Letter to the editor: Digital books empower

I don’t read the Iowa State Daily very often anymore. When I lived on campus, grabbing the Daily was part of my routine: I left Friley, walked to the UDCC and grabbed the paper on my way to breakfast.

Today, I glanced over somebody’s shoulder and saw an article in the opinion section by Michael Belding titled “Digital books take away human connection” (the online headline was ‘Paper or plastic’ applies to book, too). The title grabbed me, so I grabbed a paper.

I have a third generation Kindle. It’s in my backpack every day as I go to school, and most nights it winds up on my desk next to my bed as I fall asleep. I’ve had my Kindle for about a month, and I definitely read more now that I used to. The article bothered me because I don’t think it was fair to digital books.

In the third paragraph, Belding argues that books, given as gifts with personalized notes and thoughts, connect you to people and because the Kindle — and other readers — can’t offer this, they are inferior to physical books. I disagree with that sentiment. To be fair, I’ve never received — or given — a personalized book as a gift. If I knew someone who preferred digital books and I wanted to give them a book that I enjoyed, I would give them an Amazon gift card and a note about why I liked the book and why I thought they would enjoy it. If I wanted to really personalize it, I’d get a physical gift card and write a note by hand. I don’t think the lack of my highlights or scribbles in the margins would change their experience with the book. Besides, after they read the book, if we wanted to discuss our thoughts, we could easily sit down over coffee and do that.

My second frustration starts with the first sentence of paragraph five, where Belding says that “the ease with which e-books can be acquired is disturbing.” I think the word here should be amazing. One night, I was getting ready for bed and thought to myself: “I haven’t read ‘Ender’s Game’ in years. I really want to read that right now.” I don’t own the book and, at 11 at night, if I had decided to get dressed and head out looking for it, not many bookstores would have been open. Within 60 seconds — no exaggeration — I was reading the first “page” of the digital copy of “Ender’s Game”. This isn’t disturbing.

Finding books is simple. I can search the e-book store for titles, authors or keywords. I can browse the top selling books in any number of categories. When I spot a book that looks interesting, I can read a summary or quickly check reviews to make sure that this book is actually worth reading. With many books, I can even read the first chapter or check the table of contents, exactly like you would do in a physical store. And I can do all this without leaving my recliner. Belding makes a point about jotting down the titles of books he spotted. With Amazon, you can do that adding the title to your wishlist — which you can share with people a few weeks before your birthday or Christmas.

Belding wrote: “A large part of the reason for doing anything is the challenge associated with it. A life without challenges is an empty, cheap one. Before the advent of the e-reader, finding something to read was much more of a challenge. Acquiring it was another.” Sure, overcoming challenge makes for an exciting life. How many books have we read where the protagonist overcomes some challenge that defines his life? But if anyone writes a biography about me and says, “After much toil and searching, Adam finally obtained the seventh Harry Potter book and lived happily ever after”, I didn’t live much of a life.

Finding books should be as simple. That’s why we have librarians and card catalogs and, now, advanced search algorithms that take me to the book I want in a second. The effortlessness of finding the book does not “cheapen the experience of the activity”.

Digital books offer so many benefits that Belding overlooked.

One of my favorite features in my Kindle is the text-to-speech feature. I downloaded one of my dry philosophy textbooks to my Kindle and with the press of a few buttons, my Kindle starts reading it to me. I was having a ton of trouble staying focused enough to make it through more than a few pages, but when the book was read quickly to me and I was following along, I could make it through an entire chapter without any problems. I can’t read in vehicles without getting carsick, so this feature will come in handy the next time I head out on roadtrip.

Having books as a stream of bits has some great benefits too. Ever remembered a word or two from a passage but couldn’t remember quite where in the book you read it? With e-books, you can search their entire contents in seconds, quickly finding the spot you were thinking of. No need to bother with an incomplete index when you can search the whole book.

Highlights are improved too. Instead of flipping through pages trying to find all the pages you highlighted, you can click a few buttons and bring up a list of all the highlights you made, making it easy to go back and see what you thought was important.

One last feature worth mentioning is how easy Kindle makes reading other stuff. I’m currently halfway through a 900 page book of fan fiction that I found online in PDF format — Kindle supports MOBI, TXT and PDF formats, among others. I literally downloaded the book, opened up a new e-mail and put in my Kindle’s unique e-mail address, and clicked send. I’ve done that with everything from books to short articles to classroom lab manuals. I never even had to hook the Kindle up to my computer.

Digital books are the next evolution of the printing press that allows the world’s library to be always at my fingertips. And that isn’t dehumanizing or disturbing … that’s empowering.