IN MY VIEW: How (not) to buy an (electronic) book

Time was when the buying and reading of a new book was quite simple. If you read a promising review of a recently published book, a quick phone call to your local bookseller would reserve or order a copy that could be picked up in person and taken home for consumption at one’s leisure. The book would often sit on a side table with a bookmark (kindly provided by the bookseller) signifying the reader’s progress through the text, largely in linear fashion.

Before beginning to read the actual text (page 1, Chapter One), it was essential to read the “dust jacket” with the publisher’s commentary, plus several blurbs from other writers and “experts,” and view a muddy black-and-white photo of a somewhat sheepish author. Then it was on to the Contents page, a Foreword (which was mostly high praise from one of the author’s longtime friends), and, finally, a dive into the text.

Well, that was then and this is now. Getting an actual published and printed copy of the desired book has become quite a problem. Unfortunately, my local bookseller is no more and the only remaining chain bookstore is 25 miles away. But, wait a minute!—now there is Amazon, which is as close as your local UPS delivery truck. Or you could get an electronic book reader and have the desired text delivered in a flash. Well, maybe not quite that rapidly. Consider my recent attempts to purchase a new biography of the late Richard Feynman, the highly iconoclastic atomic physicist.

The book is Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, by Lawrence M. Krauss (W.W. Norton, 350 pages, $24.95). Step One: I go to and locate a listing. Whoa! The book is available in nine different formats, beginning with Amazon’s proprietary Kindle edition. The Kindle edition was published in March 2011 and is available for immediate download for $9.99. The hardcover edition is discounted to $14.33. The paperback edition is not yet available.

The remaining formats are so-called audible editions available through at prices from $16.95 and up. I do not read audible editions of nonfiction books. Nor do I possess a Kindle. But hold on; there may be other solutions.

So I’m about to click to order the hardcover book when I noticed that Amazon has a series of free Kindle reading apps for non-Kindle devices, notably iPhone, Windows PC, Windows Phone 7, Mac, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry. So I have to check out a couple of these free apps before reaching for the credit card and actually buying an electronic edition.

Amazon also offers some handy software called Whispersync that keeps track of your place should you find yourself reading the same book on two different devices. This shuffling back and forth between a Kindle and a BlackBerry could lead to severe migraines or worse, in my view, but if you really, really want to read acres of tiny type, that’s your problem.

So I click on the Mac Kindle app since I am working on my venerable Mac iBook G4. Problem: The Kindle app is not supported on elderly Macs such as my G4. Well, OK, I’ll try my iPad. This involves loading the app into iTunes and then, via the iStore, onto the iPad. All this futzing around when a simple phone call would have done the trick. Well, maybe...

It turns out that Apple has suspended my iTunes account because some unidentified person has been using my account without my permission, and Apple feels that this is my problem and not one that Apple needs to deal with. Support is not high on Apple’s agenda. So I cannot install or update any apps on my iPad, free or otherwise, using iTunes.

I’m rapidly running out of options here, which will leave only one direction in which I may proceed: Buy a hardcover edition of the book from Amazon and wait a couple of days for UPS delivery!

On reflection, that is probably what I should have done in the first place.

Getting an actual published and printed copy of a desired book has become quite a problem. Consider my recent attempts to purchase a new biography of the late Richard Feynman, the highly iconoclastic atomic physicist.

Click to EnlargeJeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor


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