Let us now bemoan the current state of the e-book. Oh, the possibilities forsaken! Oh, the days of innocent promise!
When I first summoned a book—yes, that once non-virtual, mite-collecting, gloriously stainable density of language—as though from thin air, it felt like a miracle of God. The text of a literary masterpiece could appear on my iPad screen seconds after I had first heard the title of that masterpiece. My iPad could hold hundreds of such masterpieces, each adorned by my ingenious observations (notes) and each eager to accommodate my every visual need—reverse video for when I read by my sleeping wife, large print when my glasses hid from me, medium brightness when on a night flight to Istanbul. No longer was I forced to lug a second suitcase full of books when writing on the road. No longer did my briefcase bulge with the latest unwieldy McCullough tome or Paul Johnson magnum opus.
And how the enhancements pleased! To materialize from that same thin air—without cost—a sample of a book I wasn’t yet sure I wanted to read was glorious. To search a 1000 page masterpiece for a single word or to know that, as I read each page, the exact number of pages remaining—even the exact percentage of text yet unexplored—reported itself at the bottom of the screen. All this was, to my book-loving soul, wonderfully satisfying.
And so I read–everywhere, and in every light and mood and position. I read and I read more than I ever had.
But then the evolution stopped. No progress. No invention. No stunning unveilings. We had hoped for the book made better. What we got was the book in a lesser, more disappointing form.
I was driven from my bookish joy by the realization that I could read an e-book but could not use it as a tool the way I did a “real” book. First, the footnotes in most e-books were somehow knocked out of sync—or did not exist. I could not match a statement to a source. Not a problem, perhaps, when reading a novel but a crisis if my e-book was for research.
Then I discovered I could not footnote the material in an e-book. This was because there was nothing linking my specific location in an e-book to its corresponding page number in the “real” book. Every time I changed a font or a reading view, the page number in my e-book changed. Publishers apparently hadn’t figured out how to link any page in any font in any view from an e-book to a specific page number in the “real” book. Meanwhile, my publishers weren’t happy about footnotes without page numbers.
I also noticed that most e-books were lacking the index so helpful in paper books. Again, this was a problem of changing page numbers. Publishers—or, to be fair, publishers of the books I was using—failed to include an index that automatically recalibrated reference numbers as I changed my text settings.
Horrors mounted. I learned I couldn’t copy text by highlighting and cutting as I could, say, in my various digital Bibles. I learned that while I could email myself the extensive notes I had taken in a given e-book, this list of notes did not include page numbers or the portion of the book my notes referred to. I was left with a chapter title, my note minus context, and the date the note was written. No page number! And no link to the original location.
Okay, maybe it isn’t as big a deal as I’m making it out to be. But to make e-books wonderful would be so simple.
First, make it possible for the reader to see both his e-book page number and the page number as it would be in the paper version of the book.
Second, make indexes that sync reference numbers with each new setting, make text exportable (we can get the text by typing it anyway!) and make sure tables of contents and footnotes adjust to setting changes too.
Third, when we touch a given sentence on our screens, let footnote options appear that are already formatted according to the top two or three manuals of style. In fact, give us the form for both the first mention of a source in a footnote list and all the possible forms after the first mention. And make each of these footnote options exportable so we can insert them into our own text. Why not? Isn’t the point of digital text to speed the learning and lessen the hassle? Let’s take it all the way.
Fourth, do all that wonderful stuff you talked about doing at the birth of e-books: stunning graphics, embedded video, beautiful page designs, and so forth. You know, all the stuff publishers used to be proud of whether the reader noticed or not.
Finally, for heaven’s sake, let us export our notes from our e-books accompanied by the text each note is tied to and the accompanying page number. And offer this in hypertext so later we can access any noted location from any digital device we choose. Come on, you can do it.
Do all this and we will celebrate you, e-book publishers. We will even be willing to pay more for our e-books. And you, in turn, will deliver yourself from the dangerous flat lining of e-book sales that currently haunts you. This is only happening because most e-books, you know, suck. Change this. And change the world at the same time. Steve Jobs would be proud. Readers will be proud. And you will be proud of the legacy you leave.
Let the enhanced e-book experience begin—again.