Sunday, September 14, 2008

E-books again, with a British flavour

I'm still thinking about the "art of the job letter" post I want to write, but in the "the medium is the message" category, this item in The Independent caught my attention this morning. The writer, John Walsh, mentions Nicholas Carr's essay in The Atlantic earlier this year and then moves on to practical matters:
The instructions tell you, "One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that's enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)" Yeah, right. But it's not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It's an electronic simulation of a page, but it'll never convince you it's a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn't have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You'll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won't have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.

And you can't turn the pages. I spent half an hour reading Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the first book to be installed) with my fingers itching to turn a page; "turn" one electronically, and the screen goes blank before the next page is displayed. It's a nasty moment, the screen going blank and interrupting your train of thought; but it's a good metaphor for the blankness to which our minds are tending, as we gradually lose the ability to interpret the old world of sequential thoughts in the new blizzard of information retrieval.

I hadn't thought about the "you don't know where you are" issue before in quite this way, though I've been interested in the Kindle for a while.

Everyone I've talked to or have read about who has a Kindle or Sony Reader loves it. Loves it. Wouldn't be without it. It's light, it's handy, and it isn't a burden to carry. Professor Z also had a good point about the backlight feature of the Kindle being handy if you're in a place with sporadic electricity. If you have a Kindle, you can get the books instantly. When you talk to people about what they like, however, it's almost always the ability to carry around popular or contemporary literary fiction for dull moments: airplane rides, train rides, waiting for the bus.

Walsh notes that while Booker Prize-winning books used to fly off the shelves, now difficult fiction by authors like Adam Mars-Jones or Anne Enright doesn't sell as much as he thinks it should or as much as he thinks it used to. He finds it hard to imagine that anyone would read War and Peace or difficult literary fiction on this device. But is this the fault of the device, the fault of the culture, or both?

And is "fault" too strong a word to use for this idea? At the end of a long day, even academics don't always say, "Okay, I'm finished with grading, committee meetings, reading a lot of academic prose, writing, and whatever else goes into a long day. Since this is the one night out of the week I don't have more work to do after dinner, I can't wait to dive into a 1,050-page novel with lots of convoluted syntax and highly symbolic imagery, one that comments on and interrupts itself incessantly." Do we say this? What we're likely to dive into is (in descending order) (1) a book related to research, but not necessarily criticism; (2) a classic novel we've always meant to read; (3) books we've read before, soothing books that can drown out the din of "you still haven't done this!" lists in our heads; and (4) magazines, light books, web pages, and blogs. Insofar as the e-book devices foster this kind of reading, maybe Walsh has a point. Or maybe we would be doing this kind of reading with or without the e-book device.


Anonymous said...

This is brilliant:

"It's a nasty moment, the screen going blank and interrupting your train of thought; but it's a good metaphor for the blankness to which our minds are tending, as we gradually lose the ability to interpret the old world of sequential thoughts in the new blizzard of information retrieval."

I still say Kindles sound good for emergencies - what if you evacuate for a hurricane and are stuck in one of those shelters for longer than you had expected, and the town doesn't have a library? what if you are traveling in rural Uzbekistan (that being one of my main travel fantasies), run out of books, and cannot find more in a language you can read? - But Kindles sound no good as the main source of books, for all the reasons given heretofore.

Anonymous said...

P.S. We would be doing the kind of reading you list with or without the e-book device, for the reasons you suggest. I find, though, that the situation causes me to abhor reading on screen and in paperbacks. I insist on hardback books with nice paper and ink. I have read enough piles of junk in life - xeroxed readers and on and on, and now we have to read on screens as well. Therefore for recreation I want long sophisticated books, well produced.


When I was new I would read heady journal articles to relax. That was in one work situation.

In the next work situation I became addicted to smart magazines, the Times Literary Supplement, and the BRAVO channel on television. I also developed an allergy to reading literature for fun because I associated it so utterly with work. Recreational reading in books had to be academic paperbacks in history or social science.

In my current work situation the Internet, television, journals, magazines, sociology, all of that is related to school. But there are some books in my field that I now am unlikely ever to read or reread for work. I experience these as recreational reading and my basic education in field is improving therefore.

I also now read those long, convoluted, self referential novels for FUN as long as they are Chinese, Icelandic, or something like that, i.e. not teachable in either of the departments and not researchable by me since I don't know the original languages.

I have not read like that since high school and oddly, it is the way one is supposed to read - for fun - I just have never had time for that since I started to read as a job, which was freshman year, when I was 17!!!

Mel said...

When the scroll (beloved by the Egyptians and ancient Greeks) was slowly being replaced by the early codex book, I'm quite sure there were elitists who said things along the lines of "who would ever want to read something where you have to flip the pages instead of fluidly experience the text as an unending stream". Significant technological change is hard for cultural authorities to handle.

undine said...

pz, you have a Kindle, though, don't you--or a Sony reader? It's especially interesting that even with this, you still like hardcover books and that you've come full circle in your reading to the kinds of books that are still spelling "work" to me.

mel, that's true. There'll probably be a tipping point once the books stop being so expensive.