Friday, June 18, 2010

E-readers: good idea or waste of money?

I met yesterday with another of my committee members, the one whose question during my defense reduced me to stammering idiocy.  Zi is a hardcore devotee of a particularly stream of theory, one which I would like to know better.  (And, judging by hir reactions to my dissertation, zi would also like me to know it better!)  I will spare you the details of our theory chat, except to note that, in hir inimitable fashion, zi managed to kinda-sorta imply that zi would not have allowed me to bring that draft to defense, had zi been my advisor.  (To which I just thought: Ooof!)  But, luckily for me, what's done is done, as Dr. Egojab -- I warned you all that I'm bad at pseudonym invention -- even acknowledged, adding that now I can focus on getting my theoretical knowledge up to speed so that I don't run into worse trouble down the line when I try to publish.

Zi also recommended, in the context of loading me up with theory works to hunt down and study, that I purchase an e-reader, so that I needn't shackle myself to 500 pounds of books when I depart for Research City.  I understand the philosophy of this, and I've even experienced first-hand the misery of shipping serious book poundage home from Research City.  (NB: never use Media Mail unless your boxes are packed as securely and firmly as Fort Knox containers.)  But, after poking around the internet a little, it seems to me that e-readers are a good idea in search of a reason to be.

Specifically, it seems that the big e-readers -- and, in this regard, the iPad is sort of a blinged-out member of the club -- all have various attractive features, but they're not books; they're just the empty containers into which books may be deposited.  And books, in paper or digital format, cost money.  It seems somewhat insulting to me that these companies would have us fork over hundreds of dollars that don't actually include any books I'd want to read.

To compound the insult, digital books look hardly any cheaper than their paper counterparts.  Wasn't part of the rationale of developing this technology that the digital stuff would be cheaper as well as more accessible?  And further compounding the insult -- Amazon may as well be cracking 'your momma' jokes now -- is that, unless you spend a minimum of $500 on an iPad, your e-reader will be a proprietary arm of the merchant that sold it, locked into whatever stock of digitized books that merchant happens to offer.  Postcolonialism and gender theory do not come cheap online, if they're offered as digital merchandise at all.  Social scientists -- and probably almost any kind of academic outside of lit people -- are kind of screwed if they hope to use an e-reader to read books for any serious professional purpose.

By the way, note that this is all a different story if your discipline ignores books in favor of journal articles.  If that's the case, then I would recommend you buy an iPad and rejoice, for lo, it doth enlarge PDF files easily and with great clarity of reproduction.  One of my friends at my school alma mater has an iPad, because 99% of the scholarly works he consults are journal articles that he downloads as PDFs; he speaks of his iPad in quasi-erotic terms of endearment.

I also read a lot of journal articles,  fact which, despite my distaste for the iPad, turns my head in that direction, but I read a fair number of full-length books too.  Hence my quandary.  From what I've gleaned so far, the marketing of this technology is still so hidebound that I may as well just stick with my computer as my e-reader.  Sure, scrolling through PDF pages with a mouse isn't as sexy as stroking a lascivious finger along a touch screen, but the hard drive capacity of my notebook dwarfs even a big iPad, and I'm not convinced that buying any kind of e-reader will grant me any practical access that I don't already have.

So, does any of my readers have some first-hand knowledge of how to navigate these seas?  Have you bought an e-reader, and have you managed to use it fruitfully for work?  Have any hot tips on cheap downloads of recent scholarly works?

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