This is my tenth anniversary as a reader of ebooks. I got in early because, as a science-fiction writer, I’d long been expecting this technology: after all, Captain Kirk read reports off a wedge-shaped device back in 1966, and the astronauts in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey used tablet computers for viewing documents.
I tried lots of devices early on: Palm OS personal-digital assistants with tiny screens, early dedicated devices with monochrome LCD screens (such as the long-gone Franklin eBookman and RCA REB-1100), and later, first-generation e-ink devices (such as the iRex iLiad).
Several things immediately convinced me this was a better way to read.
First, most systems offered built-in dictionaries. In the days of paper books, I rarely bothered to haul a dictionary off the shelf; now, whenever I encounter a word whose meaning I’m not exactly sure of, I effortlessly look it up.
Second, ebooks let you set the font size to whatever you’re comfortable with. As your eyes get older, you’ll find e-reading is much more pleasant, since every title is automatically available in a large-print edition.
Third, having an infinitely big library without it taking up any space is great—and to have that library be portable is fantastic. In April, I’m traveling across Canada on book tour for my new novel Wonder—and also going to Japan, Hungary, and the United States. Having hundreds of books with me on my trek is heaven for a compulsive reader.
Fourth, searching: when I’m doing research, the ability to search in a book for the specific term I’m looking for is indispensable.
Fifth free public-domain classics: maybe there’s an irony in using twenty-first-century technology to read nineteenth-century books, but I’m way better read today because of it.
I heard Margaret Atwood pooh-poohing dedicated ebook readers a while ago, saying you can’t use them in the bathtub. Actually, Margaret, you can: just seal them in a Ziploc bag, and you’re good to go, and if you drop it, you’re fine—whereas a paper book is ruined if it gets soaked. (Yes, you can put a paper book in a baggie, too—but you can’t change the page once it’s in there; you easily can with an ebook reader.)
One constantly hears people saying they don’t like reading off computer screens and so will never read ebooks. Well, yes, it’s true that you can read off such screens—but you can also read ebooks on devices such as the Kobo WiFi, which has a modern e-ink display that’s as easy on the eyes as printed paper. As I’ve often said, the single biggest barrier to widespread adoption of ebooks is that most people still haven’t seen a dedicated ebook reader.
I very much like e-ink devices, but I also do much of my reading on my iPhone 4 (where, in my opinion, the Kobo app runs circles around either the Kindle or nook apps—and, of those, only Kobo recognizes that full justification looks awful on narrow screens, and so gives you the option of turning it off).
One of the biggest pluses of reading ebooks on smartphones is that you can do it in the dark. I turn the brightness way down on my iPhone, switch to the Kobo app’s night-reading mode (which gives me white letters on a black background), and read to my heart’s content without disturbing my wife.
I’m a writer; books are my life. And I’m a Canadian; I’m proud of my heritage. But I’ve got to say that when fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” he missed the boat on ebooks. The medium—paper book or ebook—is irrelevant. It’s the message—the content—that matters, and for me, for a full decade now, by far my favourite way to enjoy that content has been electronically. Give it a try: I bet you’ll become a convert, too.
Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers in history (and the only Canadian) to win all three of the world’s top awards for best science fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His next novel, Wonder, will be out in print and as an ebook, in April. Visit his website at http://sfwriter.com.