delivery vehicles

That essay by Ann Kirschner I linked to the other day beat me to a punch: I had been planning a post about choices of, shall we say, reading venue. It’s been about ten years since I’ve read Middlemarch — one of the two greatest English novels, the other being Bleak House, if you want to know — which means that it’s time to re-read it. All I had to do was decide what the delivery vehicle would be.

  • I have a Penguin Classics paperback, with a nice font and good notes.
  • I have a recent Everyman’s Library edition, which seems to be photo-offset from an old two-volume edition. Nice hard covers and a silk bookmark.
  • I have an old Oxford World’s Classics hardcover — small (4×6 inches) and blue, with very slightly yellowed pages — I picked up in Hay-on-Wye some years ago.
  • I had a Project Gutenberg version on my Kindle until I lost my Kindle, but I still have it available on my iPhone. (I could use the Kindle iPhone app or Stanza.)
  • And I could read it on my laptop, say with the Gutenberg text and Readability.

This was actually an easy call for me. Want to guess which one I chose?


So you know how people — like, for instance, me — have pointed out that if you lose your Kindle you lose all your Kindle books? Well, at about the time that I wrote that post Amazon released its Kindle app for the iPhone, which I dutifully downloaded, and now I’m really glad I did, because . . . I lost my Kindle. Yep, I left it on an airplane. I’ve never left anything on an airplane; I guess I was just waiting until I had a four-hundred-dollar reading device so I could make my first time truly special. I left it in the seat-back pocket, and though I called Southwest as soon as I got home, I haven't heard anything back from them. All I could do was deactivate the Kindle so whoever kept it can't charge books to my account. I don't think I’m going to buy another one. In the previous couple of months I had been using it less and less, for several reasons. First, I was coming more and more to miss the look and feel of different books — I realized that many of my memories of books were linked to their appearance, to cover designs and typefaces, and I began to suspect that I was not remembering as much about the books I read on the Kindle. (That’s just a suspicion, though.) And then there’s the fact that the iPhone Kindle app does a number of things better than the Kindle itself. It turns pages faster, and while you can't highlight or annotate with it, those are really awkward functions on the Kindle anyway; and on the iPhone app it’s easier to book mark pages and to retrieve your bookmarks. I haven't done a great deal of reading on my iPhone so far, and I haven't read for long periods of time, so I’m not prepared to agree with Ann Kirschner that “the iPhone is a Kindle killer”. Battery life is going to be a problem; and backlit screens are harder on the eyes than ink on paper or e-ink on matte screens. But I don't think I can justify going back to Amazon and forking over several hundred bucks to get another Kindle, even a new and improved one. I’m going to stick with my books, and use my iPhone as a backup for emergency reading needs.


I’m going to be traveling for the next week or so, so posting will be light to non-existent, but before I go I want to take belated note of this thoughtful post from Sebastian Mary (or maybe it's sebastian mary) over at if:book.

Let's look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today's mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book's dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.

Yes, and (though seb. mary doesn't say this) the Kindle and other e-readers constitute a move towards absolute standardization of dimensions. Here’s the next paragraph:

Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I'm thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.

Right again, and interesting, because in the matter of word count e-readers are creating vastly greater flexibility, even as they necessarily standardize dimensions. The other day I realized that I didn't have a copy of “The Monkey’s Paw,” the classic scary story by W. W. Jacobs (no relation), and discovered that I can download it all by itself from Amazon — no need to buy a whole collection of stories just to get that one. On the other hand, one of the reasons I got a Kindle in the first place was because I didn't want to lug around big fat books like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Or let’s consider Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy writer charged with completing Robert Jordan’s ultra-massive Wheel of Time series: he has recently decided to split what was to be the last volume into three books, and one of the reasons for this is the problem of printing and binding books beyond a certain size. And anything even associated with Robert Jordan is, well, beyond a certain size. But if e-reader publication was the norm, that wouldn't matter at all — you could put the whole four million words of the series (that’s what it’ll amount to by the time Sanderson’s done, near enough) into a single file if you wanted to. There are also some interesting possibilities for serial publication, but that’ll have to wait for another post on another day.

why the Big New Kindle is not likely to succeed

Brendan has it exactly right: "The trend right now is smaller and smaller devices that allow you to multitask anything anytime from one device.  Having a device that’s locked down to a single purpose really doesn’t help students achieve what they want.  There’s a reason no one carries around 1) an MP3 player, 2) a cellphone, and 3) a camera jammed into their pockets.  They want less devices doing more, not more devices doing less!" I would prefer him to say fewer devices doing more, but other than that I second the motion.

one man's meat. . .

Attitudes :

1.  Anne Fadiman, the author, was relieved to learn that her essay collection, “Ex Libris,” was not available on Kindle. “It would really be ironic if it were,” she said of the book, which evokes her abiding passion for books as objects. “There’s a little box on Amazon that reads ‘Tell the publisher I’d like to read this book on Kindle,’” she said. “I hope no one tells the publisher.” 2. Given the sorry financial state of the book business, most authors may be willing to set aside any prejudices. Chris Cleave, a novelist who writes a column for The Guardian, put it bluntly. “I love my readers and I want them to read my stuff,” he said. “I’d write it out longhand for them if necessary.”

Blake, digitized

You can see some of the technical challenges involved in the multimedia-digital-book idea by checking this out: an approach to William Blake called “Songs of Imagination and Digitisation.” I love the Future of the Book people, but this just doesn't strike me as a promising endeavor. As I browse through this I get (a) intentionally “jumpy” page backgrounds, presumably meant to give a sense of energy and action; (b) low-resolution audio/videos of talking heads saying just a few words at a time, reading poems (some of them split into multiple videos) or giving historical background; (c) texts of poems; (d) a few images. This is all done in Flash, and there’s clearly an awareness of bandwidth limitations — thus the brevity of the videos. But I wonder how much bandwidth would be necessary in order to give us Blake’s work in proper fullness and resolution — along the lines of what you get on a CD like this one, from Octavo. An Octavo CD doesn't give you the videos or the sounds, and you have to pay for it, and you can't access it online — but it’s the closest thing to having Blake’s poems as he meant for us to have them, in their full illuminated vibrancy. And if you are determined to have free and online access, I would recommend the Blake Archive. Flash is good for some things, but I don't think “Songs of Imagination and Digitisation” is, after all, the future of the book.


I’ve written before on this blog that what I like most about the Kindle is the way that its design promotes linear reading. As I see it, the Kindle, far from providing the distractions that webpages and some other screens offer, makes it easy to keep turning the pages. Well, for at least one person, that’s just the problem. Bradley Inman is developing Vook, a platform for integrating text, video, and social networking. (I learned about Vook from this story.) So, as I see it, Inman is trying to take the single most annoying kind of webpage — the kind that surrounds the text you’re trying to read with animated GIFs and other attention-distracting gambits — the kind that Readability was created in order to help desperate readers avoid — and make it the foundation for a whole publishing platform. This sounds like one of the worst ideas I can imagine. Why would you want to put a bunch of text on a screen and then do everything you can to make it impossible for people to read it?


For years now I have followed the same general practice when trying to read something online, especially on a newspaper or magazine site: first, stumble across an interesting article; second, look for a “print option” so that I can rescue the article from the surrounding noise and clutter of ads and links; third, increase the size of the text to a readable level; fourth and last, read the article. (And that assumes that the “print” option is available — when it isn't, sometimes I just give up and go to another site.) All that has changed, thanks to Readability. Now I find the article, click the Readability bookmarklet in the bookmarks toolbar of any browser I happen to be using, and read away. I think it’s safe to say that no one has made a bigger contribution to online reading than the good folks at arc90. I am very much in their debt. (Also, for those who have similar frustrations while trying to watch YouTube videos, there’s quietube.)


When we talk about reading, and whether The Screen is an enemy of The Book, we need to pause to make distinctions. We need to be aware that we read for several diffferent reasons: for pleasure, for benefits intellectual and academic (these are not always the same) and spiritual. We need to be aware that we read in different modes: the kind of intensely focused attentiveness that the medieval monastic world called studium, the kind of contemplative reflection that world called meditatio, the easy relaxation of reading for fun. We read different kinds of texts: sacred, artful, informative, pleasure-giving. And we read using different instruments:  You can see from the above that it's just not helpful to talk about "the book" and "the screen." The books comes to us via multiple technologies, and there are many kinds of screen, which we interact with in a variety of ways. (Thus the distinctions made by Marshall McLuhan and many other thinkers since about the many and significant differences between watching TV and going to the movies.) You can also see that what makes the Kindle and other e-readers so productive of debates and arguments is their appearance under both "book" and "screen." They are a new way of experiencing books but also a new kind of screen.Distinguo!