How do you want to read? 10.02.2008, 5:25 PM
posted by kirsten reach
(Photo of Tom Stoppard's book case, made by T. Anthony, via The New York Times.)
For the sake of travel and convenience, sure, even a Kindle is better than toting a book shelf with you on an airplane. But people still resist eReaders. Is it because eReaders cannot meet your reading needs, or because they're unaffordable and inelegant?
The media is brimming with iPhone and Android apps and speculations about eReading. Even literary blogs are tech-focused: Maud Newton dropped her iPhone in the subway, but didn't lose her place in her virtual book. And Chad W. Post ties up last week's "end of publishing" coverage with highlights from New York Magazine's comments (most of them are much more positive about eBooks than New York Magazine).
eReading devices haven't made an Android-esque debut, but they're chugging forward. Forbes presents a $850 iRex reader with a 10.2 inch screen. Plastic Logic has produced a one-pound, flexible eReader without Wi-Fi or backlighting (it looks sort of like one of those plastic covers Calvin put over his "Bats Are Bugs" report in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon). The phones still have a leg up on these devices because they have names and color screens and do not cost $850.
The Sony eReader has been said to be difficult to navigate. [Edit: the new one has just been released.] The Kindle is distracting. And the iRex has received criticism from USA Today for a short battery life, slow loading, and incompatibility with Windows. In other words, eReaders exist but no model has achieved ubiquitousness; those that have managed to draw an audience are still clunky, slow, and don't have enough memory for major personal libraries. Until we all start to feel tech-lust, let's ignore these beasts and discuss something more important.
How do you take your eBooks? You can turn pages in Scribd's "Opening Up Education," or scroll down through Hewson's newA Season for the Dead. You can also scroll through scores of poetry at BlazeVox or Cory Doctorow's new book, Content. You can read Warren Ellis's comics online each week, or pay for them to be printed on dead trees. Do you want to read books in blogs embedded by Google, or perhaps on your iPhone? Here are a few questions:
1) Is it more convenient in a pocket-sized device like one of these phones, a Kindle-sized screen, an iRex-sized screen, or a desktop screen? Are you inclined to stick with paperback-sized pages when you read an eBook?
2) Are there certain types of books you would read on one screen rather than another? I assume there are - do you use The Pynchon Test or some other method to determine the best possible reading device for your material?
3) Are there certain features in one of these that really works for you? Specifically, do you care about turning the pages? Scrolling? Reading inside or outside a browser?
4) Do you feel more compelled to buy a digital book if it is scarce? Libraries seem to be wondering whether to loan one ebook out at a time, or take advantage of the infinite resources the digital world provides.
5) Is the problem that screens are too closely associated with your workplace, and that you're afraid of your reading being interrupted by popups, email, etc.?
6) Most importantly: Is there some mysterious intangible thing that books have and eBooks don't? If so, can you describe it? (That library smell and your great-grandfather's marginalia in your prized first-edition don't count.)
There has been a little buzz about this this week, and I'd like to challenge if:Book readers to contribute to the dialogue.
Bob recently mentioned that he is puzzled as to why people are willing to have music on iPods and movies on their laptops, but feel skeptical of books on a screen. His point was that these other events are very social; one hears music at concerts and sees movies in theaters, but reading is the most solitary of these events and seems the easiest to move from paper to eReader. Dan Visel has posted on the beauty of the "pause" button. "Pause" converted films - which one cannot control in a theater - into something the user could control thoroughly. And it seems to me that perhaps we are resistant to converting to a user-driven form when the form we have is already user-driven. But if it were done well, would you read it?
I read an article this morning that suggested eBook culture would provide publication space for things that don't deserve to be published, but if talented publishers are able to aggregate eBooks, we may be able to worry less about this problem (it would also benefit the publishing industry as a whole to cut down production costs, and would potentially provide for "risky" decisions - supporting new literary writers, for example, or books of short stories).
So lifting our heads above all these doubts: Is it a control issue, a content issue, or an aesthetic one? Or something larger about the way we connect to digital literature?
How do you connect to literature today? And how could you better engage with it?
Posted by kirsten reach on October 2, 2008 5:25 PM
Will Luers on October 3, 2008 1:04 PM:
I am excited by iPhone-like GPS mobile phones (with video) as an e-reader. I doubt I will ever read a "novel" on a screen of any kind. I love books and most literature is written for the book. Curling up in a corner and disappearing into an alternate world. Same with movies. But mobile phones usher in a new kind of literature and cinema that draw from each tradition. I am thinking of locative media experiences where text, video and audio are combined with the body moving in space. Geographically located literature will have to find its own rules for storytelling. I like the idea of going to a destination to experience a story.
dan visel on October 3, 2008 2:16 PM:
A quick note - this is something that I should really talk about in more detail soon &nbdash; I've been very impressed recently with the experience of reading Helen DeWitt & Ilya Gridneff's new novel, which DeWitt is selling in PDF form from her website. (A review with background is here.) The novel as it can now de downloaded is a 500-page PDF - not a special PDF, a regular 8.5'' x 11'' PDF of the sort that could be printed out if you had 500 pieces of paper and a fast printer. But what's interesting to me is how readable on a screen it is - I was surprised to find that I'd managed to read through a couple hundred pages in OS X Preview without really thinking about it.
A lot of this is due, I think, to the content of DeWitt & Gridneff's novel - it's a piece that's been formally shaped by the experience of reading on a screen, with grainy JPEGs and included emails (the email address used is Helen DeWitt's actual email, not some 555-telephone number); color is used for emphasis as it is on the web. It's not beautiful in layout - it's ugly in the way that so much of the online reading we do is ugly, imperfect spelling as in life, people using ALL CAPS for emphasis and abandoning capitalization entirely in certain emails, annoying ads for Hotmail. It feels right on the screen: that DeWitt has captured the language of the screen, which is different from the language of print.
bowerbird on October 3, 2008 5:48 PM:
dan, dan, dan. what are you saying?
if you're reading an 8.5*11 .pdf on-screen,
and not finding it to be a bother, then you
must have a very large screen.
which is a good thing. i love my large screen.
but someone with a small screen will be
_horribly_ misled by what you have said.
authors, format your .pdf as 5*8.5 please.
and even then, employ generous margins.
p.s. for you people with small screens,
here's the secret of dealing with a .pdf
that was created at the 8.5*11 size --
choose the "show full page" option and
see the percentage that acrobat figures.
cut it in _half_, and use that percentage.
essentially then, you will be showing the
_top_ and _bottom_ halves of each page,
which will make the thing readable and
allow scrolling without duplicating text.
but really, authors, be kind to readers
and format your .pdf correctly, please.
p.s. any novel that wants to "emulate"
the computer screen should be made
into a .pdf with _landscape_ orientation;
11*8.5 works just find for that purpose.
Gary Frost on October 3, 2008 9:38 PM:
A good way to repose your questions is to take the approach of Johanna Drucker as presented in her essay "The Virtual Codex from page Space to E-space". She invokes a performance space to examine functionalities of print and screen reading. "...rather than think about simulating the way a book looks, we might consider extending the ways a book works as we shift to digital instruments." Using frames from cognitive science and systems theory, she explains that a book does not exist "in advance of interaction, rather it is produced new by the activity of reading." With such a reframing, functional distinctions such as the self-authentication features of print, contrasted with self-indexing features of screen transmission, pop into view. "Books of the future depend very much on how we meet the challenge to understand what a book is and has been."
The publisher has posted the entire volume of Digital Literary Studies as free PDFs or $153 print edition. You can imagine that it is an easy decision for me, but I suspect most would not agree.
sebastian mary on October 6, 2008 8:52 AM:
"That library smell and your great-grandfather's marginalia in your prized first-edition don't count."
But they do, they do. Time is crucial in these discussions, precisely because much of the time it's excluded from the discussion as above.
I spend more time reading on screens than I do on paper. But if I want to keep a durable version of a text, I'm more likely to buy it in print. Even if:book, after less than four years' life, is showing signs of entropy here and there: data visualizations formerly hosted elsewhere and now taken down, images that haven't survived changes of hosting, and so on.
The discourse around e-readers, while ostensibly about the transmission of knowledge, is strangely blind to the role of time in the play of knowledge in culture. E-readers focus on the best way to help readers consume a chunk of knowledge here and now, and give little thought to the life cycle of the vehicle that's used to transmit it. Alan Garner points out that this life cycle has been accelerating since the dawn of time: first stone, then clay, then papyrus and parchment, then paper, and now the internet and digital devices, with their countless and ever-evolving platforms, gadgets and formats.
Print on demand, evanescent online conversations, a discursive ocean we can't ever hope to grasp in enough depth to agree which, if any, are the most important threads. Today, with these accelerated transmission formats, knowledge is not scarce and prized but a commodity. And we trust that this will continue to be the case; this is a curious blind spot, and may yet prove to be our culture's Achilles heel.
I'm all for welcoming the new and adjusting our use of the old in its light; but I am cautious of any futurology that dismisses the past as irrelevant to discussions, especially when the past we're talking about encompasses the tools we use to transmit knowledge not just in space but in time. But what if, instead of attempting to transfer all our most enduring cultural artefacts into formats that haven't yet stood the test of time, we accepted the benefits of digital media (mass collaboration, instant communication, the democratization of knowledge) without trying to force them into carrying the full burden of both our past and our increasingly uncertain future? There's plenty of stuff written that I'm happy to read online, such as news, commentary, user manuals - things that go out of date quickly. But while I have no desire to see IM conversations (mine or anyone else's) conducted three years ago preserved in print, I come across the odd piece online that I think could stand the test of time, and I worry that it won't. These, then, and their ilk, might be candidates for making a transition to print.
I know I'm proposing, effectively, a hierarchy of knowledge. And the question of who gets to judge what 'deserves' posterity is an interesting one. But I'll leave that for now - what I wanted to point out was, simply, that in our scramble for the future of digital reading we may risk blinding ourselves to our own need for a posterity, and end up somewhere down the line with a series of unreadable hard drives and an irreparable, global cultural amnesia. So how do I read? If I'm consuming, I'll happily read in digital formats. If I'm collecting, I'll stick to print. Or, if you prefer, to clay tablets, or - for the really important stuff - stone.
Kirsten Reach on October 6, 2008 12:08 PM:
Sebastian Mary, that's a really lovely response. I was trying to move beyond the typical protests I've heard from literary fans, accusations that digital media is trying to replace All Books For Ever - I don't believe the digital format is going to replace books as an art form, or books with specific emotional value, but may try to provide you with the ones you want quickly and would eventually pass on or give away. Things that are irreplaceable can't be upgraded. No one is buying an ebook to pass on to their great-grandchildren; this is not a form appropriate for that, but I don't believe that's why we always purchase books.
Digital news makes sense because the purpose of journalism is to get information reported and delivered to readers as quickly as possible. This is not always the case with books, but there are some that we want in a convenient form and don't necessarily need to archive (you called them the ones that you consume). Sometimes we're reading just to see what others are reading, what got buzz in a recent review, or to gather data upon a subject of interest - these needn't take up floor space in our houses, or cost us $45 a box to move.
I know the Kindle has a virtual library system that stores one's books much longer than a single device, but we have no guarantee that this system will be current for our lifetimes. The iPhone, for example, can now save your phone numbers in case the physical device breaks - as long as Apple continues to dominate the market and has the means to archive all of your numbers in a format that is accessible to you, you benefit. So the manufacturers are trying to find ways to make one feel that one's investment is lasting. Your point is, it probably isn't.
But what I like most about your response - I hope I've interpreted this correctly - is that you believe knowledge is not scarce at the moment, but could be in the future. Thus you would prefer a trustworthy source to keep the things that are of value to you.
How do you suppose this could be supported by a digital archiving system? How could one system prove itself capable of standing the test of time? Or do you believe (enduring) archives and the digital realm are mutually exclusive? Do you have to see it (on paper) to believe it?
alex itin on October 6, 2008 3:03 PM:
This whole discussion is very interesting and I think important to the future of story telling, but I wanted to take a second to point out how outrageously beautiful that luggage is.
sebastian mary on October 7, 2008 5:48 AM:
knowledge is not scarce at the moment, but could be in the future
While I welcome the ability of digital media to afford new kinds of communication and sharing (such as my ability to make a video showing the breadth of Victoria Falls, rather than try to capture it all in one photo) I'm as interested in the long-form history of ideas as I am in their instantaneous communication right now. That's why I draw a distinction between the exciting ability of e-readers to help us consume more knowledge right now, and their potentially dangerous inadequacy as a tool for communicating knowledge across time.
Very few people read the ancient Greeks throughout the Middle Ages; the rediscovery of these ancient texts helped infuse the Renaissance with ideas that still shape our culture today. Compare, then: everyone's had the experience of losing a cellphone and suddenly realising they don't remember any of their friends' numbers. Imagine if Plato, Aristotle et al had been 'archived' in a digital format that, five hundred years later, no-one understood, let alone had the technology to access. We'd still be in the Dark Ages today.
When I see unbridled enthusiasm for capturing the knowledge our culture has accumulated today in digital form; when I hear this discussed as if it were more reliable, more durable, more permanent than marks on paper, clay or metal, I see extraordinary hubris. I worry that when the oil runs out (as it will), and the seas rise (as they are) and the world changes beyond recognition within the next two centuries and - perhaps - most of the world is left without electricity, plastic, the precious metals that make up circuitboards and so on, our much-lauded digital archives may look less like repositories and more like tombs: graves in which we interred the wisdom of generations, inaccessible to our descendants.
Technological future-proofing is always, to some extent, a gamble. I don't think it's realistic to propose in advance a system that might reliably stand the test of time. But if we were to devote energy to attempting such a system, it does not make sense to prioritize archiving the artefacts of print culture thus. To do so, and in the process abandon tools that have done just fine up to now (paper, metal, clay, stone) would indeed be to risk on an untried technology the work of ages, and thus expose ourselves to the possibility of a future intellectual Dark Ages.
Besides, much of the efforts of our information society are in the form of digital resources that can't easily be archived in physical form. When we talk about reliable digital archiving, these are the artefacts we should be focusing on. Again, take this blog as an example: how can we ensure that work done three years ago remains accessible? Is there a solution to link rot? What can be done about changing image formats, server security, protecting against data lost when Movable Type upgrades, or the site moves to a new CMS? Or - more radically - should we accept that this blog is an evanescent product, and let its gradual entropy stand witness to the fragility of digital cultural production?
I don't want to come across as a doom-monger. But if many of the blessings of today's society can be ascribed to the free flow of information, then we need to protect that flow - past and present - not just against censorship but also against natural disasters, climate change, resource scarcity, platform obsolescence and demographic changes. And to do that, we need a multiplicity of tools and platforms, both physical and digital - not a blind faith in progress, technology and a future that looks just like the past only with faster cars.
Gary Frost on October 7, 2008 6:47 PM:
Perhaps the only way forward if we are to assure reliable transmission is to depend on both print and screen resource acting together; the print mode fulfilling authentication and screen mode fulfilling indexing. This suggests an authentic hybrid document. Such hybrids so far have been assembled with tar paper and chicken wire. e-book devices, print-on-demand technology, electronic ink, and page and scroll screen navigation, hyper-text and hard-copy, they are all quirky.
So the invention has not yet happened. We wandering among component inventions such as digital encoding, photo imaging, audio recording, instantaneous communication and their various integrations to screen delivery. But we have not yet invented the book.
Kirsten Reach on October 8, 2008 10:50 AM:
Here is another discussion of the same topic:
I'd really love to hear what anyone thinks about single-function devices versus multi-function devices. Would you rather be able to do everything on your eReader, or just one thing?
Gary Frost on October 8, 2008 6:36 PM:
There is an assumption that the traditional print book is fully evolved and highly refined. But what if that assumption is a central problem for the future of the book? To begin we should look for a new role of print in the context of screen delivery and I mean a new role for print. The leaf master concept would be an example. The leaf master precept separates mastering and delivery functions with print acting to back-up digital delivery in the domain of books.
As for dedicating the function of any hand-held reader, paper or plastic, I would assume it will not work, especially with highly portable devices and particularly with those carried daily or on trips.
john bergmayer on October 8, 2008 6:38 PM:
* I am able to read articles, but not books on my iPhone. I've tried, but past a certain length it still has to be print. For those interested, of all the ebook readers for the iPhone, I like Stanza best, and NetNewsWire is by far the best way to read articles. (Also, never never never pay for public domain etexts. That's just silly.)
* I am able to read comics on the iPhone (converted from .cbr and .cbz format) using ComicZeal. I'm not the biggest fan of comics, but it can be an enjoyable way to spend a few minutes, and ComicZeal makes it possible to easily zoom in/out and scroll around the page.
* A cheap monitor that you then use portrait-style makes a really good second monitor for your computer. By mounting my monitor portrait style, I am able to read PDFs full screen and in their correct aspect ration even on a smaller screen. The sideways laptop works pretty well for this, too, though it can be awkward.
* I think that people really need to think of the way that cheap digital media changes the purpose of physical media. Vinyl is making a comeback because it is more "physical" than a CD and because of the qualities of analog sound-- there's nothing that a CD can do that digital files (which can be lossless) or that vinyl can't do better. Similarly, "ATMs for books" and etexts can replace a lot of disposable print (manuals and generic textbooks). But there will always be a place for physical books that have qualities hard to duplicate with digital files.
Gary Frost on October 9, 2008 6:20 AM:
I think that people really need to think of the way that cheap digital media changes the purpose of physical media.
This is a very interesting remark (at least for me). I take it that the comparison is between physical electronic media and physical analog media. It is quite interesting to see the carry-over from the lack of self-authentication of network resources to the output media from computers. These can be very anonymous things, frequently miniaturized with encoding and writing that can ultimately be unreadable. Likewise it is fun to feel the inherent authentication of media output from analog sources such as the examples of vinyls or magnetic tapes. There are physical linear tracks to these.
jorgen on October 18, 2008 10:46 AM:
I have been reading ebooks on a variety of PDAs since the mid-90ies and greatly prefer to read on electronic devices: I carry a library of hundreds of books, I can read one-handed without getting tired, the screen is backlit, it is always with me so I can read while waiting somewhere etc.
I prefer scrolling to paging, but can live with either.
I have never seen an eInk device here in Spain, but until I can flip a page (or scroll text) as fast as I can on a PDA, I am not interested.
PDF? For tech or scientific stuff, yes, and on a computer screen. Novels I prefer as text or HTML files to read on a PDA (or if need be in .LIT format). I never download novels as PDF, not even if they are free. I download a lot of books from Project Gutenberg.
Pbooks? I got rid of two-thirds of my paper books when I five years ago retired and moved to Spain. Best thing I ever did. Pbooks are too heavy to move and to handle. I have moved on.
Gary Frost on November 2, 2008 3:50 PM:
The Google Print settlement opens copyright sectors to Google vended service. Curiously the target source material remains print originals and the target repositories remain libraries and not publishers.
This proprietary virtual library plan leverages almost every attribute of print source material including the attribute of their survival or preservation by libraries. It also leverages the work of authorship and the investment of publishers. It also leverages Google's position as the most capable delivery infrastructure. As to which investors will benefit most by on-line access, it is likely that libraries may benefit least. The library leverage still seems under positioned in all this. The preservation commitment and its cost, the collection building and classification, and the construction of access utilities have all been required to enable this on-line re-mining. Still other prerequisite services, known best by librarians and bibliographers have been overlooked. These are the contributions of producers of the print collections. Book designers, papermakers, compositors, printers and binders have not even been acknowledged in this re-mining and revaluing of print collections.
The libraries can leverage the unrecognized and under-valued labor and skill of book producers. This can occur in context with on-line demand for print facsimile or on-demand book delivery. Here the resolution needed for paper delivery, the issues of permanence and durability, and the special appreciations of print production can be leveraged with library oversight and library revenue of facsimile print copy production. Such copy production may well require recapture from print masters.