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!

6 thoughts on “false endings

  1. >Good to have you back, your posts are always thought provoking and great to read. It's got me thinking about my own reading habits, or recent lack of them which I might blog about in return. But I think you hit the nail on the head about reading books on I-Phone/I-pad/Computer screen, it's the loss of the thumb in the page. I'm an impatient reader, i want to know exactly where I've got and it almost becomes an act of endurance (even if I'm loving the book), so the loss of that is probably one of the key factors that makes it hard for me to read 'onscreen'. Although I do love the idea that it brings us back to more ancient forms of reading (always a sucker for a historic parallel).

  2. >I've actually found the lack of the thumb on the page kind of freeing. I had not realized how dependent I was on knowing where I was in the text. And the slight anxiety of knowing I'm nearing the end and will the story wrap up happily by then and what will I read next and what happens if I'm not near a bookstore for another week???? Um, right, where was I? Oh, yes, I'm free from anxiety now, that's it…

  3. >I have been having a similar experience with audiobooks. I have started listening to audiobooks on my iphone while I do housework (and suddenly I find myself looking forward to doing dishes and trying to find something to clean so I can finish the chapter!). Unless I look at the screen regularly, I don't really have much sense of where I am in the book, and it's a very disorienting feeling. This totally threw me off guard recently – I was listening to Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake," and I had no idea I was near the end. I can say without spoilers that the end is a bit of a cliffhanger. I was devastated and even a little angry when the book ended where it did, because I really wasn't expecting an ending any time soon. I wonder if my reaction to the ending would have been any different if I had known it was imminent.

  4. >Glad to see you back! You're encouraging me to get back to blogging, too. I'm convinced that I originally fell in love with reading because it stages my obsession with closure. I like beginning books well enough, but boy do I love ending them. And seeing my thumb mark how far I am! Calculating how many pages to go to conclusion! That is sheer pleasure — the bubblewrap-popping kind. So I, too, have been disoriented by audiobooks, and would, I think, miss that experience with an iPad or Kindle. (It would probably alter the genres I read as a result — only reading that totally absorbs me.)This might get to the "at what point is it a book" question. You're reading novels and articles, but perhaps not something that could, or should, be called a book. And I say that without a trace of Luddism.

  5. >Ah, the joys and confusions of audiobooks! It really is amazing to realize how dependent we are on knowing that the ending is coming and how disconcerting it is when we are experiencing what would be a book in a different media. And I agree that "book" isn't quite the term for what I read on the iPad. I try to use the language of story/text/novel when I'm talking about it, but it's hard not to slip into the familiarity of "book". Bob Stein just posted over at if:book on exactly this, and suggests that the word we are looking for in these discussions of the future-of-not-book-books is "app." I'm still thinking about his point, but it's worth reading: http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2010/08/the_future_of_the_app.html

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