Saturday, March 27, 2010

What is Reading?

Scott D. Parker

There is nothing I like more than leaving the movie theater with a copy of the movie in my back pocket. When I listen to music, the touch of it is so much a part of the experience. Oh, and I always carry a pocket knife so I can carve out a chunk of a Picasso I saw at the museum and take it home with me, the better to remember my time viewing the great master’s work.

Preposterous? Absolutely. You can’t touch music. It’s invisible. You can’t put a movie in your back pocket. It has to be experienced. You can’t cut up art for your own collection. It has to be seen.

Then why all this hand wringing over reading books on electronic devices? Reading is just as invisible, when you get down to it, as listening to music, watching a movie, or viewing art. But there is one thing that differentiates reading from other artistic endeavors. That answer, in a bit. First, a few thoughts.

MP3s created a paradigm shift in the way many folks—myself included—get their music. I’m old enough to remember LPs, cassettes, and CDs. For me, once I figured out that I could record my LPs on a cassette, I was able to have copies of an album in two places: LP for home and cassette for the car. Plus, I could put the tunes in whatever order I wanted to (and, believe me, I obsessed over mix tapes). When CDs showed up, same thing. Then, we got CD players in cars and I took the CDs with me wherever I’d go. Now, with MP3s, I can carry my iPod around everywhere and always have my tunes with me.

Slowly, over time, I began to realize that once I ripped my CDs into my Mac, I no longer needed the CDs. Now, granted, I didn’t get a lot of album liner notes with MP3s. I can distinctly remember sitting in my room thirty years ago listening to a new album and pouring over the liner notes. Initially, MP3 albums didn’t have liner notes, not until record companies started making them available as PDFs. But I could still find what I was looking for on the artists’ websites. My CD collection went from a prominent display in jewel cases to CD-and-book storage in binders (jewel cases stored in the garage to conserve space). Now, with my collection over 90% in my Mac, I don’t even pull out my binders. I’m to the point now where I get annoyed if an artist releases a CD with bonus features that are available only if you buy the CD. My paradigm has changed and I don’t think I’ll be going back.

I had this blog half written by the time I arrived home today and found the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly on the kitchen table. In his latest column, Stephen King wrote about the Kindle and reading gadgets. (How cool is this timing?) but there’s a money quote that gets to the heart of why e-reading has yet to catch fire and why there is, in King’s words, “customer resistance.”

“There are lost of advantages to the electronic devices--portability, instant buyer gratification, nice big type for aging eyes like mine--but there’s a troubling lightness to the content as well. A not-thereness.”

On this point, I’m going to have to disagree. When I listen to music, I don’t have to touch anything. In fact, I can’t, unless I’m playing my own instrument. When I see a movie, I don’t touch anything. The film is up on the screen. It’s there, but it isn’t. Television’s the same way. Art is somewhat different. You actually can stand and gaze at the art, displayed in front of you.

Lou Anders is the editor of Pyr Books, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books. In interviews, he has said that he reads most of the manuscripts he receives on his iPhone. Anders made an interesting statement in a recent podcast (#852) of the Agony Column. He’d like to see a selling model where you buy the hardcover physical book and get a digital copy as a bonus. When I e-mailed him and asked him why, he said that this method would allow collectors like him to get the best of both worlds: a beautiful book for the shelf and a digital version to read. (I highly recommend that episode because Anders and the host, Rick Kleffel, talk e-reading to a greater extent.)

The thing is, reading with books is the only artistic activity where you touch the thing you are consuming. Reading--holding the book, smelling it, feeling its pages as your turn them, looking at the cover art and author photo, scanning the list of other books, perusing any ads in the back, annotating--is something very special. At the end of a book, however, it’s still something you’ve experienced. It’s only in your memory and your brain. Does the medium by which the words entered your noggin really that crucial? And, if you really are honest with yourself, there’s a strong likelihood that you already consume more electronic text via your web browsing experience than you do with paper anyway. Perhaps paper is the way some people escape the ever-present e-World.

As of now, I don’t have a smartphone or a fancy electronic reader. I read books and articles on my old Palm Pilot Zire 31 using Ereader. If there’s a news article I want to read but don’t have time, I convert the text into a pdb file and read it on the Palm. sells e-copies (cheaper) of the major fiction magazines for mystery and SF. For public domain things like Sherlock Holmes that are available on Project Gutenberg, I convert those files, too. The stories are still the same words, just pixelated. I’ve seen how text is displayed on iPhones and it’s stunning. I’m getting an iPod Touch sometime soon and plan on making it my primary reading device. And, yes, I’ll be wanting an iPad. The irony about electronic readers for me is this: books are the perfect medium to convey information. They do one thing perfectly. I, like many other people, want our e-reader to be multitaskers. I wonder why (but that’s a question for another blog).

I’ve come to a realization: while I still love (and will always love) books, I want my reading paradigm to change.

Do you?


Mike Dennis said...

Provocative post, Scott. The problem with digital stuff is this: When you bought an LP or a cassette of an album, you not only could hold it in your hand, you could copy it, play it on a friend's record player, you could do whatever you wanted with it. You actually owned it.

An MP-3 file is different because you're not buying the music itself. You're purchasing a license to play it over pre-approved media. Any attempt to do anything else with it (because you don't really own it) is illegal.

I'm not part of the ereader world yet ( I'm sure I'll get an iPad after all the fuss dies down, though), but I would imagine it's the same thing. When you download a novel for a Kindle or a Nook, you're probably acquiring a license to read said novel over the prescribed device. You don't really own it the way you do a real book.

What's more, here won't be any collectors of novel downloads, they won't increase in value, and you'll never be able to put your hands on them.

It's a brave new world and we're all being colonized in a vastly different way, like it or not.

Chris said...

I really have no interest in eReaders or electronic books. I look at text on a backlit screen enough, I don't want to do it as part of something that is such a large part of how I entertain myself. If electronic books make physical books extinct in my lifetime, or very limited, I'll simply stop buying them. I figure all the yard sales and used bookstores and places like that will keep me reading new stuff, new to me anyway, until I die. That's the line in the sand I won't cross. I fucking hate gadgets, generally, and have no desire to add another one to my satchel.

Scott D. Parker said...

Mike - I'm going to have to disagree with you re: MP3s. When I get an MP3, it's a file I have on my hard drive. I can do with it what I want. When I download an encrypted MP3 from iTunes and I need to put that file on an MP3 CD, I convert the file. It's mine, after all. I can do with it what I want. It's not in the cloud. It's on my hard drive.

Since I don't own an e-reader, I'm not sure the model. For the ebooks I do have, they are files on my hard drive. If I get a PDF of something I want to read on my Palm Pilot, I will convert it to something the Palm can read. It's my PDF and I can make it fit my needs.

I'll grant you the non-collector status of e-books. As a person who has bought a good number of used books over the years, it is a game-changer.

Chris - I admire your line in the sand. To be honest, I had that line in the sand, too. Mine's just been eroded a bit by the surf of e-media.

When it comes to used books, I particularly enjoy the hunt for a certain set of books I want. Sure, I can pop onto ebay and probably find anything I want but that's no fun. Frankly, the omnipresence of electronic texts is a bit the same. Sometimes, having stuff at the end of a few clicks of a device is too easy. The joy of the hunt is gone.

Speaking of backlit, I spent a few minutes with a Nook the other day. It isn't backlit and it uses E-Ink. I have to say: it really looked like ink on paper.