To my friends in academe, I'm a bit of an innovation martian. I like change. I don't like to do things the normal ways and rarely meet a tradition without wanting to mod it in some way or other. But reading on a Kindle or an iPad? I thought I'd love it. After trying yet again, I'm realizing it's fine for others--but it is absolutely not for me. Here's why:
First, I don't read in typical ways. I basically have two very different reading styles. When I read a novel or a really densely argued article (whether in cognitive neuroscience or cultural studies), I read extremely slowly. I also like to mark the pages, even sometimes in novels, and then I find myself returning to those marks as I read on. Usually what I mark doesn't seem key at the time but it almost always turns out to be, either because that's what I'm looking for (i.e. that's how my own attention selects content) or because something in the prose signaled it would be important later (this is the Toni Morrison theory of agitated reading and writing -I'm a believer--applied to all forms of writing and reading). It's still a pain to mark passages on eBooks but, more to the point, when you read them as slowly and carefully as I do, the weight (especially of my iPad) is a deterrent and so is the lack of flexibility to the device. I bend pages. I also prefer to read lying down, on my side, and it's harder to position an eBook. Because I read so slowly, a paperback lasts me a long time so, for my upcoming trip to Australia, I'll be packing one or at most two and that will be just fine.
Second, for 95% of what I read, I have a form of extremely rapid photographic reading ability where I take in both pages at once in a relatively random way, never read front to back in linear fashion, flip back and forth in the sequence of pages, and prefer to read the ending before the beginning of a badly written article or one with too leisurely a pace. When I edited American Literature for a decade, or when I read books for university presses, or when I read student dissertations, I can pull a great party trick of reading a fat manuscript in very short time and having detailed, precise points to make. Unfortunately (it's a Faustian wager, to be sure), I often forget the content quite quickly. So when I talk to students about their dissertations, I tell them they better take notes then or bring a tape recorder because they aren't getting a repeat performance--but the first one, I've learned over the years, is a pretty good one, as Odd Human Reading Tricks go. It stinks trying to read in a non-linear fashion ("browsing") on an eBook.
I realize these are extreme forms of reading but my recent research suggests that, sometimes secretly, we all have variable forms of reading. The current state of the eBook acts as if everyone reads in the same way all the time.
I'm not against "electronic publishing." I love reading online. On line, where you can scroll extremely fast and see the pages fly by or where you can go back and search-and-find, reading seems almost as if it was designed for alternative processing styles such as my own. The dorky hey-it-looks-like-the-page-is-turning-yes-it-is-turning-by-gosh-there-it-goes-it's-turned visuals on eBooks drives me crazy. I could read half a dissertation in the time it's doing that lame looks-like-a-REAL-page-turning trick. Well, that's an exaggeration. Except that it is so annoying to take that much time when my At a Glance reading style is so much faster that I want to throw the darn eBook against the wall. Except that would cost me several hundred dollars, so I don't. I simply vote with my fingers and stop ordering books.
The reason I'm taking the time to detail this is because there are a lot of cognitive assumptions behind eBooks and most of them are pretty rooted in an old-style of reading dictated by books with bindings, certain lengths of type lines, folios, paper sizes, and mechanized print. In other words, we've all learned conventions of reading dictated by the materiality of books. To be sure, we've all learned conventions of writing also dictated by the materiality of books--from sentence length to paragraph form to chapters to book length. If the materiality changes, why in the world would we want to write in a way with all the vestiges of our duodecimo'd past? Why would we want to read that way?
These are issues I will be thinking about next year when, with an excited group of students (and I hope as many are English majors as are Computer Science majors) we take the book I am writing for Viking Press--to be published in traditional hardcovers and paperback and also for an eBook--but then reimagine it, start to finish, for the iPad. If the materiality of a printed book is irrelevant, what is a "page"? What is a "footnote" or even an "endnote"? Where do links go to foster the argument? What is linearity? When would a video work better? When should I pop out as the author to tell the story or the backstory? What if we performed certain experiments and put those on the iPad? Should the full interviews I conducted for the book be on the iPad? What about issues of intellectual property? What about privacy? When you really reimagine a book, there are social as well as material and cultural conditions you have to tackle.
Vectors magazine explores many of these issues, and I want to take that even further and really rethink what the next generation of a "book" would look like. It may turn out that the print-version of Now You See It: The Science of Attention in the Classroom, at Work, and Everywhere Else is an "app" for the iPad version----and vice versa. Rethinking the book requires rethinking the app. And rethinking both the writer and the reader.
But, until then, I won't be ordering any more books for my iPad. Online, I don't read the way I do on the page and, for now, until eBooks figure that out, I'll be doing a lot of my reading on line, whenever and wherever I can, and then the rest of my reading in physical, material books. The hybrid eBook, to me, is a compromise between the limitations of the printed page and the limitations of the electronic device. I know so many people who love them and, for them, eBooks are terrific. But as a conceptualization of written communication, it is not "next generation" but an electronic fossilization of the last one.