June 2, 2009 @ 4:21 pm | Filed under: Books
A few more e-reading notes of the thinking-aloud sort, if you don’t mind.
E-readers I’ve tried:
Classics. My favorite platform so far—best looking, most book-like text, fun page-turning effect. Obvious drawback: limited book selection. 99cent download. No cost to download additional titles as they become available.
Stanza. Very nice reading experience. Easy-to-use search function offers huge selection of free and for-purchase books (including Project Gutenberg catalog). Customizable text display (font, size, color). Center tap brings up page meter, options. One-tap page turn (you can select which zone you want to tap).
Kindle for iPhone/iPod Touch. See yesterday’s post.
Books I’ve read on my Touch:
Pride and Prejudice. Picked this for my first e-reading experience because I know and love the book so well. Read it via the Classics app. Enjoyed it just as much as ever, and loved being able to read in the dark in bed with a single hand. Made me realize e-reading offered its own set of advantages, although I will always prefer the sensory pleasures of a “real” book.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. Stanza. E-reading felt entirely appropriate for this futuristic novel! Great fun.
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Stanza. Found myself wanting a hard copy to flip back and forth in. Fast-paced suspenseful techie novel; I wound up obsessively tapping for the status meter so I’d know how far I had to go—how long I had to keep holding my breath! This was the first time I started to wonder about the relationship between pacing and book format.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Stanza. As I said yesterday, I felt curiously distanced from this stark, bleak novel, and couldn’t tell how much that had to do with the book itself, and how much was because of the e-reader. Is it just me, I wondered? Do other people engage as deeply with the characters in books they read on their phones, or does the small screen showing only a paragraph at a time pull our consciousness too far into the forefront, preventing us from total suspension of disbelief? Or is it like that because it’s new? In five years or ten, will I even notice? Would it be the same on a Kindle, which with its bigger screen and e-ink technology tries very hard to duplicate a hard-copy reading experience? Would Amazon kindly send me a Kindle on which to test the theory?
The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. Kindle for iPhone. Well, you know how that went.
Short stories: “The Dead” by James Joyce; “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stanza.
Things I like about reading on my Touch:
I can hold it in one hand and turn pages with a tap of my thumb. For a nursing mother, this is a great delight. And since the screen is backlit, I can read in bed, sleeping baby to my left, sleeping hubby to my right, and disturb no one, neither with light nor with the rustle of turning pages.
Takes up less space in my bag than a book. My 4-month-old baby weighs almost 19 pounds. Any lightening of my shoulder-load is a blessing.
Thousands of books literally at my fingertips. Hundreds and hundreds of them, all the older classics, for free.
Things I don’t like:
Not as cozy as a book!
If I’m reading a book on the iPod, my kids can’t tell at a glance that I’m reading a book and not, say, email or blogs. And this does bother me. Seems like it’s one thing for a child to see mom curled up with a book, and another thing entirely to see mom staring at yet another screen. “I’m reading Pride and Prejudice!” I’ll find myself saying, or “I’m reading Edith Wharton!” as if to defend myself against complaints no one is even making.
June 1, 2009 @ 8:00 pm | Filed under: Books
I continue to ponder the question of whether e-reading causes me to react to books differently than I would if I’d read them in a traditional paper format. Today I finished my first Kindle download. I don’t have a Kindle, but I do have an iPod Touch, and there’s an app now that allows you to download Kindle purchases to your iPhone or Touch. I’ve been wanting to try it, curious about how the Kindle format would compare to e-readers like Stanza or Classics. Jen Robinson’s review of The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams made me want to read the book (that’s a nod to a recurring theme at Jen’s excellent children’s literature blog), and since our library system doesn’t have a copy yet, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to give the Kindle app a try.
I’m afraid reading The Chosen One on my Touch may have affected my experience of the book. I know it affected my feelings about the book’s ending, because I was stunned when I realized I had reached the end. It didn’t feel finished. I kept flicking and flicking to get the page to turn, but there was nothing but a blank white screen.
I’ve had this happen with e-books before. I think our minds are trained to interpret the pacing and arc of a book in the context of how much book is left to read. Now and then, I’ve read a book which I thought had twenty or thirty pages left to go, and it was a mental jolt to discover an appendix or afterword occupying those pages, so that the story ended long before I was expecting it to. On an e-reader, that is always the experience, unless I remember to check the total page count and pay attention to how far along I am. That’s one of the features I appreciate in the Stanza reader: a tap on the center of the screen brings up a page meter. Page 40/244. 20.33% into book. It’s maybe a little more detail than I require, but very helpful indeed.
The Kindle app lacks a one-tap progress gauge.* You can check total page count and do the gauging yourself, but let’s face it: that’s a number I’m just not going to be able to keep in my head, not if I’m going to remember my kids’ birthdays and stuff.
So wham, there I was suddenly at the end of The Chosen One, with no warning whatsoever. And I was stunned. The story didn’t feel finished yet—I’d have guessed the climax was some thirty or forty pages away. So unprepared was I by the absence of the subtle information transmitted by the weight and heft of the traditional book-in-hand (just a sliver of pages left: you know it’s wrapping up) that it was a good five minutes before I actually believed I was at the last page. I thought I must have messed up the download or something. I even considered firing Jen an email to ask if my last page was THE last page. Finally, after rereading the final paragraphs seven or eight times, I grasped that no, that really was the end of the book. I felt the most curious combination of disappointment and guilt—disappointment that the story concluded before I was ready (I really wanted to see how certain events played out. Joshua? Patrick?) and guilt over the possibility that I’d shortchanged the author’s intent by reading in a format that deprived me of pacing clues. Maybe I’d have been prepared to accept the open-ended resolution (there’s an oxymoron, eh?) if I’d known it was coming.
I wrote a book with an open-ended resolution once, and it was a deliberate and carefully considered choice. Even so, and even with a dwindling page count to alert my readers that the tale was about to end, more than one young reader wrote me notes of mingled praise and reproach. “Please hurry up and write the next book FAST because I want to know what happens!” Readers like resolution. We like answers. We want, as my young fans so plainly put it, to know what happens.
So here I am in the aftermath of The Chosen One, frustrated because I want to know what happens to thirteen-year-old Kyra, the daughter of her father’s third wife, all of them members of a fundamentalist sect living in the desert behind a wire fence, restricted from books and medicine and outside influences of any kind. I didn’t love this book, I’m afraid. (I always feel terribly apologetic when that is the case, because I know how hard the author must have labored, and criticizing someone’s book feels very much like criticizing someone’s child.) I could point at specific things that bothered me, but I can’t shake the curiosity over how much influence format had on my reaction. I mean, I’m a huge Edith Wharton fan, but when I read Ethan Frome on my iPod, my first and only time reading the novel, I had great difficulty in losing myself in the story. The unfolding narrative seemed to be happening at a great distance. I never felt completely engaged with the characters. Was it the cold, sterile e-reader, robbing me of the sensory experience of the book? No rustle of paper, no smell of ink, no satisfying weight in my hands? Or was the distance an integral part of the novel itself: the frigidity a parallel of the bleak, snowlocked New England landscape of the setting and the bleak, frozen emotional states of the characters? If I were to read it again (as I will, someday) in proper ink-and-paper format, will I say, Ah, yes, this story means to keep me at a distance; Ethan and his wife are sealed so permanently inside their pain that there can be no warmth, no welcome for the reader. That’s part of the point.
If I’d read The Chosen One on paper, would I feel more accepting of its unanswered questions? Would I have felt more of an emotional connection with Kyra, a heroine who is certainly brave and complex, but whose narrative struck me as bare, rushed, not fully realized? One reviewer described the novel as “lyrical,” which perplexes me because I’d thought it distinctly not lyrical and kept wishing the prose had been more lush, more complex. I’m seeing a lot of spare, lean, bare prose in contemporary YA, most often in first-person present-tense narratives—which makes sense; a first-person novel can sound pretentious, flowery, or inauthentic if the narrator’s voice is poetic or linguistically eccentric. It takes great skill to tell a first-person story in rich and lovely language. (I’m seeing it happen right now in the opening chapter of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, which I downloaded as a free sample on the Kindle app. The narrator’s voice is first person, present tense, yet layered and idiosyncratic and, yes, absolutely, lyrical. So, okay, here’s a case where the richness of the language is not being stripped in any way by the format in which I’m reading it. Hmm.)
* A commenter pointed out that the Kindle for iPhone app does have a blue status bar that pops up at the bottom of the screen with a center tap. I’d seen it, but since the page numbers just above it read “page 80-81” or “page 752-753” for, say, a 1250-page book—tiny screen-sized pages, you understand—I’d mentally dismissed the status bar as inaccurate. So whoops there. However, the larger question stands. A book automatically conveys information about length and pacing to the reader. An e-reader requires the reader to seek out that information with an extra tap. I’m fascinated by the idea that a book’s physical presence participates in the communication of narrative tension. Of course, reading a story in a collection or anthology can deprive the reader of subtle pacing clues in the same way that an e-reader does; the reader must consciously seek out that information.