Why I Dropped eBooks And Embraced A Perfect Technology In Its Original And Most Meaningful Form


iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price. — Steve Jobs

In 2010 the iPad took the world by storm and had about 10 million nerds salivating over the possibilities of the not-quite-mobile mobile experience. Sold as the best way to consume the Internet, the iPad promised a revolution. As I generally do, I went and lined up to get one. I had to be a part of the revolution or if nothing else I had to at least see, feel and hear this wondrous device. I opened it and played with what felt like a giant iPhone. I browsed the web and I cumbersomely wrote emails with two fingers pecking away. This was much less then the 60 wpm I was used to writing on my desktop and slower still than my thumbing of the iPhone. After a few hours of toying with the iPad I started to grow bored. I didn’t really know what to do with it. The iPad sat on my coffee table fairly unused for months.

For me, reading was dominated by digital. Most of what I read was off the Internet and I read paper books less and less. It was just the natural leap to stop buying physical books and read them exclusively on the iPad. There were many great reasons to pass on paper books and move to digital ones. Here were a few:

  • Buy once, read on any (Apple) device.
  • Never lose my spot in a book again.
  • Get word definitions immediately.
  • Highlight and make notes much easier.
  • Read whatever I want without others knowing.
  • Never lose a book again.
  • Less is more; reduce clutter by selling my old dusty books.
  • Bring my whole library with me wherever I go.

From this point on I felt like I was living in the future. This is truly what Steve Jobs was talking about. The bliss lasted for a couple years and I’ve purchased numerous books via the Kindle website and they were immediately delivered to the device of my choosing.

So What Happened?

After years of using my portable digital library, the honeymoon period had started to wear off. My life with the digital library was getting complicated. From books not downloading on certain devices, to formatting issues, to some eBooks having illegible low resolution diagrams; I had a longing for the times of old. I didn’t want to troubleshoot my reading experience, I wanted the world to disappear and the story I was reading to take over. I had purchased an electronic version of Eric Reis’ book ‘The Lean Startup’ a year or so ago and I recently wanted to re-read it. This time around I opted for a physical paper book and left my iPad at home.

The reading experience was unlike anything I had become accustomed to reading digitally. It was simple, just one book; a start, a middle and an end. The print and imagery were clear and for the first time in years I had focus. After going through and reading The Lean Startup from front to back in hard-cover I realized that in a lot of ways this revolution hadn’t made my life easier, it had in fact made it more disjointed, disconnected and exhausting. Here is why I’ve decided to stop buying eBooks and embrace a perfect technology in its original and most meaningful form.

I don’t have to troubleshoot my paper books

It’s not often you hear someone say they had to call tech support because the book they were reading crashed, or the text on the page is not displaying properly. The paper book is completely 100% bug free! Not to mention all the steps required to getting the book in your hands. First, research and buy tablet; 2) unbox and setup; 3) create user account with platform of your choice; 4) browse for book of choice; 5) Enter personal information and credit card details; 6) Download book; 7) Enjoy! Sounds easy right? Anyone who’s gone through this process knows it’s not straight forward. After you have everything setup your problems don’t stop there. Some books won’t sync, some won’t open and so on.

Talking to people is great!

It’s true. I was pleasantly surprised when I was out reading a book at a coffee shop when a couple people approached me and chatted about the book I was reading. It was a very nice experience. We shared thoughts on the book and eventually exchanged business cards. This experience wouldn’t have happened if I’d had my iPad there with me. While the anonymity of reading something without on-lookers is a positive, the occurrences when you don’t mind (leave Shades of Grey at home next time) can be a very positive, human experience.

Attention Profit vs Attention Deficit

Probably the most annoying part of reading books on the iPad is the constant distractions. Books don’t come with email or push notifications. When I am reading on the iPad I might get a text message or an email or a notification that I hadn’t crushed some candy in sometime. Granted I can turn these off, but I don’t typically think to do this while reading. Books also don’t come with Angry Birds or Facebook. The simple, single purpose design allows for focus that encourages you to pay attention and be engrossed unlike the digital equivalent.

The tactile experience is unmatched

Technology does its best to try and mimic user experiences that people already have programmed into them. Holding and reading a book is something we learn from almost the day after we’re born. Holding a tablet tries to mirror this experience and ebook apps have even provided us with the nice graphics of pages flipping when you move a finger across the screen. When I was reading a physical book it was a joy to grab the page and turn it. It was enough of a tactile experience to remind me that I am in a story and there is a real world around me, but then can quickly be forgotten after the turn is made. The touch of the book, seeing the words, hearing the page turn, smelling the paper, all add up to a complete sensory experience. The synthetic version we get with eBooks doesn’t equate. I imagine its like eating a tofu equivalent of your favourite meat. At some point you might ask yourself, ‘why am I pretending to read a book?’

Sharing is possible and encouraged

Another thing no one really tells you is that when you buy an eBook using iTunes, you only ever have access to that book on iTunes. If you buy a Kindle or an Android tablet, you’ll have to buy the book a second time to read it on that new device. The only hope you have of sharing that book across devices is by using a store that is available on multiple platforms. Even then you’re subject to limitations because of the closed nature of the other platforms. When you buy a physical book, it doesn’t matter what version it is or whether you bought it via Amazon, Indigo or your local book store. The book goes with you where ever you are. On top of that if you want to lend your friend a book it’s as simple as picking it up and giving it to them.

What I buy I actually own

It took me a while to realize that when I bought an eBook that I actually owned nothing. I had rights to keep a copy of this written material on the devices of my choice. They were locked to a username and password and a distribution platform like iTunes or Amazon. My access to the books could be taken away from me by the flip of a switch. Maybe I violated some terms of service agreement (that no one has read, ever). Maybe my account was hacked and shutdown thereby removing not only access to the book I was reading but every other book in my library. Subscriptions and licensing via the cloud appears to simplify life, but you give up the rights to own anything real. What is a tablet without content? A paper book will always have its words.

What I’ve learned through this book reading experience is that sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves ‘Is this really better?’ instead of being temporarily blinded by the shine of a new technical creation. I tried to join the revolution but the most meaningful part of the book reading experience was obfuscated by the troubleshooting, proprietary and commercial nonsense that went along with it. This isn’t an indictment of the iPad itself, rather it’s a look at how the human experience of story telling and learning through books has lost something in its digital form. Technology has done some amazing things to improve our lives, but for this round I think I’ll stick to my old dusty paper books.

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