A Kindle for Every Student?

The blogosphere has been abuzz with diverse opinions on the release of Amazon’s new Kindle 2. So far, most of the news has surrounded the controversial text-to-speech function and whether or not it violates copyright law (more on this here and here). Regardless of its legality, the speech sounds mechanical, and I don’t see this posing a threat to genuine audio books read with intonation by real people. But my interest is not in this primarily, but in reading via ebook itself. I’ll admit, when it comes to ebooks, I’m still in the undecided camp. On the one hand, I love technology, and can’t resist the latest gadget. On the other hand, I consider myself a “book person.” And the book as physical object matters to me. I want to be able to pick it up, smell it, leaf through the pages. I’m guessing there’s not much to be said for ebook smell.

Where Kindle does seem to have gotten it right is in the screen. I can’t read books or journal articles on my computer screen, because it’s just not like reading a book. There’s too much glare, it puts too much strain on the eyes, and it’s too distracting. Kindle has solved the glare and eyestrain problems with “electronic ink,” a new technology designed to make letters look more like they do on the written page. From what I can tell, this is a vast improvement over the first generation of ebooks. But what of the distraction factor? Christine Rosen argues that the Kindle is too distracting to generate productive reading. She tried to read Nicholas Nickleby on a Kindle, but got lured away into Wikipedia searches on Dickens. Alan Jacobs, however, argues almost the opposite. He writes that it is too hard to navigate pages to get to the internet—and that this is a good thing. It keeps you reading, because it’s too hard to leave the book you’re on. If I’m going to shell out the money for an ebook reader, though, I’d want it to do as many things as possible. Ultimately, the discipline required to stave off distraction is not inherent to the print book, but to the act of reading. It is something that is learned by readers, to varying degrees, when they learn to read (on this point, see a recent post, “In Defense of Readers”). I can read a novel in a crowded coffee shop, on a busy beach, or just about anywhere without getting distracted. I can’t say the same of my computer. But an ebook needs to be able to do neat techie things that a computer can do in order to be worthwhile. After a point, it’s up to the user to learn how to read well on it.

What would I want an ebook reader to do? Here’s my wish list: I’d like to be able to read a book without interruption. But I’d also want to be able to read journal articles. Could I go to the UVA library website, get an article as .pdf from JSTOR, and read it on a Kindle? This is a copyright nightmare. But it sure would be nice (I did say that this was a wish list). For all of the ancient language work I do, I’d also love to have a Greek dictionary, or maybe even a bible program with ability to switch languages. I have this on my PDA, but a PDA screen is too small and too difficult to read from for any length of time. The same goes for an ipod/iphone. This sort of basic reference work requires huge volumes of books that can’t be lugged around everywhere, but would always be at hand with an ebook reader. This would be of tremendous value for students. Even though many have praised the fact that the Kindle and its biggest competitor from Sony so far have limited the number of tasks that they can perform, this will ultimately restrict their usage to a niche market: avid readers with money to spend on gadgets. Unfortunately, this is a rather small market. Right now, ebook readers are not made to read all books. They are best suited for reading novels, especially quick page-turners. This leaves out all sorts of books, that are read in all sorts of different ways. Dictionaries aren’t read in the same way as Grisham thrillers, but they’re still books and they’re still “read” in their own way. The difference, I imagine, is that Amazon doesn’t have as much interest in books that are re-read or referenced, because they aren’t “consumed” in the same way and don’t create the need to go buy another book when one is finished.

For me, the Kindle is still too proprietary, in terms of what can be read on it, and too limited, in terms of its non-reading functionality. Ebooks won’t replace books, unless they can do “e” things. I guess I’m OK with that. I like books.

Former Scholars' Lab desk consultant and current Director of Educational Ministries at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Fitz is completing his Ph.D. at U.Va., studying the history of the Early Church. He likes talking about how early church leaders read and interpreted their Bible.


  1. Chris, thanks for your thoughts. Your consideration of the annotation function is important- I know how much I mark up books I’m reading with underlining and marginalia. From what I can tell, the Kindle has a highlight function that will remain in the text, and a note function that marks a place in the text but does not show up on the text itself and needs to be accessed separately to be viewed. I’m sure some further innovation, perhaps in the direction of merging the two functions, is possible, but I also think that this is one place where the limitations of the e-book become evident. These inherent limitations, I think, show that the e-book does best serve to supplement, and not replace, the book. I’ve suggested that “reference” is the best way (for scholars) it can do that. The advantage you have in an e-book is lots of books in one place. Combine this with good search functionality, and this is a tremendous boon.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post; e-books are indeed a fascinating development, though I share your reservations about the closed, proprietary environment of the Kindle.

    While I do not own an e-book reader, it seems worthy to note just how potentially game-changing the built-in internet access of the Kindle is. It allows not only instant access to Amazon e-books & wikipedia content, but to automatically updating newspapers/blogs. This seems like a vital development worthy of consideration–how might such constant updating change the way we read scholarly works? Truly networked reading might be more than just reading + web-browsing.

    As you note, one loses much with an ebook–even an ideal ebook. The book is wonderfully, physically alterable: dog-ear a page, use a post-it, a bookmark. One certainly loses some (though not all) of the cues that we use to spatially navigate a text. If you don’t remember a page number, you might remember a passage spatially–left-hand side of the page, two-thirds of the way down, near the binding,etc. Some of this information is lost in a digital format. An ebook reader also has the unfortunate effect of reducing all formats to one–there is not yet a folio ebook reader or an octavo ebook reader (to speak nothing of typefaces).

    Perhaps the biggest hurdle is annotation. I’m not sure what facilities currently exist in the Kindle, but no e-book can (yet) rival the technologies we have to annotate a paper book: a highlighter, a pencil, and a variety of technologies to mark pages.

    (Here I can’t help but think of John Unsworth’s “Scholarly Primitives,” always worthy of another perusal, http://www3.isrl.uiuc.edu/~unsworth/Kings.5-00/primitives.html)

    Despite all these drawbacks, however, it is possible to imagine annotation and navigation tools that are far superior to what we do with paper. And there are surely many benefits that we have not fully imagined. Your list of what would an ideal e-book reading experience would look like, from a scholar’s perspective, seems like a vital first step in creating such a scholarly, digital reading experience. (And here I defer to precisely the points made recently by Johanna Drucker: http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i30/30b00601.htm)

    Books may not be going anywhere right now, but I wouldn’t bet against an e-book reader, combined with broader technologies, as ultimately “supplementing” (as readers of Derrida know–a vexed term) our scholarly reading practices.