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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

E-Books On Hand


Note: the promised column on going beyond filters to keep kids safe will be in next month. I didnt forget.

On November 19, 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts released its study, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. The report decried a continued decline in reading by teens, concluding:

  • Young adults are reading fewer books in general.
  • Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.
  • The percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book fell 7 points from 1992 to 2002.

On the same day, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of, announced the release of the Kindle -- the latest e-book reading device to hit the market.

Is there a relationship between these announcements?

Personally, Ive been looking forward to the next iteration of the book" -- when well-designed silicon replaces cellulose as the means for publishing -- for quite a long time. While I may be sentimental about the associative memories certain paper and ink books evoke (my childhood copy of Slovenly Peter, for example), it is the excitement of the story, the perspective of the author, or the lyricism of the language to which I am reacting when I say, I love books."

In my 1995 column The Future of Books, I suggested that to be genuinely useful, an e-book must

  • be highly portable, durable, and power-stingy;
  • offer a screen as readable as the printed page;
  • have a changeable font size and a text-to-speech reader (for aging eyes);
  • include a dictionary definition and pronunciation for any word;
  • instantaneously translate texts into multiple languages;
  • include input and output devices -- keyboard, track pad, stylus, speaker, microphone, and camera;
  • be fully multimedia;
  • allow annotation, searching, and book marking of e-texts;
  • have both internal and online storage space;
  • use e-texts and downloadable audio books that are less expensive than their physical counterparts; and
  • be affordable.

The Kindle is batting about 90 percent on that 1995 wish list. Its not multimedia and, for many of us, not affordable. Critics raise a legitimate concern that its e-book format is not open source and buyers rights to use the material are not unrestricted. Big nots" for sure, but this is still an early generation reader. Depending on my Visa bill balance when the holiday season ends, I might well be buying one of these for my personal use. For those who buy a lot of books, the cost of the device itself is offset by the reduced cost of the e-book version Amazon sells.

For those adventurous souls who might want a lower cost option, the One Laptop Per Child projects XO computer is available for a limited time on a Give One, Get One" basis. This sub-$200 computer has a low-power screen that can be swiveled into a tablet configuration and will read materials in PDF format. Project Gutenberg has about half a million free e-books for downloading and use.

While these devices remain imperfect readers, my imagination is fired up thinking of such a devices use as a replacement for traditional print textbooks and recreational reading materials in schools.

Lets hand that 7th grader an e-book reader with all her textbooks, required reading literature, and links to WebQuests and other online supplementary materials. The content already will be leveled to her reading ability and customized for the schools curriculum, with special translation aides for English language learners. That e-book, of course, contains common reference materials and a means of storing and accessing personally selected materials as well.

Want More?

Want to read more about Doug and his thoughts on library media and technology? Visit his Web site or browse his new blog. Got a compliment, a complaint, or just a comment to share? E-mail Doug at [email protected]

Never going to happen? Say we could buy (or lease for five years) a textbook for a fourth of its current $80 cost? Cut out the printing costs of worksheets, reduce the clerical costs of tracking and inventorying physical textbooks, and even eliminate school lockers. Possible?

Pearson is just one textbook publisher producing e-textbooks, claiming a cost to schools similar to the print versions. (Log in, enter password, read a textbook. (USA Today, December 17, 2007) Could that eventually be less costly than how we do school now?

And given the fascination with technology of our Net Generation students, might the very electronic format of the reading experience increase the amount of reading they do -- reversing the NEAs gloomy findings?

In an earlier TechProof column (Disappointed Again This Year), I bemoaned the fact that we dont have a true education computer." The Kindle, the XO, and similar devices are beginning to offer it all -- readability, interactivity, portability, productivity and affordability. And perhaps the motivation to read.

Perhaps just in time.

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Updated 01/01/2010