E-books can save time and money

I busted my Kindle last week. I have no idea how I did it, but I can only assume since it was in the bag I carry around everywhere, I jostled it a bit too hard at some point and cracked the screen. As I was trying not to be angry at myself over this, I realized something stranger. It worried me. It worried me because books for half my classes were stored on the device and I had work to be done over the weekend. It had not been apparent until that moment that, in spite of me, e-books had become something I actually bought and used.

I had always found the idea of e-books repulsive, because I love the texture and smell of books – the older the better. A slight tinge of mold, margins stained by readings and the passage of time; books have always been one of the most significant aspects of my life. As for e-books, I am young enough to have been indelibly marked by the rise of social media and hand-held computing but old enough to have a bit of perspective. E-books sounded great in some respects, and it was obvious that online retailers like Amazon were going to profoundly change the experience of shopping for and purchasing books. E-books seemed to be the next logical step in the process, but it seemed to me that losing the tactile experience that comes with reading would turn many away from the technology.

The deciding factor for me was, honestly, the excesses of the academic publishing industry. I’ve written on this somewhat in the past, but the short version is that academic publishing is a joke in its current state and the industry is guaranteeing that the college experience isn’t likely to get cheaper anytime soon. For my upper division coursework, up to 5 books have been required for the course – many of them separate works used to supplement a textbook. Even if I find them used the cost adds up to a significant amount. I received the Kindle for my birthday, and messed around with adding all the free classics I could get my hands on. I could find a surprising amount of free materials, but I was disappointed by the lack of page numbers and generally poor formatting – even when I finally chocked up for the “edited” version of a text. Despite this, when I realized I could buy the books I needed at essentially the same price (or cheaper) of a used book without messing with shipping the choice was obvious. I was sold on e-books.
And don’t blame instructors for the cost of books; generally academics are being screwed worse by academic publishing than students – given their choice to “publish or perish.” Some are forced to, quite literally, hand over their research for free to for-profit journals in an effort to get or maintain tenure, leading to a situation in which a large part of the academic publishing industry rests on the shoulders of essentially unpaid academic labor. Additionally, as an aspiring instructor, I can sympathize with the fact that in upper division classes even a quality textbook is insufficient without the support of auxiliary materials.

Higher-level courses are, by definition, more focused and therefore require instructors to assign a plethora of materials to get beyond the superficial in a given subject.

I’m told the new Kindles are more akin to an iPad than an “e-reader,” which may become a defunct transitional device here soon – as basically everything morphs into a hand-held multimedia tablet. Wondering whether I’ll bother to buy a new one, I have to conclude that I will. A lawsuit against publishers recently broke up a price-fixing scheme designed to keep price-points above ten dollars, and it looks like Amazon is going to drop the price on most of them below that in the near future, which bodes well for consumers. Considering the fact that there is virtually no cost to producing e-books and that you are often paying for a badly formatted document that looks like it had the text cut/pasted into it, a price above ten dollars is ridiculous as you’re doing nothing but paying the copyright holder for an automated facsimile of the work. Regardless, e-books offer a moderate savings and a lot of convenience for students in the humanities and social sciences, and for that reason receive my conditional recommendation. Oh, and buy a screen protector.