Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #3: Ten reasons why I love e-books

My husband loves to buy books. He really, really, really loves them. He can read circles around me and almost anyone I know. And he was immensely attached to all the books he’d collected (when he moved to NY from CA in 1997, he arrived with one bag of clothes, and about 18 boxes of books). I had nagged forced inspired him to weed his books periodically over the years, and he hadn’t bought many paper books since we’d invested in the e-reader when the Kindle was first launched, but in the summer of 2012 there were still a shit-ton in the house. When he wanted to upgrade his reader to the Paperwhite (we have a checks-and-balances policy on expenditures over $100), I told him I would only approve the expenditure if he agreed to weed out most of the books. My final, winning argument on this issue was “You have moved these books over 3,000 miles, through at least five apartments, over the past two decades. And you have not dusted them once.” So, that fall, he filled about twenty boxes with books, dropped them at a church flea market, and preordered his Paperwhite.

Two weeks later the books-in-the-house issue was rendered moot when Hurricane Sandy brought 8 feet of water into the basement, where most of the books that remained resided. Most of what was left was mine–all textbooks for work–and believe me: it was doubleplusunfun having to slog an Ikea Billy’s worth of sopping, 1,000-page tomes out of the muck. But the truth is, we don’t miss many of the books we lost or gave away. Most of what he’d intended to save—those that he’d considered “favorites”—he could easily get at the library, and many were classics that he could download for free or maybe 99 cents if he wanted to reread (he’s a notorious re-reader). Our Kindles weren’t in the basement, but even if they had been, everything we had bought since the arrival of our first Kindle was safely stored up in the Amazon cloud. And in one of those hilarious post-Sandy moments, his spanking new Paperwhite arrived right on time just a few days after the storm. There we were, knee deep in the muck out, hungry, exhausted, filthy, with no power, no internet or cell service, not even a working traffic light for miles. The state of the neighborhood could only be described as post-apocalyptic. And here is our friendly UPS guy, with the Husband’s new Kindle.

Anyway, one of my favorite websites, Lifehacker, posed a challenge last week, asking readers to sound off on why they love or hate e-books.  I write too slowly and missed the comment bandwagon, so I’m sounding off here instead. There are solid arguments on both sides, but when I weigh out the pros and cons, I’m decidedly in the pro-ebook camp, for a number of reasons. I’ve done my best to narrow them down to ten, below, but first, a few disclaimers:

  • Yes, I know this is a first world discussion. Lots of people can’t afford to buy any books at all. But libraries can and do fill this void, and ebooks will probably have a bigger role in making more content accessible to more people as technology and access improve (at every level of the economic spectrum, smartphone ownership is increasing).
  • Libraries are still the bomb, and anyone who thinks that they are less relevant than they used to be clearly has never been to a branch of the Queens Library on any given day.
  • Ebooks still have plenty of shortcomings.  Off the top of my head: uninspiring book design; crappy business practices (and I’m not complaining that they’re too expensive here); a complete lack of copyediting/proofreading rigor; and no, it’s not all that easy to highlight, bookmark, or make notations. I am eager for the technology to catch up and for the business model and for production standards to adjust on these.
  • Most of my comments here relate to novels and straight-up non-fiction. I still prefer paper books for reference books,  how-to guides, and anything illustrated. I still like leafing through cookbooks (although I don’t hold on to them anymore). And don’t even get me started on how much I love curling up with a real, printed magazine.
  • The problem with ebooks is more about Amazon (specifically, Amazon’s near monopoly on ebooks and their business practices in dealing with publishers), I think, than about ebooks. That said, I’m firmly in the Amazon camp thus far–they just make it so easy to shop, and I found the Kindle tech and Amazon’s customer service to be far superior to B&Ns (our first e-reader was a Nook). I would be happy to jump ship to another provider if they could match the service and selection and convenience of Amazon, or improve on the overall quality of the ebooks, which seem to be riddled with very distracting proofing errors (I really wish that publishers would take ownership of ebook production and sales). But so far, nothing better has emerged.

With that out of the way, here are ten reasons why I love ebooks. Lots of people still love their hard copies, and more power to them. I suspect they are better about dusting than I could ever be.

  1. Books Are Not Bricks. That’s a quote I read a very long time ago from Henry Holt. It came up in an entirely different context, but the line has always resonated with me. Holt, writing for The Atlantic in 1905, expressed a concern that books were being signed, bought, and sold as “soulless things.” I myself have always felt that the soul of a book lies with its meaning, not in the packaging (they don’t say “you can’t judge a book by its cover” for nothing). Books are not something you own; they’re something you experience. Once you’ve read a book, it is yours forever. You don’t have to own it. Some of them are indeed very beautiful: they have been carefully designed and produced in a way that adds value and meaning, and enhances the reading experience. But for most part—especially when it comes to high volume reading, pulp fiction, and the like—the real value is not the form but the content, and what we ourselves gain from having read them (even if they are pulp). Having books on our shelves doesn’t make us better or smarter; it’s just evidence that we have enough money to spend on books. And, as I told my husband ages ago: You’re not in college any more, and miles of shelving full of things you’ve read is no longer impressing your lady friend.
  2. Ebooks are harder to share, except when they’re not. Many people I know complain that the problem is that they can’t share their ebooks–can’t loan them to friends or give them away when they’re done reading them (and conversely, one cannot borrow an ebook easily, or buy used ebooks on the cheap). But on the flip side, it’s pretty easy to set up a circle of readers on a single account. Since my husband and I buy so many books, I’ve picked up an extra Kindle for my mom and put it on our account; when my sister decided to buy one, I had her log it into my account instead of setting up her own. And: instant book club. Whenever one of us buys a book, we all have access to it. We’re going on a cruise together this fall, and we’ll all be reading the same book while we lounge on deck.
  3. Ebooks are harder to lose. Everyone talks about how they like to pass on books to friends. Most of the time they are just giving books away, but sometimes it’s because they loved a book and want their friend to love it, too. The thing is, if it’s a book you love, you might not get it back to read it again or to share with another friend (In my experience, the expected return on a loaned book is about 1 out of 10). Your ebooks aren’t going anywhere. Even if disaster strikes–a flood, a busted reader, a robbery–you can still access your books from a new device.
  4. Ebooks are easier to move. If you’ve ever moved an avid reader into a walk-up apartment (you know who you are, my friends), you know that the best books are virtual books.
  5. The battle of the indie vs. the big box was over long ago.  Some see Amazon as a heartless conquerer, but many communities were bookstore deserts long before Amazon arrived on the scene. Indies were already few and far between back in the early 1990s, when big box stores like Borders and B&N were systematically putting the them out of business. For those of us who live here on the vestigial tail of New York City, there was never a bookstore nearby: the closest on (now long gone) was a few miles and a bridge toll and a parking fee away, and it was a relatively rinky-dink mall bookstore with limited, very mainstream stock.
  6. Free samples. For so long, it was like  you had to marry a book without having dated it first. I fill my Kindle with samples, try them out, and if I find myself wanting more after those first 3o-odd pages, I click “buy.” Far fewer bad purchases sitting on my bedside table mocking me, and a lot more great books I’ve read because I took a chance.
  7. Ebooks don’t need dusting. Enough said.
  8. Ebooks are kind to the farsighted. I am appreciating this more and more every year.
  9. Sometimes you just need to reread Harry Potter. Many people have noted that they just keep the pulp versions of their favorite books. But I’m more the other way around: I keep my favorite books at my fingertips, in my Kindle and/or on my phone at all times.
  10. Shopping at Amazon is ironically more intimate and personal than shopping in the real world. Amazon launched as a bookseller, and it offered what those bookstores could not: Selection and convenience. But oddly, I was immediately won over by the more intimate nature of the Amazon book buying experience. Despite the efforts of big box bookstores, they’re still a store, and there’s often piped-in music, other crap for sale, and just other people around. And while many of us might wax nostalgic about the Dream of the 1990s and all those magical independent bookstores (and record stores), let us not forget the judgy arched eyebrow of the pretentious Gen-X sales clerk as he rang up your copy of the latest Stephen King. Shopping for books at Amazon, I can read reviews at length without sitting on a dusty floor in my work clothes; I can do it in absolute, utter, 1950s librarian–endorsed silence; I can see what others are buying without spying over their shoulder; and I can read YA or pulp fiction on the subway without anyone rolling their eyes at me.
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“Books Are Not Bricks”

 

Books are not bricks…. the more they are treated as bricks, the more they tend to become like bricks,—the more authors seek publishers solely with reference to what they will pay in the day’s market, the more publishers  bid against one another as stock brokers do, and the more they market their wares as soulless articles of ordinary commerce are marketed, the more books tend to become soulless things.”

Henry Holt, “The Commercialism of Literature.” In The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 96, No. 5 (p. 578). November 1905.

In the public domain: You can read the whole thing for free on Google Books.

 

LearnToMod: “A gateway drug for computer coding”

Well, this looks promising:

WIRED SCREEN GRAB

LearnToMod is a program that teaches kids to code, and to use code to create their own Minecraft mods. I love the idea of kids becoming producers of technology, not just consumers, and it’s becoming clear that coding is a key skill that the workerbees of tomorrow can apply to just about any job or any situation. I love this summary, from Teacher Gaming founder Joel Levin:

“Kids are passionate about the game and they quickly understand that they can extend and enhance their Minecraft experience by learning some basic programming…. And that’s really what we want, isn’t it? To have kids realize that with code, they can improve their life in a way that’s relevant to them.”

Check out the full story on WIRED:

FROM WIRED: New Minecraft Mod Teaches You Code as You Play

My daughter is dying to learn to code for Minecraft, and as someone whose skills are pretty much limited to typing, I had no idea where to start. The software, developed by ThoughtSTEM, isn’t available until October, but you can preorder here. I’m planning on holding this particular carrot out in front of her through the first part of school year–she’s a homework procrastinator, so if she can break that habit in September, there will be a nice prize in October.

The media ominivore’s dilemma

When I first posted about the Momentum Optimization Project, I was expecting just a few friends and family members to read it. But it must have struck a chord: As of today, it’s been viewed more than 100,000 times (although part of me suspects it’s my mom, clicking over and over again just to feed my ego). The traffic kind of freaked me out, to be honest–I’m an editor, not a writer, by trade, and I’m not really used to having people whom I don’t know read, comment, even ask me for advice based on something I’ve written. I should probably make it clear that I’m not an expert on anything, more of a curious questioner. And as far as getting my kids to keep things really need and orderly? It’s kind of hilarious that anyone would look to me for advice, because: I am a disaster. Seriously. I need one of these just to find my keys at any given moment.

Anyway, 100,000 views are bound to yield a few criticisms.  A few readers inferred that my insistence on the kids reading “real text (not comics)” meant that I don’t want them reading comics at all, or that I don’t think comics are valuable. Others thought that by limiting screen time and insisting on “creative time,” I was implying that computers are not in fact tools that can be used creatively, or that I think gaming is stupid. All of which is kind of hysterical. Seriously, media–tv, books (including comics and graphic novels), movies, music, online gaming and computers–makes up a huge chunk of our family budget, in terms of time and money. Technology and media are kind of priorities in our lives. We’d rather have new machines than go on vacation (and so, we don’t really go on many vacations).

My goal with the Momentum Optimization Project wasn’t to make the kids not play on the computer, or not watch TV. It was to remind them that there are other ways to spend their time, too.

I know that as a child in the 1970s and early 80s, I watched as much TV as I possibly could. But in reality, there was just not that much TV to watch. Five channels, with maybe three hours of programming per day that might be interesting to a child of any given age, all running at the same time. No DVRs or TV on demand, no streaming media, no 24-hour Nickelodeon or MTV yet. I could watch All The TV There Was To Watch, and eventually, run out of TV to watch. I’d get bored, find something else to do.

Today’s kids have no such limits forced on them. There is so much entertainment, available the touch of a button, that can be delivered right to their faces. And, despite the existence of some really terrible stuff (I’m looking at you, Real Housewives), much of what’s out there is ABSOFREAKINGLUTELY AWESOME. I’m quite certain that if I had Internet when I was a child, I’d have spent my entire adolescence sitting in my room watching SNL clips and searching some kind of irrefutable evidence to prove, once and for all, that REM was better than U2. (Because they were). And if I were a kid in the 2000s, I’d probably have grown pasty looking for LOST spoilers and theories or watching Epic Rap Battles of History until I, like my kids, knew every word to every single rap battle. I get that Everything is Awesome, but I would by happy if my kids would be motivated to, say, follow up on Stephen King vs. Edgar Allen Poe by perhaps reading Carrie or at least looking up Poe’s biography on Wikipedia.

So, really, I’m not looking to put an end to computers (or comics) or to even put strict limits on either of them. I’m just trying to raise well rounded, media omnivores. As I’ve stated before, Newton’s Laws of My Family state that if they get involved in a video game early in the day, that’s pretty much what they’ll want to do all day. If I don’t point them toward other things, and give them a little shove, I know they’ll waste their free time away in a Minecraft or Steam bubble at the expense of all the other awesome stuff–music, sports, books, podcasts, movies–not to mention sunshine and face-t0-face socializing–that they could be enjoying, exploring, and learning from.

Anyway, when I started instituting “creative time” last winter, I generated this little Wordle and hung it in the kitchen. It’s just a hodgepodge of ideas so I always have an answer to “I can’t think of anything to do.”

DO SOMETHING wordle

 

There’s exercise, chores, good deeds, and even some ideas for using technology creatively. When it’s cold or rainy, or when they’re in the height of swimming season and don’t really need to be pressed for more exercise, I’ll let them slide on the “glowing screen” aspect, and suggest they do something active or creative–say, research some topic of interest or make a video or go on a photo treasure hunt–which might involve a computer or tablet. For me, the key is to make them use technology actively and creatively, rather just having them passively absorb content while sitting in a chair.

 

 

 

Slacker Hack: How to store your leftover paint

A little hack I picked up years ago that makes life simpler. Fewer rusty, dusty, hard-to-open cans stored in the basement. Keep a couple of throw-away sponge brushes handy, and you can do touchups in a flash with minimal clean up.

Save those empty sports bottles to store your leftover paint. I like these gatorade ones, with an easy open/close cap. T

Save those empty sports bottles to store your leftover paint. I like these Gatorade ones, which have a really easy to  open/close cap.

Use a funnel to fill 'em up.

Use a funnel to fill ’em up.

 

Drop in a couple of marbles--that way, you can just shake the bottles to mix the paint up when you need it.

Drop in a couple of marbles–that way, you can just shake the bottles to mix the paint up when you need it.

 

Label them carefully, and stow them in a reused six pack carton so they are easy to stow and tote.

Label them carefully. I like to put them in a reused six pack carton, so they are easy to stow (they won’t tip over) and tote.

When you need to do a touch up, just shake the bottle and pour a bit of paint out on a paper plate, a piece of cardboard, or other makeshift paint palette.

When you need to do a touch up, just shake the bottle and pour a bit of paint out on a paper plate, a piece of cardboard, or other makeshift paint palette.

 

Something to consider: Kudoso’s new router is a screen time management system

So, Engadget reported this week on a Kickstarter campaign for Kudoso, a router/software combination that enables you to limit kids’ screen time and encourage them to complete chores, schoolwork, play outside, etc. Essentially, it locks kids their gadgets out of the internet, and via an interface that parents control, allows them to earn time on various sites by completing particular chores or activities. It looks like it might be a few hours of set up time, but if it works, it could simplify things some families.

Kudoso's new router/software system limits screen time.

From Engadget.com

I’ve moved toward the “unlimited earned time” model with my kids, but I think something like this might be super effective in helping younger children to diversify their behavior and learn some good habits, while still allowing them to engage with media. I like that it links with existing electronic tracking and teaching tools, like Kahn Academy and Fitbit, which can make it possible for some rewards to automated.

However, one question many parents have asked me about my system is how to confirm that kids have, indeed, completed their chores if you are not  at home to check that the bed is actually made or the laundry folded. I’m not sure (yet) how to work around that, with this or any system.

I’m not quite intrigued enough to plunk down the cash at the moment, but will be following the reviews.

Here’s the story from Engadget. And here’s the Kickstarter page.

If anyone tries it, please let us know how it goes.