Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, March 19, 2010

pen in hand

Here’s a statement that will find its way into my book on reading:

Of course, you can’t take your pen to the screen. When it comes to annotating the written word, nothing yet created for the screen compares to the immediacy and simplicity of a pen on paper. The only effective way to respond to text on screen is to write about it. The keyboard stands in for the pen; but it demands more than a mere underline or asterisk in the margin. It demands that you write.

That, of course, was the reason for the pen all along: it’s a physical reminder that you are not reading merely to consume the words of others passively, but that you have an obligation to respond. If the democratization of publishing is to reap any rewards, it can only do so if we all become better writers. The first step towards that is to assume the stance of a writer—to read others’ words with an eye to improving your own. First, you must pick up the pen.

I would add, though, that this is not true of all books — some are best read with pleasure, at speed, and without thought of annotation. And such books are especially well suited for electronic reading.


  • Of course, you can’t take your pen to the screen

    This is, of course, nonsense. And has been for about 50 years.

    One of the frankly disarming realizations I've come to as I've gotten older is that there's little to no correlation between the beauty of a statement and its accuracy. We like to believe that truth imbues beauty and therefore a beautiful, moving statement is more likely to be true, but the ability to craft language in a manner that compels the mind aesthetically, it turns out, is wholly unrelated to the ability to craft language that reflects the real world. Sad.

  • I don't think it's nonsense: stylus-tablet technologies exist, and are regularly used for many purposes, but the context of this quote is e-reading, and I can't use a stylus with a Kindle or a Nook or any other current e-reader that I know of, nor with any of the reading software available for smartphones or PCs. Writing on a paper book is trivially simple; writing on an electronic next is anything but.

    The closest readily available approximation of annotating books with a pen that I'm aware of comes via apps like Skim that allow annotating of PDFs. But those are very different kinds of annotations that the kind one does with a pencil or pen.

    Maybe someday all this will change, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.

  • Direct annotation of e-books on e-book readers has, again, existed for years. It's true that the Kindle and Nook don't support it, because I suspect that they believe the feature is of marginal use (hah! no wordplay intended) to their market and not worth raising the cost for everyone.

    # Here's the iLiad, vintage 2008

    # Samsung E6

    # Hanvon's technology

    And this is just annotation of eInk displays, which is a relatively recent development. Annotation of PDFs on touchscreens has existed for a decade.

    It's possible we're talking past each other, but screenshots like this and this are pretty clear.

    And I can't imagine any clarification in light of these technologies that would make 'The only effective way to respond to text on screen is to write about it.' anything but nonsense. It gets my goat because it's emblematic of a rapidly developing cottage industry of poorly informed, neo-romantic curmudgeonry that tries to wrap garden-variety fear of change in lofty ennui, happily drifting from one poorly construed justification to another to maintain the illusion of nobility.

    I like paper books, too. But I admit that a great deal of my liking is simply familiarity and fond recollection, and I don't feel obligated to invent facts to try to make my liking objectively correct. I accept that my great grandchildren will fondly remember physical displays of some other kind like I fondly remember paperbacks, and I don't think it's necessary to push my fond recollections onto their shoulders.

  • Thanks! You know, at one point I knew about the stylus of the iLiad, but had completely forgotten. Probably a result of scanning too many books on my Kindle. At any rate, this is good knowledge to have, and I appreciate the correction.

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