infinite reading

As those of you who follow me on twitter might recall, I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for some time now (since the beginning of last August, to be precise).

For all of my nervousness that I might not finish it, I’ve made good steady progress and—much more importantly—I’ve really enjoyed the book. I love DFW’s writing and the characters and the loopy plot. I find that I think about them all when I’m not reading the book; they live in the back of my head and I carry them around with me as I go about my life. That’s the most I could ever ask for in a book. And few books come close to delivering that.

I’ve also been loving the process of reading Infinite Jest and the ways in which it has made me reshape my reading habits. In part this is about the way DFW writes and the way the book is constructed. But it’s also about reading it on my iPad and the ways in which that technology shapes reading practices.

Not long after I first tweeted that I was reading Infinite Jest for the first time, my friend Amanda pointed me to Infinite Summer, the group project (with accompanying website) to read the entirety of IJ over the summer of 2009. I poked around the website a bit and came across “How to Read Infinite Jest”. Some of the advice was spot-on:

Read the endnotes: Please. They are not boring bibliographic details, but rather an integral part of the text. And the bouncing back-and-forth is a feature, not a bug.

But other pieces of advice just made me anxious:

Use bookmarks: Yes “bookmarks”, plural: one for the main text and one for the endnotes. Doing so will save you hours of searching, and the aggravation of losing your place several times an hour.

Keep notes: As if lugging around a book the size of a 2 br. 1¼ bath apartment isn’t enough, you may want to carry a notebook as well. You won’t always have the requisite Oxford English Dictionary within arm’s reach, you know.

I wanted to read a novel, I didn’t want to study for an exam. I know that different people read for pleasure in different ways. But the idea of using a slew of bookmarks, of keeping notes, of relying on a reader’s guide to get me through the book sounded like I would spend more time worrying about keeping track of everything than enjoying what I was reading.

By this point, I’d already read through the first chunk of the novel and had given myself over to not knowing what was going on. The opening section is amazing and compelling but also baffling. There’s a character who seems to be on some sort of school interview and seems to be some sort of sports star and is surrounded by characters whose exact relationship to him aren’t clear and who are fearful of leaving him alone with the recruiters. It’s beautifully written and I just gave myself over to it, even as I wasn’t sure what was going on. And the beginning of the novel is one vignette like that after another. There are amazing characters and incredible scenarios, but there’s not a clear sense of plot or of connection between the vignettes. I let myself roll through it and enjoy it without worrying about whether or not I was following every nuance of plot.

So that was the mood I started off in as a reader. I gave myself over to Infinite Jest and put myself in David Foster Wallace’s hands. That is not the way I’m always able to read. In fact, I haven’t been able to read that way in a long time. The last time I wrote about reading ebooks, I mentioned that I was reading a lot of thrillers because they weren’t too demanding of me. That I had shied away from books that asked for a commitment since my father died. The change in my reading habits was one of the biggest ways his death marked me. I’d been a voracious reader from the time I was little. In my adult years, a lot of my appetite focused on nineteenth-century novels, rather than contemporary ones. Those are some big novels you can sink your teeth into, and I sank into them. It’s been discombobulating not to be that sort of reader these last five years.

Infinite Jest asked that I give myself to it and I did. If I hadn’t been able to, I don’t think I would have been able to continue with it.

I read the book this way because I can and because this is how I respond to DFW’s writing. But I read the book this way, too, because this is how the iPad asks me to read it. One of the great things about reading big, huge books on it is that you’re not necessarily aware that they are big, huge books. This is what I said about The Passage and this is what I say about Infinite Jest. It’d be awfully hard to hold a 1000-page novel for any length of time, even harder when you’re the sort of reader, as I am, who likes to read at night, in bed, with the lights off and her glasses off. I’ll prop my slight iPad on my chest, but a heavy book? I’d rather not.

Another great thing about the iPad Kindle app is that it turns endnotes into hyperlinks. And being able to navigate the notes, as we all know, is key. Here’s what I mean. This is a screenshot of a page in Infinite Jest. It  happens to be the location I’ve bookmarked because this is as far as I’ve gotten right this very moment:,,

my current location in Infinite Jest; image is embiggenable

See that blue “322” in the lower quarter of the screen? That’s note 322. Click on it, and you’re taken to this screen:

note 322

There you go! The text of note 322, easy-peasy. Click on “back to text” and you’ll go back to exactly where you were:

exactly where you were, right?

And then you can pick up reading the main text just as if nothing had happened, except that you’re actually in a different location because there are no pages here, just codes. The app’s preference for bringing me back to the next word right after the note means that I trained myself to read a few lines beyond the linked note so that I wouldn’t be so lost when I got back to a screen that started in the middle of a sentence. In any case, these hyperlinks make the book easy to read. No need for multiple bookmarks—the book takes you right where you need to go! But it also means that you really do need to give yourself over to the book and to follow its lead, because when you’re in the middle of a note, there’s no clues to bring you back to where you were. Here’s another screenshot of another passage in the book with a hyperlinked note in the middle of it:

another screen, another note

This screenshot shows more what the experience of reading the book is like: there’s no black bar at the top, there’s no location slider at the bottom. It’s just a screen of text. (To get the location indicator to show up, you need to tap in the middle of the screen; tap, it brings up the location for a moment, and then it fades away again.) Tap on the note and you’re brought to the note screen:

starting to read note 321

There you are, with the note marked “321.” right at the top. So far, so clear. And what happens when you continue reading note 321? After a few screens, you find yourself here:

still reading note 321

But imagine that the note continues and continues and continues, as some of them are wont to do. Where are you? Are you reading text or note? How do you know?

text or note?

note or text?

They look exactly the same, don’t they? So how do you know? Especially if the note’s been going on and on, and there’s dialogue, and plot, and words and words and words. At some point when I was reading a long note—I think, given the tweet I sent out, it must have been note 110—I actually became so confused by how long it was going on that I wondered if there’d been some sort of coding error and I was actually in the main text. And then when the notes to the notes started appearing I became even more disoriented and even though the location indicator showed that I was all the way in the back of the “book”, since there was no “book” for me to flip pages through, that didn’t really convince me that I wasn’t in the main text. And since I hadn’t bookmarked the page I had been reading, the page with the link to the note I was now wandering through, there wasn’t any way for me to go back to where I was. I could only go forward, reading and reading until I got to the safety of “return to text.” After that point, every time I saw a numbered note, I wondered if it was going to be a short one or if it was going to take me down some rabbit hole. But I made a conscious decision not to care. I refused to bookmark the page I was currently reading. I gave in to the book, went where it led me, and trusted I would make my way back to where I was and that DFW would give me the help and pleasure I needed to keep going. I ceded all my authority to Infinite Jest.

I’m normally a pretty bossy reader. Resistant, even. Even a book that I love I talk back to. It’s part of how I understand what it means to read. It’s how I make sense of what I do. It’s the interpretive community I belong to. So for me to give myself over to Infinite Jest, to put myself in David Foster Wallace’s hands, that’s a shift. I don’t know that I’ll read other books that way. I suspect I wouldn’t want this to become my new default in reading. But I am loving the experience of it. And I don’t think I would have had the same experience if I weren’t reading it on my iPad.

Here’s where I am in IJ right now. It’s where I left off reading last night, so it really does look exactly as it does when I’m reading it. I’m in the middle of a note. I don’t know which one, I don’t know how close I am to the end. But I’m really, really close. I’m not sure I’m going to know when I’m at the end except for when it stops, given that I can’t see the location bar as I’m reading and even if I did, I don’t know the starting location of the notes and so don’t know how close I am to the end of the main text. I do know that I’m going to finish this book and that I’m going to miss it when it’s done. I might go back to the beginning again to see how different it is now that I know who everyone is and what is happening. I might not. I don’t think it matters. What matters is that this book taught be to read in a new way and I’m grateful for that.

thank you, David Foster Wallace

today’s post is brought to you by the letters k and e

screensaver from the newest generation Kindle

Do you ever get the feeling that something’s just not quite right, but you’re not sure what it is¿

If you’re curious what the other screensavers are on the new Kindle, scroll through the twenty I snapped. They’ve clearly moved on from the book illustrations and author themes they had in earlier models to writing implements. I’m not sure what larger message I’d want to draw from this, but they’re mostly very pretty. I just wish those turned letters didn’t bother me so much. Is it artsy or just wrong? I’m all for artsiness and playfulness. But I can’t help suspect it’s just wrong, or at least, less about art and more about a fear that people will fail to recognize the “kindle” embedded in the picture.

even the digital is physical

Many of you will have already seen the news that the Internet Archive is preserving hard copies of each book they scan into their archive. Kevin Kelly’s recent piece likens this to the need for type specimen in biology:

Biologists maintain a concept call a “type specimen.” Every species of living organism has many individuals of noticeable variety. There are millions of Robins in America, for instance, all of them each express the Robin-ness found in the type of bird we have named Turdus migratorius. But if we need to scientifically describe another bird as being “like a Robin” or maybe “just a Robin” which of those millions of Robins should we compare it to?

Biologists solve this problem by arbitrarily designating one found individual to be representative and archetypical of the entire species. It is the archetype, or the “type specimen,” of that form. There is nothing special about that chosen specimen; in fact that’s the whole idea: it should be typical. But once chosen this average specimen becomes the canonical example that is used to compare other forms. Every species in botany and zoology has a physical type specimen preserved in a museum somewhere.

The Internet Archive, that marvel founded by Brewster Kahle, is not simply scanning books, but it is keeping a hard copy of each book as a backup, a type specimen that will allow us to recreate what a robin is, in Kelly’s words:

Brewster decided that he should keep a copy of every book they scan so that somewhere in the world there was at least one physical copy to represent the millions of digital copies. That safeguarded random book would become the type specimen of that work. If anyone ever wondered if the digital book’s text had become corrupted or altered, they could refer back to the physical type that was archived somewhere safe.

Kelly’s piece, as is signaled by its title, “When Hard Books Disappear,” is built around the idea extinction: we need type specimens because someday they will be all that we have left. The book is dying, Kelly tells us: “Hard books are on their way to extinction.”

But that’s not what Kahle is saying. The more interesting part of the story is not that hard copies of the books are being preserved, but that all copies of the books are being preserved. From Kahle’s announcement of the Internet Archive physical archive:

As the Internet Archive has digitized collections and placed them on our computer disks, we have found that the digital versions have more and more in common with physical versions. The computer hard disks, while holding digital data, are still physical objects. As such we archive them as they retire after their 3-5 year lifetime. Similarly, we also archive microfilm, which was a previous generation’s access format. So hard drives are just another physical format that stores information. This connection showed us that physical archiving is still an important function in a digital era.

It’s not just that physical archiving is necessary to the digital era, but that the digital is physical.

Not infrequently I hear folks referring to e-books as being immaterial, without physical presence or consequence. But that’s nonsense. They may not have the same physical presence as books do, but that doesn’t mean that they are made of nothing. The bits of data that make up their core run on hardware that can be held in your hand, that needs to be preserved, that ages and decays and changes. I cannot talk knowledgeably about the problems of digital preservation (problems that are real but that aren’t any more insurmountable than the preservation of books or paintings or buildings) and that isn’t my point here. What I am saying is that the digital is physical and the sooner everyone accepts that the sooner we can move on to more productive conversations about what that means for our present and future.

exploring Google eBook pricing

Updates below (added images in post, link to tweet in middle, new links at bottom)

And more updates! Check out the comments for a generous response from @bookavore with useful context for how pricing works.

So, as you surely know, Google has finally opened their eBook venture, selling e-books (to use a variant spelling that has been dominating) both through their own eBookstore and through partnerships with independent bookstores. One of the big excitements about Google’s eBook program is the possibility of generating money for indies, who otherwise lose out the opportunity to generate revenue from digital books. So my first question was to wonder what it meant to go to an independent bookstore to get an electronic book. It’s not like you’re going to walk around the corner and chat with your local bookseller, right? I suppose you could do that, get their advice, and then go online and buy the book, but that seems odd to me. Are independent bookstores going to set up terminals where folks can login to Google and order their books while in the shop? That might be a way to preserve that seller-customer relationship. That’s always been one of the things that I value about independent bookstores, the relationship between seller and customer. Of course, I don’t have an independent bookstore around the corner from where I live or work, which is part of the larger problem sellers and buyers are facing.

As I was checking out which independent bookstores were participating, I was happy to see some of semi-locals, and I spent some time clicking around to see what was what. But in taking a quick look around at how Google eBooks have been incorporated into some different indie bookstores, I was soon struck by a much larger question: What is up with the pricing??

Here’s what I mean. Take, for a first example, Stieg Larsson’s latest, the huge hit and final book in the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. If you go to Google’s eBookstore, it’s priced at an attractive $9.99. But at their indie partners? It costs much much more, ranging from $22.36 to $17.33. If you wanted to read Lisbeth’s latest adventure in codex form, you can buy the hardback at list price of $27.95, or at Amazon’s discounted price of $11.90. (That Amazon discounted price is part of what’s making life hard for book stores. Even the big chains don’t want to sell a hardback at a discount of 57%. Barnes and Noble cuts the price by 44%, Borders by 50%.) Why this range of prices? The indies have obviously pegged their prices for the eBook to the hardback price, either selling it at full price or discounted up to 38%. What’s Google’s eBook price pegged to? Amazon’s Kindle price: $9.99.

So the huge gap is in part based on the pricing problems of hardbacks, which are, as we know, expensive. What happens with paperback? Let’s look at the second in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. (I don’t know anyone who calls it the Millennium trilogy; it’s really The Girl Who trilogy.)

  • paperback list price: $15.95 trade; $7.99 mass market
  • digital edition list price: $15.95
  • Google eBookstore: $7.57 (47% discount)
  • WORD: $12.76 (20% discount)
  • Politics and Prose: $11.17 (30% discount)
  • Schuler Books: $9.89 (38% discount)
  • Kindle: $7.57 (47% discount)

(A couple of notes here: I’ve taken list prices, for codex and digital books, from Amazon. For my independent bookstore examples, I chose WORD because they tweeted that they had huge sales on the first day of their eBook sales; Politics and Prose because they are my most-local independent bookstore; and Schuler because they’re my hometown independent bookstore. I also want to point out that these prices are accurate only as of today, of course, and I have no idea what those prices will be when you click on those links in the future. Yesterday, for example, WORD was selling all of their eBooks at full list price; clearly they’ve gone through and rejiggered their prices since then.)


(UPDATE: I tracked down the tweet about WORD’s eBook-selling success. It was posted by @bookavore, a manager at WORD:
As others pointed out, first day sales don’t necessarily translate to ongoing sales, but it caught my attention, and that’s why I used their prices in my comparison.)

Other books follow different patterns, depending on what sort of book they are and when they were published. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is $9.99 across the board, with a paperback list price of $17.99. Howard Jacobson’s recent prize-winning The Finkler Question has a list price of $15.00, with Google eBookstore selling it for $5.69, and the indies selling it at list, except for Schuler: $12.75, a 15% discount, though the funny thing about that price is that Schuler is selling the paperback for $11.25.

Academic books are a bit wackier. Adrian Johns’s Piracy, out at the beginning of 2010 from University of Chicago Press, can be bought in hardback at the list price of $35.00 (it’s due out in paperback in the spring, listing at $22.50). Google eBookstore sells it for $19.25 and the indies for $35, except for Schuler, who again goes for a 15% discount for a price of $29.75. That doesn’t deviate from the pattern that much. It looks like Schuler does a standard 15% discount from the list price, except for those books that might be big sellers, and then they go lower. The other indies stick with list, except for the hits. And Google matches Kindle every time, with Kindle typically selling at a 45% discount from list.

What about an academic book that is oh-so-smart but not recent and not a big seller? Shakespeare and Feminist Performance (ahem) lists in paperback at $36.95, a steal compared to the $120 price for a hardback. If you want to read it in Kindle format, you can buy it for $29.56. Want to read it as an eBook? Buy it at list at any of the indies, or at Google eBookstore for $29.19. (If you do buy it, please tell me whether the photos are in the electronic editions or if they got dropped!)

And how about some very smart recent academic books that you should all be reading already? Bill Sherman’s Used Books (Penn Press, 2007, 2009 pbk) lists at $19.95. You can buy it as an eBook for $9.99 from Google, at list from the non-Schuler indies, at $16.96 from Schuler, and not at all as a Kindle. Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books (Public Affairs, 2009, 2010 pbk) lists at $13.95 and can be bought as a Kindle book for $9.79, but cannot be had for love or money as an eBook (ok, that might be an exaggeration; I have not tried offering love or endless amounts of money for this as an eBook, but you can rest assured that it’s not listed on the eBookstore as of today). Anne Trubek’s recently released A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses (Penn Press, 2010) cannot be read as an eBook or on Kindle (but you should read it in codex because it’s great–and only $16.47 on Amazon!); Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance (Yale 2010) isn’t either eBooked or Kindled (I’m sure you already own this because I keep talking about how great it is, but if not: $26.40); and Matthew Battles’s great Library: An Unquiet History (Norton 2003, 2004 pbk) can also only be read in good old ink-on-paper form ($10.17).

(By the way, yes, I realize that I’ve linked to the discounted Amazon prices for these books, and that in so doing I might be preventing you from walking around the corner to your local bookstore and supporting them with the purchase of these books there. But, on the other hand, by sharing with you the fabulous prices at which you can buy these wonderful books, I might be encouraging and enabling you to buy books that it might otherwise seem out of reach.)

What’s the upshot of all this? I’m not sure. I’m left with a lot of questions. Given that Google has chosen to seriously discount their eBook prices within their own eBookstore, how much are they actually supporting independent bookstores? How many eBook buyers are going to surf to their local store’s site to pay full price when they could be downloading the exact same book for much, much cheaper? I do find the interface on the independent bookstores’ sites much friendlier to use, since they provide clearer, and easier-to-find, information about what edition of what book you’re looking at. And sometimes you can have more device-reading options if you buy from an indie: if you buy directly from the eBookstore, you don’t always get the software that would enable you to read your eBook on your Nook or Sony eReader. Buy Infinite Jest from Google eBookstore and you get an eBook without any downloadable files, which their help page says means you can read in the cloud and on devices with supported apps; buy it from Politics and Prose, and you get an Adobe Digital Edition that will let you transfer it to your Nook or Sony eReader.

Google’s official advice on pricing is as follows:

Lowest list price 

The lowest list price will be determined by Google using metadata and other sources. If you prefer not to set a potentially variable price, you can set the price of your Google eBooks to a fixed amount instead.

Recommended price

The suggested default price set for your Google eBooks is 80% of the lowest print list price. You’re also welcome to set a price manually.

We encourage you to consider the perceived value of the Google eBooks of your titles for users and set prices accordingly. Typically, publishers have chosen to set the list price for digital formats at a lower list price than that of their print editions. If you use a percentage, we don’t allow you to set the Google eBook price to higher than 100%.

Google reserves the right to sell a book at a price discounted from its Google eBooks list price. If Google decides to offer the book at a discounted price to consumers, your share of the revenue will be based on the Google eBooks list price.

Your local bookstore can benefit from you buying your eBook through them instead of through Google. They’ll get their share based on what they sell the book for; in theory, that should mean more money from a $15.99 book than from a $7.99 one. I suspect that some of the pricing I’ve been seeing yesterday and today are still being worked out. As I mentioned above, WORD’s prices yesterday were all at list for their eBooks; today they are reflecting some discounts. As customers come and go and stores analyze buying patterns and familiarize themselves with Google’s system, we’ll see lower prices, I think. But will there be enough people willing to spend extra money for a digital book to support their local store that it will translate into money going into their coffers, as opposed to Google taking money away from them? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, if your local bookstore isn’t on the list and you want one to support, consider Schuler Books, a great mid-Michigan bookseller that offers good prices, too.


There’s a nice explanation at Tattered Cover Book Store about what Google eBooks are and how they work. They don’t talk about pricing, however, and when I just checked their prices of The Girl Who eBooks, they were all offered at list.

Also, there are countless links out there discussing eBooks. Among them, one that I read after I posted this: Laura Miller’s piece in Salon. She doesn’t discuss pricing, and I think she’s a bit optimistic about what the implications are for independent bookstores, but she does have a good discussion of the eBookstore interface that I mention but don’t go into here.

more thoughts on reading e-books

As I’ve spent more time reading on my iPad, I’ve come to more realizations about how I read. The most surprising thing is how much I miss sharing books. This is more complicated than it sounds. I knew, of course, that you can’t really share e-books, but I have never really been someone who likes to share books. I’m happy to borrow books, but I get nervous loaning mine out. They come back beat up, or they don’t come back at all and then I resent the person who has my book, or I can’t remember who I loaned it to and it’s gone forever. So I’m not a big book sharer. And since my family shares a single Kindle account, my spouse and my son and I can all share books across our devices–even better, we can read that book simultaneously on our separate devices. But what I failed to account for is the fact that I do actually loan out my books. Not often, and not with very many people. But there are a couple of friends I would like to be able to loan a book to, and sharing books with my sister was one of the important ways that we stayed connected with each other. I hadn’t even realized how much it mattered to me to be able to exchange books with her until my Kindle reading got in the way. We’re currently exploring sharing an account, since she and I have more similar tastes in reading than my husband and I do. (The fact that the Alpha Gadgeteer and I rarely enjoy the same books took me a long time to adjust to–it can be hard, when reading is so important to you, to not be able to share it with someone you love.) So sharing books with my sister makes a lot of sense, especially as it’s a way of sharing our bond with each other in a pleasurable way, when so many of our other points of connection require more difficult emotions.

So one of the thing that I’ve rediscovered through reading on my iPad is that reading can be strongly tied to social connections. We exchange books as a way of saying, “I love you” or “I’m thinking of you” or any of a host of other emotions that connect us to each other.

Another thing that I’ve rediscovered is that we each individually read different texts in different ways. I had some sense of this in my post about false endings, in which I commented that most of my e-book reading was of thrillers, stories that pull me forward into their plot. But as I’ve spent more time with this contraption, and as I’ve let my book-buying habits expand, I’ve come to realize that there are some books I really would prefer to read in paper codex form. Some of this has to do with how I navigate the text: some works ask me to read them slowly, to revisit earlier passages, to refer back to past points in the narrative. Some works deserve to have a graphic presentation that reflects their content, a font that was chosen deliberately for them, a paper stock that makes up their heft, or their lack of it.

The iPad has worked fabulously well for me when I was reading Stieg Larsson’s trilogy or Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In fact, it worked ideally. I didn’t have to wait to make it to a bookstore to start reading the 2nd book after I finished the 1st (something, of course, that was true only because I didn’t start reading them until the entire series was out). And I didn’t have to awkwardly hold the 700-plus pages of The Passage as I sped through it. (And I was less likely to throw my iPad against the wall in my annoyance at the ending than I would have been with the book itself. I know it’s the first part of a trilogy, but sheesh!) And given that I do a lot of my reading at night, in bed, with my glasses off and the font greatly enlarged, I do speed through these books–there’s not room for lots of words on the screen when you’re reading in a big font. You just read, click, read, click, read, click. Any sense of physical movement through the book is greatly diminished. And that’s fine. It worked with how I was experiencing those books anyway. I was reading them to find out what happened next. I cared about the characters and the language just enough to make me care about the plot.

But now I’m reading Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, and though I’m not very far into it, I’m finding that I really wish I was reading it in book form. I haven’t been able to quite put my finger on it (there’s an apt metaphor for you), but I need to be able to sink further into it, to take my time with it, and reading it on my iPad is somehow getting in the way of that.

It’s possible this is less about the iPad and more about The Finkler Question. After my father died, a few years ago, I lost the ability to read any serious fiction. I was in the middle of reading English, August and it was a great book, but I put it down and couldn’t pick it back up. Instead I picked up Tony Hillerman. And then I devoured a lot of P. D. James, and I discovered Laura Lippman, and a whole lot of not very good chick lit that I mostly don’t recall. This got better, slowly, and I discovered that I could read What is the What, even though Philip Roth was off limits. I loved The Imperfectionists. And I never lost the ability to read some of my old favorites, like Jane Eyre. But I still sometimes hit an unexpected wall when I’m reading. I know other people who have had similar experiences, and I know that some people get back to their old ways of reading, and I continue to hope that will be true for me too.

My point in sharing this is that we have different ways of reading different books. I was fine reading novels about death. But there was a category of books that felt like they asked too much of me: I needed to commit to them, to enter into their world, to let them take charge of me. And perhaps it was that I felt too unsettled in my own world to do that, but I simply couldn’t read those books. I needed to be able to stay on the surface of what I was reading.

So perhaps that’s what my problem is with The Finkler Question. It’s asking too much of me, and I’m still not ready to read that way. But I think, too, that the iPad has something to do with this. It’s very easy to race through reading on the iPad. All texts look the same in the Kindle app, and sometimes they start to blur together. Maybe I can retrain myself to read more slowly even on my iPad, to take my time with the feel of the language. I might still be able to rewire some of my perceptual habits.

But I don’t know that I will. I had an exchange with one of my children that made me think that as much as I do love reading on my iPad, I don’t love all types of reading on my iPad. I had bought Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass for my son, and have been really pleased that he’s been enjoying it. (He and I often do share similar tastes in reading, and to be able to share favorite books with your child is even more lovely than to share them with your spouse.) But I inadvertently ordered the mass market paperback for him, and the font is fairly small, especially compared to the books normally printed for kids to read. So although he’s enjoying the book, he was feeling a bit frustrated with the print, and it seemed to me it was making the book a bit harder than it needed to be. He’s enjoyed reading books on our Kindle before, so I bought the Kindle edition of The Golden Compass–less than $8 and then I can read it on my iPad along with him! But he soon decided that he preferred reading it as a book. Yes, the type was bigger on the Kindle, and yes, he’d enjoyed reading some Rick Riordan books on it. But this time it wasn’t working for him. It felt better as a book. I think he felt similar to how I feel about The Finkler Question. Some books you need to focus on, and you need to do that in book form.

false endings

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the experience of reading. Part of this is about the technologies of reading, but part of this is about the nature of reading and processing words.

Some context is helpful here: this spring we sold our house and moved into a new house. As part of this process, we overhauled the old house, cleaning it out and making it look fabulously inviting (those of you who watch a lot of HGTV or live in housing-market-obsessed areas will recognize this as “staging”, a term that deserves its own post on an entirely different blog). We bowed to the wisdom of our realtor, who went through our house and identified the furniture and clutter that ought to be cleared out. Right up at the top of the list were all of our bookshelves and, obviously, books. This is the point when my bookish friends yelp in horror–“Why are books unattractive?!”–but as someone who has been shopping for houses, I have to agree with the realtor on this point. Books mark a space as belonging to a specific person, someone, in this case, who is not you. If you are a Jane Austen fan, are you going to see yourself living in a space marked by Dan Brown books? I can’t tell you the number of times I looked at a house and instead of being perplexed by the kitchen layout found myself thinking, “do these people really need to own so many books about football?” Equally crucial is the point that bookcases take up room–if you’ve got two walls lined with books, the livable space of the room feels tinier, and who wants to buy a house that is already clearly tiny and cramped? In any case, we packed up all our books. We own a lot of books. Seventy boxes of books, in fact. We packed them up in mid-April, and, for a variety of reasons having to do with renovations and the chaos of moving, those books remain boxed up and will probably stay boxed up for another six to nine months.

When I see it written down like that, I want to cry–that’s a long time to go without my books! But while I miss my physical books, I have not stopped reading. But instead of buying books, or checking books out of my library (that’s a different problem I won’t go into here), I now read e-books on a variety of devices: Kindle, iPad, iPod Touch. And, it turns out, I love reading on these devices. I love that with the Kindle app I can start off reading a book on a Kindle, transfer it to my iPod, and sync it so that my son can devour his own novel on the Kindle while I’m at work. At night I can read on my iPad, with grey words glowing on black background without ever waking my husband, The Alpha Gadgeteer (it’s thanks to him that we have this plethora of devices). And, oh, the seduction of being able to think of a book you’d like to read, buy it, and start reading it seconds later!

This isn’t a post about the pros and cons of e-books and the readers that are out there, however. Rather, I’ve been struck by some of the differences between the experience of reading on the iPad and reading a book. For starters, and this continues to catch me out, when I’m reading on the iPad I have no sense of the passage of travel through the narrative. What I mean is, if I need to go back to double-check something that happened earlier, I have no sense of how many screens back it is–I’ll think it’s just a couple of finger swipes, but it’s really a couple dozen swipes. The same thing happens at the end of the book–I have no idea how close to the end of the story I am. Is this seeming wrap-up of the action the false ending that lulls you into a calm before Jason bursts up from the lake and the last survivor has to take him on yet again? (I know I’ve mixed my book and movie references there, but that moment in Friday the 13th continues to haunt me, decades later. Perhaps it’s the glossiness of the iPad that makes me think about movies; that and the fact that I’ve been reading lots of thrillers on it.) With a book in your hand, you have a sense of how many pages are left before the narrative wraps up, assuming that it’s not a cliff-hanger or that the end of the book isn’t padded with the opening chapters of the next book in a series. With the iPad Kindle app, there is no continuously visible marker of passage though the text. You read until you done, and you know you’re done because you swipe your finger and the cover appears. (Yes, the cover. The app begins the book on what it thinks is the first page of main text, which means that in some books, you have to go backwards until you get to the start of the prologue.)

This realization that I don’t know where I am in the forward movement of the story points to something oddly old-fashioned about reading this way, something that James O’Donnell has noted, too:

The Kindle is great for reading the way ancient Greeks read, on papyrus scrolls, beginning at the beginning, proceeding linearly, getting to the end, absorbed in one book, following the author’s lead. 

While the technology delivering the text is new-fangled, the reading itself is decidedly not. (O’Donnell, who is a classicist and Provost of Georgetown University, knows something about how ancient Greeks read; he has a short piece about his Kindle in the Chronicle of Higher Education, from which the above is quoted. He also delivered a talk at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library on “A Scholar Gets a Kindle and Starts to Read” this past April which you can watch on YouTube.)

I expect I’ll adjust to the newness of the iPad and will someday no longer be caught out by the surprise of a story ending before I realize it. And I certainly don’t always want to read in this linear fashion (there’s a reason why I’ve been reading the type of fiction I have on it, but not any of the scholarship that I otherwise read). But for right now, it’s fun to experience reading in a different way.

This is a pretty short and easy post as I try to get back in the habit of blogging again. I hadn’t meant to be gone for so long, but sometimes life gets in the way (see that whole packing/selling/buying/moving drama above). As the fall approaches I am again thinking about early modern books, how to teach book history, and how to marry new technologies with old books. For the couple of you who might have hung in there during my long absence, it’s nice to see you again, and I’ll do better by you in the future!