eBook Readers in a Literature Class: Reflections on Kindle DX, Kindle for iPad, iBook for iPad

I’ve been using a Kindle DX for about a year, and an iPad for about a month, with both Amazon’s Kindle app and Apple’s iBook app.  (Update, June 2: I posted about the Barnes & Noble iPad app, as well.)

I’m excited that all full-time SHU students will have iPads next year, though I’m frustrated that I have to choose between the iBook reader (which offers a dictionary, many highlighting colors, but no annotation) and the Kindle reader (which offers annotation, just one highlighting color, and no dictionary).  Neither app will let students copy-paste into their word processors, email excerpts to themselves, or email their markups.

Since both the iBook app and the Kindle app are free, there’s nothing stopping me from using both in the class.  The dictionary and multicolor highlighting will make the iBook reader the best choice when the goal is to help students comprehend short and unadorned text, but the annotation tool will make the Kindle the best choice when the goal is to help students analyze a text that already includes footnotes.

What do you think… have I missed the one e-reader to rule them all? (I’ll try GoodReader when I get the chance.)

After the jump, I’ll go into details about each e-reader.  But first, I’ll reflect on what happens to my ability to compare texts when I use an e-reader. My students are used to being able to flick from one web page to the next in a fraction of a second.  What will happen when I ask them to do some intertextual reading with ebooks?

Time elapsed while closing one text and opening another

Kindle DX           8 seconds (mostly waiting for the screens to refresh)
iPad iBook         7 seconds (mostly taken up by goofy animations)
iPad Kindle app  3.5 seconds (some horizontal-sliding animation)

While 3.5 seconds doesn’t sound that bad, in the print world, I can open two print books and let my eyes flick from one to the other in a fraction of a second. Decades of reading this way have developed habits of thought that contribute to my world view, and to my approach to any kind of deep thought. I expect my online reading to work this way… during a typical web-surfing session, I typically end up with six or seven open browser tabs, each representing some line of thought that I put temporarily on hold, while pursuing (or altering) my primary task.

My students are likewise used to being able to work in parallel, so I’ll have to be on the lookout for ways to encourage the rapid eye-flick behavior. (One obvious solution is to have students print out the academic articles they’ll be using to analyze their literary e-texts.)

There are, of course, other ways to judge an e-reader, besides the extent to which it facilitates intertextuality.

Kindle DX

I’m still partial to my year-old Kindle DX for heavy-duty ebook reading.  It handles PDFs without any conversion (though getting them onto the Kindle is a bit of a bother).  Because the screen does not glow, but merely reflects light like an ordinary page, it’s easier on the eyes — though obviously, it’s harder to read in the dark.  The Kindle lets you highlight text and look up words (using an awkward little joystick), and add notes (using a horrid little keyboard).

Each page refresh takes about 3/4 second. When I’m reading along at a good clip, I just anticipate when I want to turn the page, pushing the button while I’m still reading the last line, but when I’m reading line-by-line, for deep comprehension, the delay is noticeable.

An added bonus with the Kindle is the very simple, very basic web browser, that provides online connectivity for free.  It doesn’t support Flash, but there is an option to enable JavaScript.  I haven’t been able to use Google Docs or check my university email, but if I had to, I could route my mail through my GMail and Yahoo accounts (which work fine).

The free online connection is there in order to encourage Kindle owners to buy stuff. I can’t imagine why anyone would pay for a blog or magazine subscription on the Kindle, but it’s great for impulse book buys (I haven’t even opened that steampunk serial), and there are plenty of free classics and scholarly work out there.

The Kindle DX is light, the screen is a pleasure to read, and the online-anywhere feature is wonderful. I find the text-to-speech capabilities of the Kindle a real plus (since I can listen to books on my commute; the computer voice does not sound like a Dalek or a Cylon; it picks up where I left off reading, and advances the pages as it speaks).

iBook on the iPad

The iPad is colorful and fast. I won’t say it’s too colorful and fast… but I will say that if I’d had WiFi access these past few days, I know I would not have spent so much time reading e-books; I’d have spent more time surfing the web, blogging, and emailing.

I’ve spent several hours reading Emily Dickinson poetry over the past few days. I feel like I’ve been on a reflective retreat. Of course part of my brain was still registering whether I should assign this poem or that one, or what vocabulary words or theological concepts I’d need to cover in class. And the reason I downloaded an Emily Dickinson iBook is because I know poetry is my weakest genre. I had a professional reason to want to read up and soak in her language, and the iBook reader let me do that very nicely.

I started highlighting in blue the vocabulary words I figured I’d need to cover for my students — words that were not in the iBook dictionary, or words that needed more context than the dictionary provides.  I highlighted in words I had to look up in purple, and passages I’m not sure I understand in pink. Sadly, the iBook does not let you type annotations.

The experience of reading the bare-bones Project Gutenberg collection of Dickinson poems was a bit disorienting.  The ebook, which was generated automatically from a Project Gutenberg etext, makes a heroic effort at populating a table of contents, but since the individual poems are marked only by roman numerals, and the sections themselves are likewise marked with roman numerals, the table of contents is unmanageable.  Frequently the title of the poem is on one page and the rest of the poem is on the next page, or the final line is cut off, or the page break comes in the middle. Of course, all this is a feature of the bare-bones Project Gutenberg texts, rather than the Pad.  Still, as the Apple minions prepared the iBook versions, it would have been fairly trivial to write a script that inserted a hard page break at the beginning of each poem.

At the same time, the iBook reader doesn’t have any sense of pagination.  There is a horizontal scroll bar that provides some sense of your place in the text, but when I hold the iPad vertically, I’m on page “95 of 322,” and when I hold it vertically I’m on page “61 of 192″.  If I change the typeface or type size, the text is repaginated. So if I teach from an iBook, and I expect students to be able to turn to certain pages, everyone in the class will have to use the same formatting (which diminishes the value of the personalization features).  Of course, we will be able to search for phrases, but that won’t help students internalize the order of the book. A bit less complex, but still welcome, would be a feature to let you scroll the text on the page up or down a few lines, that the page breaks are less disruptive. (I can imagine busy student readers being thrown by a page break that comes in the middle of a poem, or that truncates the last line of a poem.)

Kindle on the iPad

The Kindle app is slick and well-designed.  The Kindle app matches the “ooh ahh” factor of the iPad, with its curling-page-turn animation, but thankfully it’s optional.

Unlike the iBook, which repaginates according to screen orientation and type choices, both the Kindle app and the Kindle gadget divide its text into “locations.”  I’m not sure how much text counts
as a “location,” but there seem to be about 12 “locations” visible on my screen at any one time, so a “location” seems to correspond to about 2 or 3 lines of text — that’s certainly enough to get a class focused on the same passage.  It’s very easy to grab the horizontal scroll bar and scan for the “location” number you want.

While the stubby joystick of my Kindle DX is awkward, the touchscreen interface of the Kindle app is beautiful.  Touch the right or left sides of the screen to turn the page; touch the top or bottom for a menu.  With the menu hidden, the screen is uncluttered and a joy to read.  The app syncs smoothly with my physical Kindle.

While the Kindle app only permits a single highlight color, and does not have an integrated dictionary, it does permit typed annotations. Unfortunately, it seems you need a physical Kindle in order to get the excerpts you highlighted and the notes you typed into a word processor. (The physical Kindle stores your annotations as an ordinary text file.)

I find it almost heartbreaking that the Kindle app omits a dictionary.