Wednesday, December 09, 2009

E books, PDFs, and Audiobooks, Oh My

In December, 2007 and again in April, 2009 I did some guest blogging at ForeWord Magazine's ShelfSpace Blog. While ForeWord Magazine is going strong, they have discontinued doing that guest blogging. So, I am going to rerun those posts here at Tea Cozy. Any edits to remove confusion about things like dates is in brackets.

E-Books, PDFs, and Audiobooks, Oh My

Are some forms of reading inherently "better" than others?

When people start talking about an e-reader such as the Amazon Kindle2 or the Sony Reader, reaction seems to fall into two camps: "I want" versus "but that's not reading!"

I admit that I have techno-lust for an e-reader: they are so sleek! So shiny! So small! Think of how uncluttered my house would be if the books were all in this one small reader!

The other camp points to the physical aspects of the book: the feel of the pages, the weight of the book, the durability and lendability of an actual print book.

And I agree… I'd still want some of my books around. Books have memories; it’s not just owning The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, it's owning the one I read as a kid. It's being able to take it off my shelf, reread, lend it to someone with an "OMG you'll love this" that just cannot happen with an e-book.

Or can it happen? I don't have an e-reader; so I cannot say, firsthand, the differences in reading an e-book. But, wow….the size appeals to my desire to simplify my life by decluttering my living space. And then there are the trees that would be saved. Did I mention how cool they look?

A similar conversation about reading is going on concerning review copies for book review blogs; if you had a choice, would you review from an Advance Reader's Copy or a PDF? If you think bloggers are new and techy, think again. A surprising number say, "reading on the computer isn't the same. I want the book." Bloggers spend enough time on the computer; a book is a break from that.

The Kindle2's text-to-speech function has brought another issue into the "what is a book" argument. A synthetic, computer voice can read aloud the e-book. Understandably, the Author's Guild got a little worked up about this feature, fearing that it may negatively impact audiobooks.

I love audiobooks; I'm a "listen while I drive" person. While a bad narrator may make me stop the book, I don't abandon the book. Rather, I go back to the traditional print book. A good narrator, on the other hand, can make a book come alive. It also forces me to really listen to the words, rather than skim or skip a descriptive paragraph or two.

Because I'm an audiobook listener, I personally think the Author's Guild fears of a computer voice are unfounded. Honestly, audiobooks are superior; when readers have a choice, they will go for the book that is recorded, narrated, directed, and edited by professionals. Not all books are available in audiobook. The Kindle2 provides a nice option for those books, magazines, and blogs that don't have an audio version.

You know what would be cool for the next e-reader? Being able to download audiobooks to it. All my audiobooks and e-books on one device? Sweet!

So what does "reading" mean?

I want to say, "read any way!" People have different preferences; and what works for one person doesn't work for another. To say "listening to an audiobook doesn't count" (as I've heard teachers and book club members say) is a disservice to those who get more out of an audiobook than a print book. (It also is insulting to those whose only choice is an audiobook, in that it says their reading experiences will never count, but that, dear reader, is another topic). "It doesn't count" shows a surprisingly narrow world view; "if something doesn't work for me, it doesn't work for anyone." Ditto for e-books and reading, with people who believe, "I wouldn't want to read on a screen, so no one would."

It's good to stretch our ways of reading. I want to say, "read any way." I do say it. I listen to audiobooks during my commute; and find that sometimes I pay more attention to the story than if I was reading a book. I prefer children's books that I can finish in less than a week. I've found that sometimes reading on a computer, where I can play with font size, is easier on my eyes than the small print of books. I'm open to an e-reader, and just found out that my iPod Touch has an e-book application that I'm going to try out. To truly respect the different ways people read, we should try them out.

And yet… I have to confess; I was recently asked to do the foreword for You Don't Look Like a Librarian: Shattering Stereotypes and Creating Positive New Images in the Internet Age
by Ruth Kneale. When asked, "do you want a galley or a PDF" – dear reader, I said a galley. I knew, to give the book a good reading, I needed the physical pages.

When it comes down to it – despite using other ways of reading – my own, personal preference is the old-fashioned book.

This was originally posted in April 2009 at ForeWord Magazine's Shelf Space blog.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Kathy Martin said...

I enjoyed your article but would like to add a bit. The Kindle 2 can play audiobooks. This is a quote from the user's guide: "You can download and enjoy thousands of audiobooks from Due to their large file size, audiobooks must be downloaded to your PC or Mac over your existing internet connection and then transferred to Kindle over USB. Listen to audiobooks through Kindle's speakers of plug in your headphones for private listening." So you can have it all in one device. I am not a big fan of audiobooks myself as I am better able to understand when I read than when I hear. I agree that sometimes the physical book holds memories so I'll never abandon my book collection. But I love my Kindle for its portability. Hundreds of books in my hand is hard to beat. And I have run out of places to put bookshelves in my home.

Wendy said...

I blogged about this issue recently, but your old piece brought up a new thought and I'm going to go ahead and offend a lot of bloggers by saying this: I bet subconsciously that many or most bloggers don't like the idea of PDF ARCs as much as book-form ARCs because they really do feel special when they get physical ARCs, and wouldn't feel as special about the PDFs. (Where did I get this idea? Because I feel it a little myself, of course. I don't think of myself as being at all vain about ARCs, but evidently I'm a little vain.) It would only be part of the reason, of course--I believe you when you say you do a "good read" better with a physical book, like the people who print out a rough draft to revise it--but I think it's there.

Anonymous said...

The other concern about e-books that I see is that you can't really share them or lend them to friends.

Also, I wouldn't put it past companies to try to find new ways of making users pay for content--i.e., having the book go away after a certain number of reads or something like that.

On the other hand, the space is definitely a consideration--if I were a more frequent traveler or had a longer commute, I'd probably want a Kindle or similar device for the space/weight savings alone.

Have any libraries actually purchased Kindles or similar devices?


Kathleen said...

I've participated in discussions like this before. Personally I'd much rather read a real book and if I had a Kindle I'd never buy books for it but I would use it for reading the few free PDF books I've downloaded or if someone ONLY has PDF review books, then I'd use it.

tomlopy said...

The audio version of the Kindle2 are very limited. Sounds like a robot. I like the real audiobooks. Easier to listen to. I like the ones on librevox and . They are free.

Kit said...

I've been told that many blind people prefer text-to-speech to "real" audio books. The computer voice is very even and predictable, unlike real voices, which allows a competent audio reader to speed read by playing the audio faster.

Personally, I don't necessarily think that computer voices are worse - while a good reader can heighten the appeal of an audio book, the wrong reader can be awful. Once tried to listen to an audio version of Zelazny's Amber books where Corwin sounded like a B-movie Clint Eastwood...