post is here:

    There are a lot of other free resources, many libraries have started using Overdrive or other eBook service providers (most don't work with Kindle, which is why I didn't go that route). Also, there is NetGalley which allows you to sign up for free advanced reading copies. And there are copious amounts of other free, or very cheap, books out there for eReaders.

  8. Gutenberg has been very useful to me as a source of searchable texts, but I can hardly imagine actually reading an entire book that way. But I don't have an e-reader. Maybe the formatting options would solve my problems.

    The translation issue is unfixable, though. Reading many of those old translations would be like self-sabotage. This is especially true with classical texts, maybe even working up through early modern texts. Although I can think of exceptions - Longfellow's Dante, Sandys's Ovid.

    How is the % Completed bar different than actually seeing where you are in a physical book? I guess you're saying that it's a psychological difference - a precise number versus the "feel" of a real book.

    How's your library access? My own classical reading would have been much more limited without a good library and an extra-good used book store.

  9. I had a sony reader and it broke was using it to read free classics on ,not sure if I ll replace it at moment ,all the best stu

  10. I have a Kindle too and spend probably about half my time reading on it and half in print books. I really enjoy the e-reading and my only complaints are the same as what others have written. I am hoping that things like sensing the length of the book (without being able to "see" it) will come over time because although the percentage helps it just is not the same as seeing it in the physical book.

  11. I was one of those hard-core folks who resisted the move to e-readers and gave in to the urge to give one a try. And like you and most of your commenters, i've been pretty pleased with it and largely for the same reasons. I'm simply amazed at the amount of free material that's available and my Kindle is loaded with countless classics.

    The other big bonus i've found is that as much as i love the feel of a book, the musty smell of old pages, i really appreciate how much space it saves. If you're like me and have a problem with tumbling towers of books, you'll find that e-readers are worth their weight in gold!

  12. I have a Sony Reader and a Kindle. I ended up with both due to geographical restrictions on published books. A lot of books aren't available to Australian buyers in one or the other format. I didn't like the Kindle at first, but it is handy for impulse buys! The Sony is much nicer to read on, as it has a touch screen. I've found them excellent for reading while recovering from surgery, as paper books were too heavy. I like to have paper books around me though, so I doubt I'll give up buying them. Also the formatting on some free eBooks leaves a lot to be desired. I like flipping through the pages of paper books, which is not so easy with eBooks. Also, I find I tend to skim read more with eBooks. Not sure what that is about! I'd rather read a paper book, and I do buy paper editions of books I really like that I've read as eBooks. They furnish a room nicely. ;)

  13. I read on my android phone (I have a 4 inch phone screen) using Kindle for Android app and I love the convenience. I'm one who doesn't understand "e-ink" because when I'm reading on my phone I love the back light the most of all! I read it after my husband is asleep, etc, so I don't have to have another light on. I read when my son is playing at the park or I'm waiting in a doctor's office, or waiting for my husband to run in and do an errand. It's wonderful. And I find it nice to be able to download Project Gutenberg books.

    The books it doesn't work for for me are the dense ones. I just can't get in to VINDICATION ON THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN so I have to start over again in hardcover. It has footnotes, unlike the PG version. But for other books I find it works well! I like the "progress" bar at the bottom. Does the Kindle have that too for knowing where you are?

  14. Teresa: Oh, I know what you mean about your TBR pile! I'm not allowing myself to buy books on the Kindle at all (except that complete Shakespeare and a great Oxford edition of the King James Bible.)

    SFP: I had not figured that out at all! Thank you, thank you. Even for the books I own in print, I'd love to read both the Penguin and the Oxford intros. I can get access to them both?! Wonderful!

    Iris: I agree. The idea that "owned" means digital still seems impossible to me. E-readers seem much more like checking a book out of the library without a serious timetable for the return date. But I think you are right that things might change as time goes by.

  15. Amanda: What an interesting point! I too haven't felt comfortable with flipping back--or with skimming--on the Kindle. But I love audiobooks (as long as I have mono sound and earphones, since I'm deaf in one ear). I like the idea of thinking of them as similar instead of thinking of print and digital as parallel.

    Annie: Yes--the carrying is definitely easier with an e-reader! I've been using mine some on an extended trip to visit various families, and it is definitely fabulous for that. The idea of having university notes on it is terrific. I've been away from teaching long enough (11 years) that technology has completely reshaped how universities work.

    Tina: What a great comment! So much to think about. I'm especially intrigued with your point that this is not how these books were intended to be read. On one hand, my mind is wandering to Gilgamesh and the Iliad, which were not meant to be read as they are now in printed books. On the other, I'm wondering how the increasing popularity of e-readers might shape the future of fiction. How might books intended to be read electronically differ? Fascinating. (Any thoughts, anybody?)

  16. Amy: Yep--the inability to read library books is the one serious, serious disadvantage for me that made me consider whether the Kindle was really the right device for me. Are you enjoying your Nook? I'll be reading your post as soon as I return home from my trip with its limited online time. And thanks for the heads-up on Net Galley. I'm new to e-readers as well as book blogging and reviewing in general, so this is terrific information.

    AR: I'm still trying to figure out if I can really get any real reading experience from my e-reader. I've read a couple of non-fiction books so far and it has been fine for that--but fiction is definitely different. I'm lucky to live in the DC area within walking distance of 1 college library and 3 different public library systems (one with a great interlibrary loan program), as well as having access to other academic libraries in the immediate area and the Library of Congress when I have some time to read downtown. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? The hardest thing is keeping all the books my family checks out in any sense of order...

  17. Winstonsdad: Sorry to hear that. Do you think it was because of the classics specifically? I'm eager to hear what you decide.

    Elizabeth: How long have you had yours? You sound like you might be a bit more practiced than I am so far. It is funny how much the e-reader has taught me about what particular parts of reading print books seem important to me. I never would have realized how important the physical awareness of where I am in a book is if I had not tried reading on an e-reader.

    Cameron: Oh yes! Those towers of books filling ever inch of floor space are lovely, but there does begin to be a limit. And as much as I love those old books, my allergy to book mold prevents me from keeping them in my bedroom and other rooms in which I spend a lot of time.

  18. Violet: I am not yet imagining that I'll ever actually have both, but the idea makes a great deal of sense. They have such different strengths. It is interesting to hear that you can skim well on an e-reader. I hope I can eventually develop that skill. Right now, I still too adrift on the Kindle to let myself skim as I sometimes do in printed text. I'd love to be able to do that, as least when I mean to do it.

    Rebecca: I hear what you are saying about back lit screens. My partner feels that way too, I think. Personally, my eyes get very tired with a backlit screen in a darkened room. With the Kindle, I got a case with a built-in light so I can read next to him when he is asleep in bed. Unfortunately, the light is so bright that it wakes him up, though!

  19. Hi, again! I guess what I was trying to say was that I worry about the content of the literature being altered. And, of course, I worry about the skimming issue when it is so difficult already to keep kids interested in reading anything of length.

    If the probability of skimming increases, I'm not sure the students will gain much from reading the text. And, without the knowledge of the literature to begin with, how will future generations, with no printed material in hand, ever really know if the literature was what was originally published?

    Songs, epic poems, and folklore that was mused or storytold were most likely not thought to have been written down in some sort of format by the masters who were creating them. However, we are (and have been for centuries) a published society. I think it isn't so much that the e-reader provides an unintended format for reading by the original writer but more an issue of integrity and the adherence to the intellectual property right of its original publication. I preoccupy myself too much with concerns of censorship. Working with young people who constantly tell me that they don't care about the past and don't find any interest in the commentary of the past that the classics provide for us is frightening in all-too hacker friendly age.

  20. Where I'm from e-readers aren't available in the market as yet. However, I do have a few e-books on my pc. I've only ever managed to read one. I'd much rather have a book between my hands! ....and I would love to physically 'own' the classics I read!

  21. As of yet I'm totally uninterested in getting an e-reader, although I am intrigued enough theoretically to follow the way the market is going (e.g., the different competing models, which features each one has, etc.). Frankly, I'm not strapped enough for cash and I read slowly enough that the "free" argument doesn't hold that much water with me - I so strongly prefer the feeling of holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, and marking with a pen in the margins, that since I can afford to do that I'll continue as long as possible. :-)

  22. Tina: Wow. I had not thought about how the text itself could be altered. Your comments are really fascinating and full of food for thought. Thanks.

    breadcrumbs: I tried e-books on the pc for things not easy to get in my local library which I wanted right away--and found it awkward for reading but awfully useful for access. Where do you live? But absolutely, any classic I love will almost certainly wind up on the shelves--whether in an old hardback edition found at the used book shop or a spiffy new Oxford World Classics or Penguin paperback.

    Emily: Funny--to take advantage of the "free" texts you have to shell out a chunk of cash for the device. I do like the ability to scan a bunch of works by authors even if I don't intend to read their entire oevres, and the ability to search those books electronically. But yes, when it comes to sitting down with a good book, and e-reader just can't cut it for me!

  23. I received a Sony Reader for Christmas, and I adore it already. Its note-taking abilities are what won me over, though I'm still learning to use them and getting used to the new format. I've downloaded many classics from Project Gutenberg to help with my classics project, and I've loaded up a few galleys from NetGalley as well. I know I'll be looking into library ebooks, but I haven't gotten there yet.

    I, too, miss seeing the pages fly by and knowing where in a book I am just by the feel of it in my hands. However, I am by no means reading exclusively on my Reader. I still treasure my paper books, and I know that if I love a book I read on my Reader, I'll get a hard copy to keep on my shelves. At least that way I'll acquire fewer physical books I'll end up disliking!

  24. I'm eager to hear about how things go with your Sony Reader. Note-taking abilities and free classics definitely make e-readers appealing for people doing classics projects!

  25. Tina: Your timing was impeccable. I can't believe what is happening right now with Huck Finn! Granted, it is in a physical edition and we know it is happening, but the idea that this could happen without us knowing, and much more pervasively, w/e-books is wild.

  26. I do have a smart phone so I read books on it using a kindle app. I know, people complain about Amazon, but really I use the ap to read free project gutenberg books (which sometimes are also in the Kindle market for free). I find it very conveneient for those nights when my husband is already asleep and I want to read a little bit.

    I can't imagine using a separate ereader, though, because they look so big and bulky and I couldn't use one without a backlight. I know some people hate backlit screens, but that's what I really like about reading on my phone.

  27. I got a Kindle, unexpectedly, for Christmas. I love that I can read so many classics for free, but so far I'm having a hard time deciding to pick it up instead of a "real" book. I think I will end up using it a lot when I travel and for other similar occasions. I can't imagine it ever replacing print book for me though.


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