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Thoughts about books, e-readers and UX

This isn't about SXSWi, that UR-festival for digital swarmis. No, I'll save that for later.

This is about a book: Comedy in a minor key by Hans Keilson, and more specifically, why I don't read books on my iPad or iPhone. 

And of course it's not about me being a tech-Luddite either. Gadgets, I have those. I had been thinking about books and technology for a while, and those thoughts ramped up during my Austin adventure as I spent quality time with the author, music critic and new-found friend, Rick Moody, as well as two of my best friends, Roy Christopher, a media culture critic and figurative language junkie, and David Ewald, Creative Director at Uncorked Studios. [All travel should include these three men but that's an aside.]

Anyway back to the intent of these scribbles. This morning, in a moment of serendipity I came across three articles in the New York Times about books and writing, two of which were about e-books. My favorite was by Dwight Garner: The Way We Read Now. It starts out as so:

The case against electronic books has been made, and elegantly, by many people, including Nicholson Baker in The New Yorker a few years ago. Mr. Baker called Amazon’s Kindle, in a memorable put-down, “the Bowflex of bookishness: something expensive that, when you commit to it, forces you to do more of whatever it is you think you should be doing more of.” 

And it struck me upon reading that last sentence, that the more digital tools we have to help us "save" time, the more we spend time filling that unused time. I mean honestly, if you have a smartphone a laptop or an iPad, don't tell me you can't resist a peek at your email or the myriad social gidgits silently awaiting your attention in your so-called downtime? And so, as Nicholson Baker writes, the Kindle and other e-Readers entice us to fill the devices with hundreds, if not thousands, of e-books. Because you can; because there's room. And, in the best enticement con for drowning your devices memory in digital ones and zeros, because you don't have to carry around a satchel full of books that weigh a ton. Seriously, do Americans really do that much reading? Do they still own satchels?

Garner's article is not anti-tech or curmudgeonly, it's definitely worth a read if for nothing else but this: "The smartphone has clearly been recent technology’s greatest gift to literacy. Carrying one obliterates one’s greatest fear: of being trapped somewhere — a train, the D.M.V., a toilet — with nothing whatsoever to read." And this gem: "I’m an admirer of Jonathan Franzen, the gifted novelist who has been outspoken about his dislike of electronic books. But if you aren’t a fan of Mr. Franzen’s, I would guess that reading his novels on a Kindle, a device he loathes, might be considered a literary form of hate sex." You get the drift.

And Garner goes on to discuss which authors, who may write in distinct styles, and whose prose may be best suited to parchment rather than paper (or scratched on coconut shells for that matter,) would suffer for being read on a Kindle or an iPad. And then I remembered - on the panel I led with David Ewald that included Roy and Rick too, that Rick (I think..) brought up the idea of musicians creating for the platform. And I recall thinking right then that it made perfect sense; in a world where distributing your freshly-minted music is now a zero-barrier to entry game, musicians ought to be composing for the platform, where today the platform is Soundcloud or Mixcloud and distribution is free, as is access to it (almost.)

Anyway, Garner settles on this for the Smartphones: "John Cheever’s “Journals,” the most underrated nonfiction book of the 20th century. Cheever’s entries are bite-size yet profound. They are aching when not outright grim; they’ll place the soul-killing events in your own life in context, and may even cheer you up.

I bought a used hardback copy on Amazon immediately; you see where this is going?

It's a generational thing. So I bought that used book quickly and easily, and it'll be here in all its tactile, earmarked glory in a couple of days. It's now a recycled book, almost up-cycled actually as it will be read and live on, standing there amongst the hundreds of other books on my shelves at home, waiting to be read by another fresh pair of eyes. And here's Garner again, this time on 'remainders' and markdowns: "The one bit of verse that charmed me, when read on the iPad, was Clive James’s brilliant and witty “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” This poem forces you to wonder: What will remainders look like in our digital future? Where’s the 99-cents bin going to be?"

So ironically, Amazon, a digital company, can up-cycle a hardback book, but can't 'remainder' an e-book. Just a thought.

Authors, journalists and poets will write for the platform now, as musicians are doing; in the same vein designers should be designing for the web, and smartphones and iPads - designing for platforms and the people that access their work on those platforms.

Back then, James Joyce was writing for the platform of his time when he wrote this sentence in 'Araby': "The cold air stung us and we played until our bodies glowed."

As Jhumpa Lahiri says: "I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet." 

I sincerely hope 'Araby' is unavailable as an e-book. That sentence needs to be held along with every other sentence in the book, in one's hands. Joyce's 'glow' is not the glow of an iPad or Kindle.

I'm glad I packed Comedy in a minor key. Written in 1947, it's a short, intense read about the cruel grotesquerie of war. Considering the heavy weight of its subject it is a slim volume and weighs less than my iPad. I finished it easily during my trip, but not before being asked about it many times, and discussing it with fellow passengers on the planes or in airports, one of whom I swapped business cards with. Maybe it was the cover, maybe because it has 'comedy' in the title, who knows.

I wonder if I would have met so many strangers if I'd been reading it on my iPad?

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