E-book skeptic Nicholson Baker open-minded about the iPhone and iPod Touch for e-reading

Note: Also see Robert Nagle’s different view of Baker. By the way, unlike Robert, I agree with Baker on the issue of the many books missing from E. This is a major flaw of e-books. TeleRead as a corrective step, anyone? – D.R. imageMost of Nicholson Baker’s piece in the August 3 New Yorker is on the Amazon Kindle. But the real news shows up far inside. Although a long-time skeptic toward e-text, Baker open-mindedly recognizes the merits of the iPhone and iPod Touch as e-book readers: “Forty million iPod Touches and iPhones are in circulation,” writes Baker, author of fiction and nonfiction, including Double Fold: Libraries and the Asssault on Paper, “and most people aren’t reading books on them. But some are. The nice thing about this machine is (a) it’s beautiful, and (b) it’s not imitating anything. It’s not trying to be ink on paper. It serves a night-reading need, which the lightless Kindle doesn’t…” imageGood for night-time reading---and marriage-preservation The LCD screen is sharp enough for Baker, and he enjoys the ability to read at night without disturbing his wife. Correctly he repeats the substance of a major complaint against E Ink that I’ve been making for years---the lack of sufficient text-background contrast for many readers, even though improvements are on the way. On the right you see a screenshot from my iPod Touch---showing off the annotations feature of the Stanza e-reader app for the iPhone.

Begging for Baker’s attention

Baker has long been a skeptic of e-text, as noted; and I hope he’ll now direct his energies to the issue of e-book standards, to which he briefly alludes in the New Yorker, mentioning ePub and the current eBabellers. DRM is another topic begging for his prolonged attention—given the fact that such “protection” detracts from the seriousness of books by shortening their lifespans for many readers, including those who like to upgrade their hardware frequently and may encounter difficulties along the way.

I’d love to see Baker claw away at Amazon for refusing to do an Mobipocket app for the iPhone, even though loyal Mobi followers have invested hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars in DRM-tainted books in that format. Although an e-book fan, I agree with Baker that there are many flaws about which to gripe.

In the next post or two, I’ll discuss the media’s skimpy coverage of one major flaw in particular: the inability to own many e-books books genuinely, thanks to DRM, eBabel and other problems.

Baker’s favorites for the iPhone/Touch: He mentions the Eucalyptus app and others, but I was also happy to see him put in a good word for my choice by far, Stanza, now downloaded by some two million people. Baker’s one-million estimate is out of date. I love Stanza because it is so bleepin’ customizable, and for the most part the interface is superior, at least for me. Novice e-book readers may disagree. But sooner or later the greenhorns will be experienced.

Another detail: At some point I hope to find time to switch over the fonts on my Sony PRS-505 so they’re bolder—stand out better against the background, especially when the room is dim and I don’t want to mess with a reading light.

About David Rothman (6824 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

7 Comments on E-book skeptic Nicholson Baker open-minded about the iPhone and iPod Touch for e-reading

  1. Baker’s liking for iPhone ereading, while he hates the very idea of etexts, reaffirms the notion that many people will not buy an ebook reader, and will proclaim their disdain for such things; but once they have some device that they have purchased for another purpose, and which allows for ereading, they will sample etexts, like them, and learn to enter this century.

    The future may be coming slowly, but it is coming.

  2. And Baker was even able to enjoy reading on the Kindle once he had been sufficiently sucked into a book elsewhere to want to find out what happened next in it.

    Baker doesn’t seem so much Luddite as perfectionist. The Kindle isn’t his idea of perfection yet (but hey, give it a few years). The iPhone comes closer.

  3. J.M. Skillman // July 27, 2009 at 1:29 pm //

    The problem with ultra-small screens for reading is reading speed. Anyone who has read a book on speed reading immediately understands this problem. But then, I guess most people these days move their lips while reading… Sigh.

  4. Hey, guys, I’d like to think that Nicholson Baker’s views are evolving. I remember the days when I hated the idea of all-digit dialing to replace trusty hybrids like SOuth 6 1212.


  5. @ J.M. Skillman: At least personally, I don’t find a real difference in reading speed between an average print book and on my iPhone. The iPhone gives me nice narrow columns and my eyes can skim quickly.

    Not sure what your dig at people moving their lips while reading has to do with anything – I say, at least they’re reading!

  6. I put a longer comment up on Robert’s post about this article but needless to say I found it annoying to say the least. The history and uses of the Kindle for people living in caves…and don’t get me started on Nicholson Baker, World War II mis-historian.

  7. Definitely agree with you on the love for Stanza. I’m reading my first book on the Kindle app for the iPhone, and I’m finding myself missing some of the simple things, like being able to adjust the brightness of the screen by swiping up and down. Would like to see Amazon incorporate more Stanza-ness into the Kindle app, but I guess it’s good that they’re letting Stanza develop on its own for now.

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