17 November 2006

On Beyond Paper

On Wednesday the Boston Globe published an article by David Mehegan headlined "A Love Story", about the future of books in a world of digital information. This is one of the few popular articles about book format I've seen that recognizes how the bound codex we're used to was not simply granted to humans by the gods along with fire and chocolate, but was a historical invention--late Roman Empire, to be exact. That means it came along well after some books we still read today, such as the Hebrew Bible and Plato's Symposium.

Like most other discussions of the codex's appeal, the article talks a lot about the "tactile" experience. Yes, turning paper pages is tactile. So is pushing a little button to shift the screen image on an electronic book, or wearing earbuds to listen to an audiobook. So, for that matter, is stubbing your toe.

I don't think the smell of leather, glue, ink, and slowly rotting paper is naturally appealing to humans. Rather, we book lovers learn to enjoy that sensory experience because we come to associate it with the experience of getting lost in a book. If I were a Victorian scribe working ten hours a day copying real-estate records from big leatherbound volumes, I probably wouldn't feel such good associations about the look, smell, and feel of those codices.

The engineers of the latest highly marketed electronic book machine, the Sony Reader, have spent a lot of time recreating some tactile aspects of paper books: immediate accessibility, a big display, page views rather than scrolling, and the general size and shape of a book. But they seem to have left out one of the biggest advantages of a digital book: searchability. Recreating a weakness of paper books is no way to make this new format work.

(In my remarks on the Reader, I'm relying on Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam's review from a few weeks ago, which combines his usual exaggerated fuddy-duddy approach with a clear eye to what would make a non-Sony reader switch formats.)

Mehegan's article points out a related disadvantage of digital books: losing one's place mentally.

"There's a feeling that you're moving through something," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, who calls the Sony Reader "underwhelming." "I'm reading a fat book now," she said, "and I'm 280 pages into it. The process of accumulating pages under my left thumb gives me a clear sense of having traveled a certain distance. It's as if I'm halfway through the world this author has created." . . .

"I read Dracula in electronic form," said Timothy Shanahan, professor of urban education at the University of Illinois and president of the International Reading Association, "and when I would come back to it, I would not remember where I was as well as I expected. I rarely have that happen with a book."

His experience has research support. A March 2005 French study cited in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies compared retention in readers who used "a mobile e-book device" to those who used a book. The result: "The e-book presence hinders recall of assimilated information whilst the presence of the paper support [i.e., the book] tends to facilitate it."
Which reminds us that something else that can really interfere with the enjoyment of reading is academic prose.

I wonder if people are a little more apt to lose their places in digital books because they're reading in smaller snatches, and thus don't focus so exclusively on the page. That said, I do believe that knowing what proportion of a book one has read is a crucial part of our reading experience.

We can see how many pages are left in a printed book at a glance, though sometimes long Endnotes and Appendices have thrown me off. Such knowledge doesn't depend on the tactile "left thumb," though. Many digital readers (like my Palm) provide the same information to two decimal places.

I don't have those visual cues when I'm listening to audiobooks on my displayless iPod Shuffle, and I've found it makes a real difference not to know how many more pages an author has to wrap up the plot.

1 comment:

John L said...

It’s fascinating to watch these devices evolve. With my iPod I can see how much time is left in an audiobook, but that doesn't give me the same feeling of progress (how many pages does one hour equal?) And as someone who spends most of the day looking at a computer screen, I find an actual book to be a relief in more ways than one.

Every physical book has its own uniqueness, from the cover design to the type of paper, which all contribute to the reader experience. With a device like Sony’s, every book seems to takes on the flavor of its shell, losing a bit of its personality. I applaud their efforts to make the screen more paper-like, but I also think that's not the fundamental issue. The real challenge is not to duplicate a real book, but to create something new that's as easy and useable as a real book, using all the tools of modern technology. If Sony can do that, they'll make a bundle.