O RLY, Mr. I-Have-No-EReader?

John C Abell lodges suggestions for the improvement of ebooks, which is all good and fine, but I would like to point one thing out:

It’s not enough to be able to highlight something. A careful reader wants to argue with the author, or amplify a point, or jot down an insight inspired by something freshly read. And it has to be proximate to the original — a separate notebook is ridiculous, even with a clever indexing system that seems inventable but is yet to be invented.

Books don’t offer much white space for readers to riff in, but e-books offer none. And what about the serendipity of sharing your thoughts, and being informed by the thoughts of others, from the messages in shared books?

Replicating this experience will take a new standard, adopted universally, among competitors whose book tech, unlike paper, is proprietary. For a notion of what this might look like, check out OpenMargin.

Perhaps the iPad lacks a note-jotting feature in its ebook app, but my Kindle lets me note and nitpick to my heart’s content. I used this facility for the last round of revision on my novel before I showed it to an editor. For this to be doable, you need either an e-reader with a built-in keyboard, or a Notes & Highlights program that can be accessed through a computer, but the Kindle, at least, has the former. I guess that’s the advantage of a single-purpose device.

#4 is true of traditionally published books, particularly from the larger houses, but far less applicable to self-published and digital-first titles, with a far simpler balance of costs. #5 is a concern if you’re well-off enough to have a house with room for shelves. Since I’m about to move house for the fourth time in three years, and my new place will most likely be an efficiency which I do not hope to occupy for more than a year or two, I appreciate the ability to read books that don’t double as furniture. Not all of us have the privilege of spacious domiciliary stability.

All that said, I appreciate his pointedly avoiding the ostensible sensory advantages of dead-tree format. We like the smell, texture and weight of print books because we associate those sensory experiences with the pleasure of reading. The pleasure of reading comes from the content in the books, not because paper smells so nice. In twenty years, I expect no one will care and hardly anyone will remember the tactile or olfactory associations with the written word, and our culture will not be any less for it.