Reading on all platforms

Sales of e-books are surging, and the voices of those moaning at the bar (cf. Tennyson) are getting louder too. You’d think the Kindle police were going to knock on our doors and confiscate all the printed bits of paper we own. Sometimes the laments are more nuanced and playful: witness Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ puckish yet poignant essay at the Wall Street Journal–online, of course. Moreover (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a blog post), I saw the link in a news feed update from Dolen on Facebook, an update that soon trailed several comments pleading with Dolen not to give in to her newfound affection for the Kindle she received for her birthday. (The layers of irony here are large enough not to need pointing out, I trust.) It’s not enough to swear one’s allegiance to what “book” has meant since roughly the sixteenth century–or, if one’s talking about paperbacks, for the last sixty or so years. One must be vigilant to warn one’s friends away from their unwitting complicity in the destruction of this most loved of all media: the book.

That’s overstating it a bit, but not much. And speaking of irony, just two days ago I saw enough abandoned books in the Half-Price Books store to make a bibliophile weep.

I have a hard time rejecting any communication technology. When it comes to reading, I want it all. You can’t have my books, and you can’t have my Kindle, and you can’t have my PC screen, and you can’t have my iPhone. The first time I registered for college classes, back when one went to a large room and stood in line to register (a custom that had some interesting social mediation that’s been temporarily lost with online automation), I was advised to bring a book with me because I was likely to wait awhile. I’d never done that before, but once I did, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve tried never to leave for any appointment without some reading material with me just in case waiting’s involved. So you can see how I’d be especially excited by the idea of books on my telephone, if the book suits and the screen is nice.

Perhaps one day we’ll think about publishing media the way we think about cups, mugs, and stemware today: it all depends on the occasion, and some vessels are more apt for some libations than others.

In the meantime, I’m off to see if any more of those delicious 33 1/3 books are available for the Kindle. They’re perfect for those down moments in the orthopedist’s waiting room….

3 thoughts on “Reading on all platforms

  1. I don’t have a Kindle. They still don’t have back-lights, do they? That’s a requirement for me since almost all of my reading these days is done at night, before bed.

    But about two months ago I got around to downloading the Kindle app for my iPod Touch, and I’ve become completely addicted to reading this way. I once actually caught myself trying to turn the page on my iPod. (I’ve also become completely addicted to buying books on Amazon with that One-Click purchase feature. Boy, is that a dangerous thing.)

    There are still a few things, however, that I miss about my books — and for that reason, I think at some point I’ll let them back into my good graces. For one, there is something about the physicality of a book that helps me to understand the text. Ideas that I encounter actually occupy a *space* which I can easily return to. If I’m not sure where that space is, I can flip the pages until I find it. I find this harder with an eBook — at least with using the Kindle app. (Perhaps findability is more rigorously addressed in the full-fledged Kindle experience.) For me, though, the result is that if I get to a spot in the book which reminds me of an earlier spot and I want to remember that previous idea, happening, turn of phrase, I shrug and move on. Going back to find it is just too tricky. It makes books feel more. . .fleeting, in a way. Like once I’ve read a passage, it’s simply gone — until I start all over again.

    (I know I can add bookmarks with the Kindle app, but this doesn’t help. I don’t know ahead of time what passages I’ll want to return to later.)

    The other thing I dislike is that I almost always passed all my fiction on — usually to my dad, since we have similar taste in books. Now, I find myself telling him about a great book I read, but not being able to share.

    I resisted the eBook experience for a long time. I will always love my books. And, I’m quite sure, that the novelty of the Kindle app will wear off after a while and my iPod will have to share its space on the nightstand with the more traditional form.

    If they could figure out how to backlight a paperback–now *that* would be cool.

  2. @Martha No, Kindles don’t have backlights. Apparently reading from a computer screen bothers folks because of the backlight, so the Kindle and other e-readers use actual ink particles that adhere to a screen by way of electrostatic charges. So you’re reading something that reflects light instead of transmitting it, just like a book printed on paper. The result really is a device that “disappears” as you use it, just the way a book printed on paper does. At least, that’s my experience. Note that I’m *not* saying the experience is exactly the same. It isn’t, for many of the reasons you articulate. You can’t do spatial reckoning with an e-book, and I didn’t even realize I did such reckoning until I’d used the Kindle for awhile and felt the force of the chance. But another and better (if less tactile and intimate) kind of findability emerges, one that excites me no end: searchability. Pages don’t matter as much when a search takes you right to the spot. Of course, you have to get an exact match, while the physical reckoning can get you in the ballpark sooner, sometimes. I can’t tell you how often, though, the physical reckoning has fooled me, and the flipping of pages turns into a forced re-reading of the book. Another advantage of the full-size Kindle: you can underline passages and annotate them. (Actually, you can do this on the iPod Touch/iPhone app as well–same way but with a different feel as with the big Kindle–you just touch and drag to highlight the passage.) Now comes the a-ha for me: up to certain limits (I can’t highlight the whole book, for example), I can copy the highlighted/underlined passages from the Kindle to my PC as a text file. I can also copy my notes that way. They’re all keyed to “locations,” but that doesn’t really matter too much in the short run, since I now have the string for an exact search. And talk about your 3×5 cards–or lack thereof. The clippings are a research godsend. And of course they can be shared. And of course this is just the beginning. No reason that wireless “buy” connection couldn’t become a wireless “share your responses” connection. Social reading via e-books. Why not?

    I too find that one-click completely addicting, as is the experience of reading on the iPhone. The first isn’t surprising, but the second sure is. Maybe I’m less bothered by backlights. Maybe it’s that lovely Apple screen. Maybe it’s the night reading (I do that too). Who knows. But it’s way cool. My first impulse buy was a Spenser novel in an airport just before a flight. Great experience, aside from having to shut the device off during take-off and landing. 🙂

    I completely understand about passing the reading on. There is an interesting loophole here, though: many titles can be shared across multiple devices, up to five or six in some cases (Amazon isn’t forthcoming about how many–and each publisher apparently crafts its own deal in this regard). So I’ve bought two Kindles for the ATL, stocked one with lots of cool titles about teaching, learning, etc., and got two copies for the price of one. Who knows how long that’ll be possible, but it’s nice while it lasts. The catch is that all the devices have to be on the same account.

    We’re just getting started with e-books. I’m sure folks mourned the passing of vellum and the coming of paper. I know for a fact that the printing press was loudly denounced in some quarters, and I don’t doubt that people missed their manuscripts. But we’re about to learn all over again that “book” and “paper” don’t necessarily go together–and there are satisfying reading experiences on all sorts of platforms. As I say, I’m an omnisemantovore. I’ll even read names carved by diamonds in windows. 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Apple Tablet, E-readers, and E-textbooks « The Xplanation

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