Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 15, 2008

responding to responses

A few responses to my previous Kindle posts that I’d like to address:

Adam S: “Clearly there are weaknesses to the medium. The biggest one for me is that I used to remember how to find passages, especially bible passages, by feel. I would remember about where it was in the book and about where it was on the page. But electronically, I can just do a search.”

Yeah, I find this a little disorienting. Like many people, I tend to remember where a particular passage is on the page, and also whether it’s on a left or right page; so when I’m looking for a passage I thumb through the book looking only in the visual area I associate with that passage. But sometimes I misremember, and even if I don't the process can take a long time. so it’s more efficient just to search an electronic text — but why then, when I’m reading an e-text, do I miss my old forms of textual navigation?

Julana: “The visual and tactile form of the book is part of my life’s geography. I don’t want to move, at this age.” And David Milton: “I can’t smell a Kindle, nor can I feel its pulpy pages as I can with books.” See also Philo in the comments to the second post.

Yes, and every book has a somewhat different “tactile form.” There’s no question that I have very strong memories that link stories and poems with very particular embodied forms — with certain covers, typefaces, and so on. For instance, I have read several of Anthony Trollope’s novels in old blue Oxford World’s Classics hardcovers, bought in bookstores in Hay-on-Wye, and I associate Trollope’s stories with that distinctive form — so much so that Trollope novels I have read in other editions (Penguin Classics, say) are not as vivid in my memory. Weird. Stephenson’s Anathem is a well-designed and attractive book, and while I think reading it on the Kindle kept me moving through it quickly, I wonder if it won't fade in my memory without the physical cues of typeface and design and smell. In that sense my verdict on the Kindle will have to be postponed until later.

On the other hand, some of the most powerful reading experiences of my life occurred when I was reading volumes that lacked beauty or even distinctive form. And that’s a point I’ll come back to in another post.

PEG: “we need the Kindle to be an open platform: e-paper devices of all sizes and kinds that allow you to download books from all kinds of sources. A sort of Android for literature. Then the paper book will quickly go the way of the horse.”

I wonder about that. I think there will always be certain kinds of reading, certain ways of reading, that will be better suited to the physical book. Poetry, for instance, which depends for much of its success on the way it looks on the page and the white space that surrounds it. Again, I will get back to this point in later posts — these are issues dear to my heart that will recur here. And I might also point to James Gleick’s recommendation that publishers would do well to focus on the making of beautiful books. I should add, though, that nadezhda makes a great point about the kinds of reading that is exceptionally well-suited to the Kindle format.

Michael Straight: “The Kindle, in its current form, won’t last more than a few years. Just as the iPod went from a music player, to a video player, to a phone that does both those things as well as browsing the web, handheld reading devices will expand in functionality until they are also web browsers.”

Probably right, but when this happens the Kindle (or its successors) will be a much less attractive option for me. I like the current Kindle’s dedication to the reading experience. PEG says, “If you don’t want to search Wikipedia while reading a book, don’t,” but he’s probably stronger-willed than I am. Oscar Wilde spoke for me when he said “I can resist anything except temptation.”