The medium is the package

I like ebooks. Sometimes. For certain occasions or reads. This summer, for instance, I didn’t schlep a ton of paper bricks to the Greek island where we spent our family vacation. Instead, I loaded a lot of fine books onto my iPad. As I neither waterproofed the iPad nor found a working cooling solution for the beach, I still had to bring some paperbacks.

Sometimes, I choose the ebook over print for other reasons. Let’s take Debt: The First 5.000 Years, the unlikely pageturner by anthropologist/anarchist David Graeber. As Amazon Germany told me, I would have to wait for 4-6 weeks until it was ready to ship. The ebook was an easy choice. Zap – instant gratification.

But I still might get myself the print edition.
Why would I do that: duplicating content, if content is really king and all that matters?

The easy answer goes like this: I grew up with printed books. Case closed. True, socialization makes a difference. But having been math-socialized with a LED pocket calculator by Texas Instrumentsdidn’t prevent me from preferring Excel or nowadays Google spreadsheets for my calculations. I’m not a pure-bred Luddite. My music is not on vinyl or MCs, I treat CDs as a MP3 backup.

Book wannabe.

So what’s the thing with books and reading? As we haven’t reached the age of fully billable telepathy yet, any aspiring author will have to write down his thoughts and constructs. That’s a good start. But to reach any readers, he now has to replicate his opus magnum. A cloisterful of monks can accomplish this job quite nicely, a printing press will speed up the whole thing, and the Interwebs brought me Graeber’s Debt in light speed.

But in any case: to replicate, we need a carrier medium. And not all media are created equal. Production cost, durability, and usability may vary. Many 5.000 year old Sumerian clay tablets are still around and even pretty readable (if you happen to be fluent in cuneiform). They should get an A+ for durability. Maybe a  bit later, the neighboring Egyptians switched to papyrus as their medium of choice. Most likely not because they ran out of clay, but because of the superior usability if you want to write down more than some bookkeeping notes or an ancient tweet. As the Egyptians held on to their papyrus monopoly, the others were drawn to the parchment. Which, as it turned out, was not as lightweight and snazzy, but way more durable. Then the Chinese invented paper, Gutenberg the movable types, and so on and so on.

It took a while. But the modern printed book is a rather fascinating device. A dedicated handheld reader with a high resolution display, offering random access to its content. It’s easy to grab and hold. It’s rather sturdy (please do not drop your Kindle from a four storied building). It’s nice to look at and comes in manifold distinctive packagings, from cheap and colorful throwaway to leather-encased monolith.

Easily customizable spatial access to content.

Compared to this, the ebook is rather bland. Of course you can judge a printed book by its cover. Just compare this to that. Even a book spine says a lot. Pile up some books on your nightstand, and you have instant  access to your chosen bedtime stories. Pile them on your work desk, and chances are high, that you’re after business, not leisure. We’re talking spatially customizable 1click access to your readings.

Think about it: ebook usability really sucks. I’m not talking about the reading experience, which is constantly getting better and better (notable exception: iBooks with it’s kitschy when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-become-a-real-book page design). The real un-fun part is the time before you start with chapter one. Turn on, search, see results with tiny images and standardized typeface. And, come on, who in real life is so anal to sort his printed library by title, author AND/OR category?

List this: compulsive sorting disorder.

But it’s getting weirder. You have to know where you bought the book, or at least the file format. Buy some music, and any mp3-player will do the job. Buy Neal Stephenson’s highly recommendable Reamde on Amazon, and it will live in your Kindle or Kindle app and only there, not to forget. Buy Graeber’s Debt at the publisher’s store, and it will sit either in your iBooks or Stanza app or both or anywhere else, depending on which app you synced it in, but definitely not in the Kindle or the Kindle app.

Can we, at least. please get this sorted out?

One thought on “The medium is the package”

  1. so true. especially the last part: I wanna read EVERY book in EVERY reader ! even with my few e books I already get confused and buy less and less waiting for a solution.

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