Thursday, May 20, 2010

Narrator Submits to the Times and Purchases Barnes & Noble Nook

The hypocrisy!  After all the railing I’ve done against conspicuous consumption, gadgets, and waste, I’ve done and ended up with a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader

Forgive me if you can.  At least before you condemn me, consider the paper that I’ll save and the tiny amount of current I’ll sip from the grid while I power the low wattage e-ink display.  I can only hope that not too many civil wars were waged over the mining of the coltan and gold and other minerals utilized in its circuitry. 

(And I must shed a tear for all the sacrificed lower case letter “e”s which are going to perish in the future as we discuss e-titles, e-readers, and e-ink.  Seriously, can’t we come up with better words for all this crap?)

So, with the requisite guilt and hand-wringing out of the way, I'm happy to report that over the past couple of weeks I've grown fond of this device. This despite that it's a channel for Barnes & Noble to sell me products – and after cutting out television and radio, believe me, I was pretty reluctant to introduce another channel of advertising into my life. Indeed, taking an entire store into my home – over a million titles available for immediate purchase, items which I don't even have to haul my ass out of bed to purchase – is remarkable and terrifying. It seems very similar to the videocassette that circulates in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, the videocassette which contains a movie so entertaining, once a person begins to watch it, they sit entranced, neglecting their bodily needs until they expire in their own filth, entertained to death. (Only in Wallace's novel, watching the video didn't automatically bill the viewer's credit card as it entertained and killed them.  Barnes & Noble no doubt wants us alive as we’re more lucrative that way.)

So yeah, I’m entertained by this device.  But I’m also pleasantly surprised by the potential for thrift with it.  For something that’s clearly supposed to convert users into dedicated customers of one company, it’s remarkably open to other channels of content. 

Plugging it into a computer brings up a simple file structure with folders like “My Wallpapers” and “My Music.”  Files you dump there are easily accessible from the device once you disconnect and navigate to the appropriate menu.  So even though it is convenient to purchase an ebook from B&N with their simple interface, it’s not really that much more difficult to drag and drop a free .pdf or .epub file you download from Project Gutenberg or  And while the Nook does allow you to download free copyright-expired ebooks directly through some partnership with Google, getting these titles to display correctly seems hit-or-miss.  I’ve had better luck with the downloads, and I’ve actually been reading for over a week now without radioing in to Barnes and Noble. 

One of the first things I tried when I got this thing home was using it to borrow library books.  I’d been told this was possible but again, it seemed unlikely.  Why would B&N open another channel for reading without paying?  Fortunately, I was wrong.

You can connect to your local community library by downloading and installing Adobe Digital Editions (free, though sadly only on Mac and Windows so far – no Linux).  Most municipal library systems allow you to “borrow” electronic editions of their titles for a limited time.  The Adobe software manages the DRM so that after a week or two you’re cut off from your borrowed book and the next person waiting gets it. 

(I have almost universally negative feelings about using DRM to hinder digital content, but in the case of libraries, it makes some sense.  The more people that line up to borrow digital books, the more digital (pretend) copies the libraries will purchase.  This seems like a pretty good-faith way to support your favorite authors and maybe your library, too.)

The latest surprise I’ve stumbled on is Calibre, which is available on Linux (as well as your more common operating systems).  I discovered it when I started looking for a way to convert longer HTML files into Nook’s native .epub format.  It does a great job of this, and Calibre recognizes the Nook when you plug it in, just as easily as Adobe digital editions does.  It even simplifies the drag and drop process to a “publish to device” button. 

My biggest surprise with Calibre is its ability to connect to hundreds of news sources from around the world.  I’m not sure how it does it, but it dropped issues of Newsweek, Time, and Wired onto the device.  These seemed to have just about all the content from the print issues, complete with a navigation structure you can manipulate with the touch-screen. 

I’m not sure how long this situation’s going to last.  B&N only offers about a dozen magazines and newspapers for purchase on the device, so I’m sure they can’t be too happy to have hundreds available for free to anyone who downloads the Calibre software.  Nor can the magazines be happy to have their content – stripped of advertizing – dialed up and delivered for free. 

I suppose there’s nothing they can do about it.  As Cory Doctorow says, information is never going to get harder or more expensive to copy in the future.  Still, B&N might want to get off their tails and at least offer a few more of these publications for purchase.  The rates on the magazines they do offer are reasonable, so for those who don’t want to be troubled to install software and hook up to their PC to manually manage downloads, and those who feel some obligation to compensate the fourth estate for their efforts, there’s value to be had in wireless, automatic delivery of your subscriptions.

It’s only a matter of time before I start using this thing to purchase content.  There’s too many good books coming up these days for me not to.  But the fact that the Nook is open to so many other channels of content is kind of endearing. 

Anyone else out there setting aside the codex that has served us for the past thousand years or two for something new-fangled and shiny?  How are you liking it?  What are your thoughts?


  1. I see the practicality of it... using less manufacturing resources and therefore being less expensive as well as more environmentally friendly. Less clutter about the home as well, and more efficient.

    But....I like the physical handling of a book - the touch, the scent, the sounds of paper turning, or the snap of a book closing. I also see potential problems with the new gadgets, what happens if it picks up a virus and your entire library is wiped out in one instant? What if the device is stolen? What happens when the next shiny gadget comes out and makes this one obsolete, do you have to buy it and repurchase all of your titles over again (like with VHS vs DVD)? Or continually have to keep transferring data from one device to another so as not to lose it (like going from floppy disk to zip, to jump drive)? What if you want to lend a book to a friend?

    It scares me to contemplate the world going in that direction, to being 100% intangible digital with no hard copies as backup. More forced change, forced obsolescence. Technology is already changing at such a fast pace that people's heads are whirling....this is one change that I'm definintely not on board with right now.

  2. Gingerella -

    B&N has actually done a good job addressing some of these questions, and it's part of why I picked them over the competition. While you download all your purchases to the device, they also "live" in your account, so that if you have to replace the Nook, all the titles you've purchased can be loaded into the replacement. I also like that you can read anything you've bought on your PC or iPhone, etc. (Not that I'll ever pay for an iPhone.)

    This actually introduces me to new worries, though. Do I really want to filter all my reading through a corporation that keeps a complete record of every book and magazine I've ever purchased? And of course, should B&N ever cease to be, that means everyone who has ever bought a Nook is on their own for backing up their libraries -- a task that might be even harder depending on how onerous the B&N Digital Rights Management turns out to be.

    Lots of change. Heads are definitely whirling, that's for sure!