May 1st, 2011

On Books and Reading in the 21st Century

On Books and Reading
As a child I sat in a tree one summer and read the Lord of the Rings. It was a pine tree in my parents back yard and I could climb it as high as the third floor attic window. I carried some boards and a hammer up with me and nailed together a nest and sat and read until the sun went down nearly every day. It was an experience that I think shaped my life. I read other books up there too -- Henry Reed's Journals, the Mad Scientists Club, Ivanhoe, First Men in the Moon -- I read books from the library, I read books that were published in cheap editions and sold at the local book store. I read books publishers and adults thought I'd like.

When I got older, I went though a period of serious poverty where anything that wasn't the rent was a luxury and one summer I found a box of books that a neighbor had thrown out and I read them all. There were mysteries like Jonathan Gash's The Grail Tree and there was a large collection of Daphne DuMaurier, a copy of Valley of the Dolls -- things that I'd never heard of or if I had heard of them, things I never would have read. I read them because they were there and looking back, my life is richer for having read them all, and arguably, that box of books has been more influential on me than Sir Walter Scott or Jules Verne. And I'd read these not because anyone thought I would like them, but simply due to the whimsy of fortune.

Which brings me to my iPad.

I didn't come by my iPad fairly (I won it in a drawing) so I'm a bit without purpose for it -- I didn't get it to perform a particular function so it's function was revealed to me in carting it around.

Finding Function in a Device
For all their blather about the Post-PC era, Apple still hasn't produced a post PC device. For whatever reason, the iPad is tied to iTunes like a dog to a fence. You can't even turn it on for the first time without a computer. (Actually you can turn it on, but all you get is an icon telling you to connect it to a computer.) Once you do connect it to iTunes and activate it, the iPad will fill some of the functions of your computer -- you can keep it next to the sofa for looking up fun facts on IMDB while movie watching, you can browse your social networking sites, you can theoretically send emails -- but without adding a wireless keyboard it's about as joyful as sending emails on your phone. I see commercials of trendy yuppies grinning madly and touch typing away on their iPads while at the local beanery, but in practice it's a two or four finger operation.

The iPad isn't a replacement for your phone either, because, well, it doesn't have a phone.

What the iPad is contending to replace though, are books, and for this it does a very good job. A few weeks ago I was headed out to San Diego to do a workshop with Kate McKinnon and on the plane I was hoping to read one of CE Murphy's books (for our upcoming Sekret Projekt) and also an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of greygirlbeast's new book The Drowning Girl for another upcoming Top Sekret Projekt. Realizing that I could lighten my load by substituting the iPad for the books was a big deal, since I was carrying around 80 lbs of equipment. While on the plane I completely fell in love with the ability to highlight text and take notes and even email notes couple that with the ability to search through the text and double tap to bring up a dictionary and I was hard pressed to find a reason to ever use a physical, paper book again. It was an extra-dimension to the book experience. On top of that, some eBook's make it possible to globalize your highlighting -- what new research can come from looking at the lines thousands of readers mark? The phrases they find difficult, or inspiring -- the words falling in and out of use. The mechanism of reading has changed in good ways.

I'd long thought that as soon as someone invented "digital paper" the eBook would take off -- this is something the Kindle has done very well, but having an iPad I realize it's not the surface as much as I'd thought, it's how you interact with it -- how you can hold it -- I can't imagine reading a book on a desktop or a laptop, but the ability to lay on your back on the sofa or sit naturally on a train was very key to the experience. I also discovered that the iPad was too small -- whoever designed the thing was brilliant, but the person who decided to make it convex and slippery should be glued to a post. I'd always laughed at the idea of a case ("Yes, I want to take this thing engineers have killed themselves to make small and make it bigger!") but rapidly discovered that it needed some sort of grippyness. I used a book I rescued from the trash and some industrial velcro.

My homemade iPad case photographed with Roswell to enhance value. You may Clickenzee to Embiggen.

I also found that while reading it I'd often be so immersed in the experience I'd reach out and make a grab to physically turn a page -- forgetting that it wasn't a real book. I found it hard to imagine that I'd ever want to read a book the old way again. I also love the idea of having my entire library with me wherever I am. Wish you'd brought that copy of Moby Dick? Well, here it is. With that though comes distraction -- and in such prodigious quantities I imagine it will reshape us as a people, for good or ill or both.

What We Give Up to Get
Last night I was walking off to meet trillian_stars after her play and I found a book in the trash. A copy of The Students' Series of English Classics, A Ballad Book printed in 1890. it's filled with narrative folk poetry, stories of Robin Hood and the like. I spent this morning laying with Roswell on the sofa reading it. I found much to disagree with in the Introduction by Kathrine Lee Bates which portrayed anyone not European as somehow simple, but then much to agree with as she made her point about collective storytelling vs. the genius of an individual, comparing Beowulf to Paradise Lost and the Iliad to Sappho and thinking back to that box of of books on the curb I'm concerned about how much we give up in the trade between the whimsy of fortune and automatic dictionaries, highlighting and search features. We've also lost the art of typesetting. iBook allows me to choose between six fonts but gone is the genius of a book designer like Linda Lockowitz who decides that Flora Segunda should be set in Requiem or Changing Planes in Bulmer MT and not the old workhorse Palatino. We lose a layer of beauty and thought -- bad or good it's inevitable. The things we need to discover now are how to ensure that we may still stumble across books, we need to figure out the twenty-first century equivalent of the autographed book -- we'll struggle to make that connection between authors and audiences, and we need to make sure that books remain beautiful and unique. Books are not just words.

We have things like Digg or Stumbled Upon which serve a purpose, but they are inevitably the tyranny of popularity.

Twenty feet above the ground in the arms of a pine tree the only books you can read are the ones you hauled up there with you. Sometimes reading a book not because you want to, but because it's the only book around is a good thing. I hope what we get in exchange is worth it.

I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Found book photographed with Roswell because she's a busybody. You may Clickenzee to Embiggen.

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