Sunday, July 15, 2012

eBooks and I

I love to read. I love books and the written word in general. One of the greatest pleasures of my life is to curl up on my couch or stretch out on my bed with a good book‒a real book, with a binding and pages made of paper‒no batteries required. I like having good books on my shelves, and when invited into someone else's home, the presence or absence of tangible, physical reading material, and when present, the subject(s) of the reading material can often, fairly or unfairly, inform my opinion of those whose home it is. I am not rich, or even well-off, by any measure, but I am proud of the depth and breadth of the works in my library of bound books.
As long as there are at least some people that like to collect things like stamps, baseball cards, music and motion pictures recorded on a physical medium (i.e. CDs and DVDs/Blu-rays), I suspect there will also be those that will enjoy, and continue to purchase physical, bound books. From a marketing standpoint, if book publishing went entirely digital, what would become of that staple of the publishing industry, the book tour? What gets readers to clear their calendars and brave the most inclement weather to attend a talk by a favorite author promoting their latest book? From the reader's standpoint, it is not so much the chance to hear the author speak, the biggest inducement is the chance for readers to interact with their favorite authors and ask them to sign their new book. In a world of Kindles, Nooks, etc., what would be the point? Will we hear readers say things like, “See this scuff mark on my KindleTM ? I got that when I downloaded James Patterson's latest ebook”? I think not.
Because I have such a deep appreciation for, and love of, the written word, it is not surprising that I consider the effort to express my own thoughts and ideas in the same way‒and do it well, hopefully improving with practice‒a very worthwhile endeavor. When I write about subjects that depend on getting one's facts right, I take great pains to research and document my sources (using Zotero‒a superb open-source bibliographic citation program). I readily admit it is sometimes a fair description of the diligence with which I dot my “i”'s and cross my “t”'s to say that it borders on the obsessive-compulsive. To the extent that I am a bit OCD about citing my sources, my defense is that I dread being caught with my pants down in an intellectual sense. Another defense is the daily frustration I feel when confronted by the fact that most people do not seem to give a hoot that they are talking out their asses about subjects of which they are utterly ignorant; I want to share as few traits with such people as humanly possible.
I have a tattered, well-used copy of the 27th edition of the CRC Standard MathematicalTables that I acquired back in 1987 that was used at a Navy technical school I attended. The pages were falling out and were well-annotated by the students that came before me and it was being replaced with newer copies in better condition. That book went on to be further annotated by me and provide invaluable help not only to me as I studied calculus, physics, and electrical engineering on the way to earning my undergraduate degree, but to my daughters as they studied geometry, algebra, and trigonometry in high school.
Currently I have over 1.5 GB worth of scholarly peer-reviewed papers from on-line databases like EBSCO and ProQuest. I also make frequent use of Cornell University Library's outstanding arXiv repository of papers in the quantitative sciences. Additionally, being a dues-paying member of the AAAS, I also have online access to the journal Science and it's daughter publications. (My mother thinks it is a hoot that some of the mail I get from the AAAS is addressed to Dr. Northrup.) I also have a paid subscription to the online Questia library, a great source of books and journal articles in the humanities and social sciences. The vast majority of these papers are in the PDF format (with the exception of the material accessed through Questia) and are duly recorded in my Zotero library, both in the “cloud” and locally on my laptop. Using Zotero (I am not a paid spokes-person) I have the ability to copy/paste what I call “money quotes” from research papers of interest rather than going through the laborious process of re-typing them myself.
My current library of serious, non-fiction ebooks, in various formats, comes in at just under 20 GB. They include everything from things like the nine-volume Cambridge History of Christianity (relevant to a writing/research project I am currently working on) and science textbooks and references like an Introduction to Astronomy and Cosmology by Ian Morison. I was delighted to come across the ebook version of the 32nd edition of the CRC Standard Mathematical Tables and Formulae, which I quickly snapped up for reasons of nostalgia. When researching whatever project I am working on, I have found being able to copy/paste passages from items in my ebook library into Zotero for later use as invaluable an aid as it is when quoting from a paper downloaded from the journal Science.
When I write, even for this blog, I always compose and polish my work using MS Word or LibreOffice and in the infrequent and brief snippets of down-time at my day job, I sometimes work on personal writing projects (don't tell my boss). I have a smaller, portable version of my library of downloaded research papers and ebooks, as well as various ebook reader software, on a flash drive for ready access, regardless of what computer I am at. Having read this far, it would probably be no surprise to learn that I have not paid for any of the ebooks in my library...until this weekend.
Earlier (on Saturday, July 14, 2012 to be precise), I came across a post by Jerry Coyne on his excellent blog, Why Evolution is True, the discussion of which I wished to contribute to. The post involved Sam Harris's latest book, Free Will, which I have not yet purchased or read, and because I like his writing, this seemed as good a time as any to plunge into the world of legitimate (i.e. DRM-restricted) ebooks. In the interest of full disclosure, the same day I also obtained a copy of Free Will (for free) via Bit Torrent, which is how I amassed the aforementioned 20 GB of ebooks. Many of the works of popular science, freethinking, atheism, and related topics in my ebook library I also have as printed and bound volumes. When a new book by authors whose work I follow (e.g. Dawkins, Harris, The Hitch (R.I.P.), Lawrence Krause, Dennett, Pinker, et al.) comes out I look forward to curling up with the physical book.
After checking out a number of ebook vendors online, I purchased the ebook Free Will through the online ebook store Kobo and found it a thoroughly disagreeable experience that I will not, as long as I have any choice in that matter, ever repeat. If I want to read a book for my own enlightenment and pleasure, I will continue to prefer old-fashioned bound books, and will gladly pay full price for them. Ebook readers like the Kindle, Nook, the iOS readers (don't even get me started on PC vs Mac‒at least for right now) are worthless to me, whether I am reading for pleasure or for research. When researching a topic for my writing, I often have my working draft and whatever ebooks are relevant to the subject at hand open at the same time, on the same computer. Further, ebooks that cannot be highlighted or otherwise annotated, and for which the copying of text (to insure I properly cite/quote particular passages) is disabled, are of no value to me whatsoever. To my mind, the various ebook reading platforms and file formats are simply a scheme to lock consumers into a particular type of hardware that are obsolete almost as soon as they hit the shelves and will need to replaced/upgraded in lockstep with Moore's Law. A nice racket...err...I mean "business model," I'm sure.
As a student, a frequent frustration was finding a research paper that, judging from the abstract, was exactly what I needed, but was only available behind a paywall set up by the likes of Elsevier, Springer, or Wiley. It seems I was not the only one that was outraged by this (see here, here, and here, just for starters). After my experience with DRM-protected ebooks this weekend, my opinion of the ebook publishing world is now almost as low as is my opinion of Elsevier and friends, nor are their motives for going about it as they are any less base, despicable, or contemptuous of those they hope to manipulate by such practices.