A true tale of trying to do something useful with an e-book

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Yesterday, when I started writing about Virginia Heffernan’s article on the QWERTY keyboard, I was just planning to paraphrase it and pull a quote for a cheap, quick post. But once I started doing that, it reminded me of the story about Friedrich Nietzsche, and before long I had something better.

I read The Shallows, Nicholas Carr’s book that retold the story of Nietzsche’s typewriter, as an e-book (using the Kindle app on my iPad and iPhone, to be exact). I read it recently and the memory was still fresh, but I couldn’t recall all the details. So I thought that since I had access to a searchable, digital copy, I could look up the exact passage and use that in my post.

It seemed like a reasonable task. That’s the major selling point of e-books right? Available everywhere, at a moment’s notice. But I had deleted the book from my iPad and iPhone (“archived” in Kindle parlance), which meant I would have to download it again. My Wi-Fi-only iPad did me no good in my security-obsessed office, and spotty cellular signals on my floor also meant that pulling down a new copy on my phone was agonizingly slow.

I tried the Kindle program on my laptop, but repeatedly got this error no matter how many times I tried deleting and re-downloading as it said:

So yes, in theory, I could have looked up that nice story about Nietzsche’s typewriter if I’d had the foresight to keep a copy of the book on my gadgets and the good fortune to work in an office with better cell coverage and less restrictive Wi-Fi policies. But nobody plans ahead like that for a blog post, and we can’t pick our jobs based on what kind of cell phone service we get in the office. Instead, I ended up finding what I needed using Amazon’s “Search Inside This Book” feature on the web, which I could have done if I’d purchased the book or not. And naturally, none of these methods would have let me copy and paste text out of the book anyway.

If I’d had a physical copy of the book I could have flipped through it, copied what I needed manually, and been done with it. Instead, I wasted more time than I care to admit wresting with the various Kindle spawn. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the book in my bag either because I was finished reading it. If I really wanted to include the Nietzsche story in that case, I would have had to wait until I got home, which means I probably would have finished my post without it.

What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure. The e-book got the job done in a roundabout, frustrating way, but it certainly didn’t live up to its promised convenience. From my experience, e-books are fantastically convenient to purchase and read, but not to actually use the way we use a physical book: to reference, to quote, to share. And that’s probably just the way Amazon likes it.