Watershed Down

Welcome to 2020, dear reader. As we pass the watershed  (dictionary: “a crucial dividing point, line, or factor; a turning point”) into a new decade, I realize that I’ve passed a personal watershed in my adoption of technology. Here’s mine, and does it ring any bells about yours?  

I was browsing the new paper books in my local library, and picked up one I wanted to read: “When They Come For You“, by David Kirby. (Great attention-grabbing title, almost as good as my “Why Software Sucks.”)  I then pulled out my phone to see if the library offered that title as an e-book, and felt disappointed to find that they did not. I was then stunned to realize that even with the paper book in my hand, I preferred the electronic medium. I’d unconsciously changed an existing, almost life-long, behavior. How the heck did that happen?

Part of it is today’s good hardware. I bought an iPad mini to demonstrate programming it for my Harvard course on Xamarin (which I’ll be teaching there again next summer, if you’d like to learn it.) I found, to my surprise, that I really like it. The light weight and slim profile make it easier to carry and hold than any paper book. The combination caused me to shelve my comparatively clunky Kindle Fire. I didn’t realize the difference that sleek design would make until I had one.

More tellingly, the crisp retina display is easy on my eyes. Anyone over age 40 will appreciate a larger-than-standard typeface (though I’d be lying if I said I was happy about needing it). The automatic brightness adjustment actually works. Again, I didn’t know how much I’d like it until I’d used it for a while.

As an author I hate to admit it, but I don’t buy many recreational books. I mostly borrow them from my public library. I only buy the ones that are so good that I want to read them again and again.  Among my chosen are “Carrying the Fire,” by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, humanity’s greatest-ever journey of exploration, described in beautiful writing from the actual participant (see my discussion here ).  Or the historical novels comprising “The Flashman Chronicles“, by George MacDonald Fraser, with their meticulously researched historical detail and engaging rogue protagonist (see my discussion here). These I will gladly pay for.  

The rest I borrow and return. That requires a certain effort with paper.  But the public libraries in my tech-savvy state of Massachusetts are leading the way in the lending of e-books. Almost everything published in the last 10 years or so is available in this format. While popular new titles sometimes require a wait (as do paper copies), I can easily place a request in the queue and have it automatically delivered when my turn arrives. I don’t mind waiting a few months for the next Jack Reacher novel from Lee Child. I have so many other books in the pipeline that I always have something good.

Plus, the e-books are always available. If I run out on a Sunday evening when the library is closed, or if I’m on the road, or if I just get tired of what I have and want something different, the Boston Public Library’s huge collection is always at my fingertips. And again, I didn’t know how much I’d like it until I’d used it for a while.

The reading software has also turned a corner. The user experience of previous e-readers, such as Overdrive and Hoopla, wasn’t great. But the latest reader app Libby ( for Apple, for Android) is astonishingly good. I’m going to do a case study on it someday. It has transformed the electronic reading experience from not-as-good-as-paper to better-than-paper. And it runs, synchronized, on all my devices, so I can read my e-books on my phone or PC when I’m not carrying my iPad. So I always have a good book or five with me wherever I go.

In some ways, I’ve changed a behavior I’ve had since I was about three years old, that of borrowing books from the local library. In other ways, it’s the same concept, just with drastically lowered friction of the process. I discussed this dichotomy in my January 2018 MSDN column, entitled “WD-40” . Like so many other lower-friction things in life, how did I ever live without it?

Tech is funny that way – sometimes it works. How is it for you? Use the comment section of this blog to tell me about your watershed experiences. And best of luck in the watershed of this new decade.

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4 Comments

  1. Sorry, but for me electronic books will never match the old dear paper. The “material” experience is more rich: the smell of the paper, its roughness,… a cold retina display can’t match them!

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  2. I know that programmers like to start counting at 0, but there was no “year 0”, therefore the first ever decade was the years 1 – 10 and consequently the new decade will start next year: 2021 – 2030.

    As to electronic readers: I agree with MarcoNanni: it just doesn’t feel the same. I like sitting by the fireside, reading a real physical book, smelling it and turning the pages. An eReader feels like replacing the real fire in the fireside with a flickering electronic image of a fire…

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