if:book has some interesting thoughts about e-books and

… about the difference between digital text and digital music, and why an ebook device is not, as much as publishers would like it to be, an iPod. This is not an argument over the complexity of literature versus the complexity of music, rather it is a question of interfaces. It seems to me that reading interfaces are much more complicated than listening ones.

… the main argument being that you do not need to interact with a music player while listening, whereas reading devices (paper or electronic)…

are felt and perceived throughout the reading experience. The text, the visual design, and the reader’s movement through them are all in constant interaction.

I’ve tried two e-books / e-readers: the Rocket eBook and the Sony Librie. Eric likes e-books (which is why we have them) – he finds them convenient, especially for books whose paper editions are about as portable (and easy to handle) as a brick, and he likes not having to find space at home for books he’s read once and never intends to read again.

While I thought both readers did an adequate job, neither came close to the experience of reading a “real” book – even disregarding technical issues such as resolution and contrast, which will surely get sorted out soon. (And DRM of course! – which I am less hopeful about.)

Most importantly, the individuality of books disappeared. All books looked and felt more or less the same. And they felt very utilitarian. To me, books are more than the sequence of characters that makes up the text. The information content is only a part of it: the tactile and visual elements are also important. The size and weight, the feel of the paper, the cover design, the typography, all contribute towards the full reading experience.

Perhaps if e-books came with beautiful leather covers… in multiple styles for differing tastes, or for different kinds of books?

Paper books have a feeling of permanence, of existing. They remain in the bookshelf after I’ve finished reading them, and can remind me of the experience of reading them. This, of course, can be both a good thing or a bad thing – not every book I read is worth that kind of permanence; some are not worth the space they take up. E-books on the other hand, while less permanent, are very portable. In the same physical space as you would need for one paper book, you can fit tens or hundreds of e-books.

This aesthetic-physical aspect of books is just nostalgia and habit, of course. If paper books had never existed, and all I knew was online streams of characters, I wouldn’t miss these “extras” that books have.

But even from a practical point of view, I find e-books generally inferior to paper books. No e-book sits as comfortably in my hand as a paper book. Perhaps they would feel better if I could just grab and hold them any which way, without worrying about the relatively fragile screens, or about leaving thumbprints in the middle of the screen.

Current e-books steer the reader towards a one-way reading process. Paper books on the other hand are easy to skim, flip through, browse – basically, easier to explore. I can skip back a few pages while keeping a finger at my current position, and jump back instantly. I can look ahead to see how many pages I’ve got left in the chapter (do I have time to finish it before bedtime?). I can see, without even picking up the book, how far I’ve read and how much I’ve got ahead of me. I can navigate visually: quickly flick through pages until I find the one that has that orange box in the top left, or the one I scribbled on (for travel books and other reference materials). Even with fiction, I remember which part of the page described a particular scene, and find it based on that.

E-books also offer the possibility to manipulate text: search, look up words and add notes. You can do these things with paper books as well, but less conveniently. Cross-referencing and hyperlinks could make e-books a lot more useful, especially for non-fiction – textbooks, instruction manuals, travel guides and other information-dense materials. I’m already happy to read those online because of the extra functionality that provides. But that would require the content itself to be reworked, rather than just pushed into a text file.

I think that is the direction e-books would need to go in order to become interesting: they need to add new capabilities, rather than repackage old ones. And they should probably focus on non-fiction, where these new capabilities would add more value. For fiction, I cannot see that I would switch to e-books any time soon.

Related articles / blog posts / essays I found interesting:
fantasy ebook – What would it take to make the ebook absolutely irresistible?
Booke & eBook – philosophical commentary on connections between reading and consciousness etc.

Footnote: I haven’t “read” any audiobooks. To me they are not really books, and don’t compete with books – they are more akin to radio (except that they’re on-demand) or theatre (but a very limited version). Again, the content of a book may be there, but the presentation is so different that to me it is no longer a book. Books are written and read: I determine the pace; I am not a passive receiver of information.