The free-range E-book

E-books are a good idea in some applications, while E-book readers are not. Perhaps this is heretical, but should electronic books even be portable?

Why, exactly?

Paper is portable. And fragile, kind of, but substantially less so than an inflexible device fronted by a glass screen.

Is it possible that the other advantages of E-books are what sell them? Like updatability, selectable type sizes, hyperlinks, and, for all we know, the inclusion of multiple versions of the same file?

Don’t all those advantages require you to be seated comfortably rather than riding the tube? Just as football is all very well for rough girls but hardly suitable for sensitive boys, on-the-go electronic displays are all very well for GamesBoy but hardly suitable for anyone who can boast a sequence of sexual partners over the age of 20.

Anyway, some insufferable collection of twee “content” intellectuals outstretched its collective pinky fingers and philosophized about the form of the E-book. We just loved this part!

One advantage often cited for the printed book is that it is a physical object. Apart from factors such as the feel of nice paper which cannot be transferred to the electronic medium, it was pointed out that you always know where you are in a book. Elaine Montambeau:

With a book you always have a good sense of where you are; how much of the book you have read and the physical relation of information and ideas in the book.

Oh, give us a break, Elaine. We are constantly getting lost in books, particularly technical nonfiction, where the eternal bugbear of differentiating nested section levels threatens to infarct.

The assumption here appears to hold that we’re sitting comfortably (that much we’re OK with) in a comfy wing-backed armchair, plodding with full sincerity through a very serious work of Literature, page after page after page. Over time, it becomes apparent that the distribution of pages between respective thumb and forefinger has changed.

“Gadzukes, Marmaduke! Only 11/16 of an inch left! Good thing we’ve got the whole index to read once we hit the words THE END.”

But, like Sloan, we endeavour to find the good in everyone. We endorse the following hypothesis:

Audio was an important part of many people’s fantasies about E-books. Beth Skwarecki:

It would be great if I could just push a button and have the reader read the text aloud to me through a speaker or head-phones [twee hyphenation sic; next we’ll be reading about “oliphaunts” – NUblog] – so I can, say, read a book when convenient, and then listen to it when I’m in the car or when it’s too dark or too sunny to read the screen.

This seems to presume computer voice-synthesis [twee hyphenation sicNUblog], which currently tends to sound more like Stephen Hawking than Majel Barratt (who plays the computer in Star Trek [various twee errors in attempting to describe 20th-century pop culture sicNUblog]). There is also the possibility of having sampled rather than synthesised audio, for which a number of people could think of applications.

Oh, why the hell bother? AT&T Next Generation Text-to-Speech is good enough right out of the box. (Did someone say Next Generation? Like Majel Barratt?)

Electronic books should never be inaccessible; they should always come equipped with an audiovisual interface and speech output. This requirement rather blows our pet format, PDF (NUblog passim), out of the water, but give us time.

Meanwhile, “The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World” is tediously overlong and replete with copy errors, and acts as if it were somehow important, definitive, or simply novel. It certainly is all those things, in the same way a new album from Aerosmith might be.

Posted on 2001-06-18