Reading at Swarthmore in the digital publishing age

Like a Triple-A creeper, your beautiful columnist has hunted down the people on campus who use e-readers, invading their personal space for your edification. I talked to these individuals with the goal of discovering 1) What devices they used, 2) Their e-reading experience and 3) Whether they use them for school. By checking in with Swatties, Swattie staff and my handy Google eReader, I hope to provide all the latest news in college e-reading preferences.

What Swatties use:

Swarthmore students are more keen on Apple’s iPad and its digital reader. (Courtesy of www.girvin.com)

The iPad reigns supreme on campus, at least from a visibility standpoint, as the most popular e-reading device students use. This might change with the release of the magnificent Kindle Fire in November, so don’t subscribe to the Apple fervor anytime soon, folks. But in the meantime, iPad users, enjoy your supremacy, even if it doesn’t really seem to involve a whole lot of reading.

Fruit Ninja et al. indeed has a place in the luxurious iPad lifestyle, though news feeds and e-books (mostly from the Gutenberg Library, where one can download books in the public domain) were also largely featured. I interrupted one student reading The Economist, the only paid subscription he gets on his iPad. He recommended using Pulse, an aesthetically pleasing and free app that allows you to look at various news feeds side by side (our friend liked comparing the Huffington Post and Fox News, with predictably hilarious results.) Another student, whose iPad featured a nifty USBkeyboard, admitted that she mainly uses the device to check up on her RSSfeeds (a convenient conglomerate of articles or blog posts from a specific website) not books, so now I’m trying really hard not to judge.

A few prefer Barnes and Noble’s Nook, which is less expensive and boasts more minimalist features. (Courtesy of cdn.digitaltrends.com)

The Nook, produced by Barnes and Noble, appears to be a favorite for at least one student and one staff member I spoke with the other day — that is, as long as you ignore the Nook color, which is slow to refresh, and has some of the same glare problems beach readers have found using the iPad. They lauded the minimalist features, automatic updates (as opposed to the Kindle, which requires you buy the latest version for any improvements/updates/patches or the like) and customer service. It was reassuring, they felt, to purchase this expensive ticket item (currently $249 for the Nook color, $139 for the standard) at a brick-and-mortar store, where sales associates could offer suggestions and provide tutorials.

My Kindle correspondent, a close and particularly “scandalous” friend of mine, admitted that she only uses her Kindle on vacation. Whether downloading trashy, free e-books on the beaches of Spain or wirelessly uploading PDFs and documents from her laptop in Berlin, my Kindle girl — unlike many a good Swattie — knows how to relax. Take note, my friends: all work and no play makes Phineas a dull phoenix, so what better way to take a break from all your required reading than picking out a book to read for fun?

Swattie e-reading experience:

Even the eco-friendly side of me can’t get past the fact that e-publications are depressingly digital — how do I tab pages, take notes, highlight passages, or draw little hearts and exclamation points in the margins of touching prose? What does an e-reader have to offer that print books don’t? For that matter, what makes people purchase this bastard child of the laptop with a smartphone, MP3 player and computer already in tow?

The Swatties I talked to didn’t have the same concerns as I did, seeming to favor their devices as a supplement to — and not a replacement of — their other devices. One iPad-wielding first-year admitted that the device was “better for consuming than producing,” and could never replace his laptop. Digital note-taking also appears to be more daunting to technophobes than eReader owners, who didn’t neglect to mention that their devices have the capabilities to highlight, take notes, add post-its, etc, often with the click of a button or a touch of the finger (though some eReaders won’t allow you to highlight PDFs). Like magic, you never have to worry that you misspelled ‘weird’ in your textbook, dooming you to eternal shame should you resell it to the Bookstore.

E-textbooks and Swarthmore resources:

There has been a huge effort by e-reader and tablet producers to encourage college students (that’s us, guys!) to buy e-textbooks, and thus sucker a bunch of young, smart consumers into the e-reader market. Personally I’m not psyched by the prospect of e-textbooks, largely because I feel like the ability to lug around a 2,000-page volume of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” is what distinguishes the best from the rest.

Besides, studies have shown that students, even when provided free eReaders and textbooks, find navigation and note-taking so hazardous (a study last year at Princeton and UVirginia tested the Kindle) that they’ll use and/or purchase the physical thing.

However, should you choose to take advantage of them, there are a bunch of resources at Swat that lend to the e-reading experience. I’ve used plenty, in fact, without ever needing one of those newfangled technologies. Tripod offers a ton of e-books across a wide range of subjects, which is really awesome as an alternative to waiting around for that one greedy person to please return the frickin’ reserves book.

The college bookstore’s new rental policy may have overshadowed some of its other offerings, namely, the fact that (last year?) Swarthmore was invited to participate in a pilot program for delivery of digital books for colleges & universities, which means if you go on the Swarthmore website, you can download eReader software (Adobe Digital Editions) and start reading Kafka and Oscar Wilde like a pro. You can get eBooks for certain required schoolbooks too, which is awesome because they come with a 40% discount perfect for justifying the purchase of a stuffed microbe.

If to eRead or not to eRead is the question, then I’m too indecisive to answer it. Both require sacrifice, and both have their flaws.

But if you can allow me to get gushy, the important thing is that you read, no matter how you achieve that captivating experience. McCabe is open seven days a week, and I’d like to see a few more smiles on all those dull, tired faces.

Susana is a sophomore. You can reach her at smedeir1@swarthmore.edu.

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