Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Ten years of reading ebooks

by Rob - September 16th, 2011.
Filed under: ebooks, Milestones.

This week marks my tenth anniversary as a reader of ebooks. I got in early because, as a science-fiction writer, I’d long been expecting this technology. After all, Captain Kirk read reports off a wedge-shaped device back in 1966, and the astronauts in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey used tablet computers for viewing documents.

I tried lots of devices early on: Palm OS personal-digital assistants with tiny screens, early dedicated devices with monochrome LCD screens (such as the long-gone Franklin eBookman and RCA REB-1100), and later, first-generation e-ink devices (such as the iRex iLiad).

Several things immediately convinced me this was better than reading on paper.

First, even early on, most ebook systems offered built-in dictionaries. In the days of paper books, I rarely bothered to haul a dictionary off the shelf; now, whenever I encounter a word whose meaning I’m not exactly sure of, I effortlessly look it up.

Second, ebooks let you set the font size to whatever you’re comfortable with. As your eyes get older, you’ll find e-reading is much more pleasant, since every title is automatically available in a large-print edition.

Third, having an infinitely big library without it taking up any space is great — and to have that library be portable is fantastic. This year, I’ve travelled through all 24 timezones — right around the world. Having hundreds of books with me on that trek was heaven for a compulsive reader.

Fourth, searching: when I’m doing research, the ability to search in a book for the specific term I’m looking for is indispensable.

Fifth, free public-domain classics: maybe there’s an irony in using twenty-first-century technology to read nineteenth-century books, but I’m way better read today because of Project Gutenberg.

I heard Margaret Atwood pooh-poohing dedicated ebook readers a while ago, saying you can’t use them in the bathtub. Actually, Margaret, you can: just seal them in a Ziploc bag, and you’re good to go, and if you drop it, you’re fine — whereas a paper book is ruined if it gets soaked. (Yes, you can put a paper book in a baggie, too — but you can’t change the page once it’s in there; you easily can with an ebook reader.)

One constantly hears people saying they don’t like reading off computer screens and so will never read ebooks. Well, yes, it’s true that you can read off such screens — but you can also read ebooks on devices such as the Kobo Touch, Kindle 3G, and Nook, which all have modern e-ink displays that are as easy on the eyes as printed paper. As I’ve often said, the single biggest barrier to widespread adoption of ebooks is that most people still haven’t seen a dedicated ebook reader.

I very much like e-ink devices, but I also do much of my reading on my iPhone 4 (where, in my opinion, the Kobo app runs circles around the Kindle app — and not just because Kobo recognizes that full justification looks awful on narrow screens, and so gives you the option of turning it off).

One of the biggest pluses of reading ebooks on smartphones is that you can do it in the dark. I turn the brightness way down on my iPhone, switch to the Kobo app’s night-reading mode (which gives me white letters on a black background), and read to my heart’s content.

I’m a writer; books are my life. And I’m a Canadian; I’m proud of my heritage. But I’ve got to say that when fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” he missed the boat on ebooks. The medium — paper book or ebook — is irrelevant. It’s the message — the content — that matters, and for me, for a full decade now, by far my favourite way to enjoy that content has been electronically. Give it a try: I bet you’ll become a convert, too.

Here’s a YouTube video of me showing off some of the ebook-reading hardware I’ve used over the years; it’s embedded below, but you’ll see it bigger if you watch it at YouTube via this link.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

8 Responses to Ten years of reading ebooks

  1. A year ago I couldn’t see what all of the excitement was about. Then I got an IPad. I got the IPad after I was able to justify it to myself from a productivity viewpoint.

    1) As a writer I could write on it, and it got better battery life than any laptop.

    2) As a writer it was great for taking and organizing notes, really useful when researching non-fiction.

    3) I could use it as replacement for my twenty pound music book.

    Point is, the IPad was paid for before I got it. When I found out that I enjoyed reading books on it, that was a bonus. I’ve stopped buying Dead Tree books. Dead Tree books are just too inconvenient.

    I’m amazed at how enjoyable E-Reading is. I really am.

    There are a lot of people who say that they will never switch. Let them experience E-Reading, and most will change in my opinion.

  2. I had a Rocket eBook that I loved, right until the battery died, and there were no easy options for getting a new one. Then, a year or two later, I got a Sony Reader, and I love it. I buy books from Smashwords and from eReads and Kobo, and when I travel, I can take pretty much all of my holiday reading in one lightweight device. I still have paper for books I want more as part of my collection, but I buy more and more ebooks, because there’s less and less space for paper.

    Plus, if my house burns down, I get a new ereader, and then just download all my books again.

    And with more and more books showing up in the digital section of the Ottawa library, I will never run out of reading material. (My mother, who bought a Sony Reader after playing with mine, uses hers pretty much exclusively for library books)

    I love my Sony Reader, and I will not give it up until it dies. And then I’ll find another ereader that takes Adobe DRM epubs, and continue on reading.

  3. I too have been reading ebooks for about ten years. I started with Palm Reader on a Handspring Visor Platinum, and have never looked back. I currently use a 1st gen Nook 3G and I love it. I went with the nook so I could still read all of my ereader and fictionwise books. I also use the nook android app in bed, and the windows app on Linux with wine on my netbook.

  4. We just purchased two Nook Colors for some near-term voyaging. Downloading a few books (including a couple by a certain Mr. Sawyer) and reading them has converted me. The idea of lugging a couple dozen or so books around the world was daunting, but the Nook solved this immediately. Wish I had been an early adopter like you.

  5. What a great article for all those dragging their feet about e-readers out there! I’d love to put this, or portions on my website so I can send all those who say ‘Gee, I’d love to read your book, but it’s not in print….”
    I guess it our duty, or job or whatever, to keep the info coming so BOTH print and technology survive.
    You made some great points!

  6. Happy Anniversary, Robert! 10 years is impressive.

    My son bought me a Kindle last year, and I like it more than I thought. I do have some hesitations, however, and here they are:

    1.) There is no secondary market for e books. I live in Portland, and am fortunate to have one of the great bookstores on earth a short drive away (Powells Books.) There, I can sell my books and buy new/used books to replace them.

    2.) The e book price point is too high. $9.99 is too much, when I can buy a used copy at Powells for $5. I know, that doesn’t help us as writers, but it’s a reality for most people. Price counts.

    3.) I can’t lend books to friends or family on the Kindle (maybe you can on other devices.)

    4.) I’m a cynical New Yorker: I don’t like Big Brother knowing what I read. When I pay cash for a book, He doesn’t know the title. The irony of the Amazon 1984 debacle is not lost on me.

    5.) What happens if Amazon changes it’s business model, or is sold, or goes bust? What happens to my ten year accumulation of Kindle books? I know–my house can burn down with all my books in it, but I have live in my house 25 years and it hasn’t burnt down (thank you), but in that 25 years I’ve seen a lot of companies burn down.

    Yet, I love the convenience of my kindle. I imagine if I had an iPad I’d love that even more. But right now, it’s mostly the free classics I have loaded on my Kindle. I still buy books the old fashioned way.

  7. Always makes my day, Rob, to encounter yet another fellow ebook believer. Lovely blog. Congratulations and best wishes. Neil

  8. Back in the early half of the 90s, I read Count Zero in Apple’s Hypercard Stacks. And loved it. I’ve been a fan of eReading ever since.

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