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The Kindle Swindle

What is and isn’t good about reading on a device

I know that many, many people have observed that all books and articles tend to look the same on the screen of an iPhone or Kindle or on the Kindle app of the iPad, and this strips the reading experience of texture—the array of sensory experiences that have come to be represented as the “book smell.” This has become such a cliché by writers nostalgic for the simpler, more book-smell-redolent past that some humorist has even invented a fictitious aerosol spray, “for sale” at, that purports to allow readers to “finally enjoy reading e-books without giving up the smell you love so much.”

Credit: Technology Review

In the introduction to the 2006 edition of his prescient 1994 essay collection The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts summed up the deeper concern that those superficial aesthetic concerns stand in for: “The electronic impulse works against the durational reverie of reading. And however much other media take up the slack … what is lost is the contemplative register. And this, in the chain of consequences, alters subjectivity, dissipates its intensity.” In other words, what’s at stake when we lose the book-specific experience of reading isn’t just the emotional connection to the book or magazine as an object; we’ve redefined what reading is. The consequences of this redefinition can be positive, negative, or indifferent. I set out to experience and describe device-reading with this set of concerns in mind, as someone who loves reading on, and writing for, both page and screen, but worries a lot about the growing primacy of the latter.

The iPad and its brothers will never completely succeed in replicating the experience of reading a book, and that’s fine: that’s what books are for, and will continue to be for. What we need is—I hesitate to write the word, but there seems to be no substitute for it in this context—“content” that is actually tailored to the medium from which it will be consumed. And for examples of how a medium can shape media, for better and for worse, we need only look to the Internet.

Looking to the Internet is what I haven’t been doing lately. A few months ago—so, very belatedly—I became aware that the kind of mental rhythms that online reading and writing evoke and celebrate were inimical to the kind of work I’m trying to do. (I’m working on a novel.) This won’t be the kind of essay where the author has just discovered that the Internet is bad and that microblogging platforms are designed to be maximally addictive and that the only way to live a good, pure, intellectually whole-wheatish lifestyle is to abstain from rolling around in the Internet’s glittering piles of trash and candy. (I have written that essay a weirdly huge number of times, and often in the form of blog posts.) But while I may not have been reading much online lately, like Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality impresario and author of the manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, I acknowledge that the Internet has excellent bright spots, without crediting it for being a semi-magical repository for all the world’s knowledge and creativity. Also like Lanier, I think it’s too bad that the infrastructure of most blogging and social media platforms devalues authorship and privileges semi-anonymous, consequence-free collaboration. But I also value blog writing on its own terms.

Successful blog writing, unlike successful book writing, is designed to seize and hold your attention, by whatever means necessary. Unlike a book—as that term is still conventionally understood—a blog is competing at all times with any and all potential other tabs you might have open or might be thinking of opening; it is even competing with the hyperlinks inside it. The first person comes in handy here—you wouldn’t click away from me, would you?—as does an engaging conversational chattiness. It’s a performative voice. “I asked for help every minute, but it didn’t help any. I was terrible. Relentlessly terrible. Terrible in new and inventively terrible ways, ways that seemed to baffle the teacher and any classmates who caught a glance of my canvases,” wrote Molly Lambert in an archetypal “This Recording” post last February, her words intercut at paragraph intervals with pretty thematic photos to rest your eyes on. She and Justin Wolfe are young masters of blogging as an art form. Sure, they’re good writers, but their writing is always enriched and vivified—completed in some essential way—by the MP3s and scanned-in found texts and images that surround it. Anything you would cut from something you were going to read out loud, you would cut from a blog post. And when even that isn’t enough to hold your audience’s attention, look! Here is a photo! Shiny! Here is a video or an embedded song!

Here is a paragraph that’s only one sentence long—look, you’re done reading it already!

A little silly, but it’s true that the art of writing for a device’s screen essentially boils down to a mastery of these techniques.

If people are going to continue to read on devices, which have none of the finiteness of the book-object, I hope that the books they’re reading on them will eventually grow to develop Webbier tics and app-like aspects. Wanting to experience technological innovation and real expansion of the potential of what reading can entail is a legitimate incentive to read on a tablet.

My iPad odyssey

I didn’t immediately cotton to reading on the iPad. It’s hard to feel good about holding in your sweaty little hands what could be the instrument of the destruction of your own imagined future and the futures of most of the people you care about, all of whom seem to have the misfortune of working at the kind of jobs that will be obviated when books are no longer experienced primarily as physical objects. But I persevered. I downloaded things. I compared and contrasted. I swiped my pointer finger to the left a zillion times. I wondered whether I would need to buy a special cleaning product to clean my tester iPad’s greased-up screen. (My hands, in addition to being sweaty and little, seem to be somewhat greasy).

I explored the Kindle Single, which is an attempt by Amazon to market a new kind of book-type content-product: long, single-subject nonfiction essays or memoirs or novellas, just a little too long to be long magazine articles, published for $1.99 to $2.99. The Singles program has just had its first big hit: John Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which alleged that a very popular author and philanthropist was a fraud who had diverted the money given to his school-building charity to flying around on a private jet. I’d like to see these book-magazine hybrids exploit more aspects of the technology that delivers them. For example, a Single I read—“The Dead Women of Juarez” by Robert Andrew Powell, who investigated rapes and murders of young makeup-factory workers—would have been more compelling as something more like an app, with photos and hyperlinks to video of one of a phony journalist Powell called out, delivering her phony pronouncements on cable news. But as a delivery system for unalloyed writing, the Singles format seems destined to mostly fail. We’re used to getting a certain dose of book at a time, and 10,000 words of any nonfiction—that’s a decisive 2,000-3,000 words longer than your average long magazine article—inevitably leaves a reader wanting either more or less.

My other initial forays into e-reading straight-up books were similarly uninspiring. I read Gabrielle Hamilton’s new memoir Blood, Bones and Butter on a plane and enjoyed the convenience of not having to tote a hardcover onboard. But later, when I wanted to tell a friend about a particularly striking passage toward the end of the book, I couldn’t reach for the book and flip immediately to the right page. I reached for my iPad and tried to flip virtually, but I couldn’t remember any keywords, and it was also out of battery power. Back in the pro column, though, I am kind of happy not to have the book on my shelf. Though I loved the portrait of the artist as a young chef, there was something odd about the book. Maybe because of the format I read it in, whatever was odd eluded me.

I was ready to give up on e-reading entirely and live out a monastic existence in an abandoned library full of the rest of society’s castoff books when I realized that shopping in the Kindle store, which as of now just sells digitized versions of the same experience a flesh-and-blood book provides, didn’t make sense if what I really wanted was book-type or book-inspired iPad apps. Some of these are ridiculous—the first time I visited the store, a featured app in the Books section was a history of the British monarchy that allowed you to watch the royal wedding on your iPad from within the app! And the most popular book apps are for children. This represents, I guess, the natural next step in bedtime stories—interactive reading-type experiences for preliterate children that free parents to surreptitiously play Angry Birds on their iPhones while putting their kids to bed, because their kids are so absorbed in their apps. (A soon to be published parody children’s book, Goodnight iPad, makes fun of this phenomenon.)

But then there’s the Mark Bittman How To Cook Everything app. For fans of the New York Times food section, this app can provide an almost infinite amount of menu-planning, cooking-esoterica-learning fun that actually succeeds in trumping the experience of leafing through the cookbook that inspired it. The search feature, the hyperlinks to related recipes within the recipe itself, pop-up windows that explain how to cut a particular vegetable, multiple tabs for variations, and for the cook’s own notes, even —and this made me actually gasp with delight—a feature that automatically puts the ingredients in a recipe, in shoppable portions, on a grocery list that can be easily exported. A really clever tie-in would enable you to order items from FreshDirect from within the app itself; I’m sure this is coming in another upgrade or two. The future! How totally cool! It will be even cooler if apps like this one keep the book industry solvent enough that it can still support less device-friendly kinds of fiction and nonfiction, so that their practitioners can afford to buy food.

Longtime blogger Emily Gould is the author of And the Heart Says Whatever (Free Press).

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