What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Another Sydney Writers’ Festival comes to a close, and yet another talk about the ‘future of the book’, this time by acclaimed science writer James Gleick in the closing address of the festival tonight. Gleick’s talk drew heavily from his new book, Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Talks of this nature have become so commonplace at writers’ festivals and in publishing circles that a significant amount of time was set aside to debunk, ridicule and then gently agree with some of the more egregious clichés in this particular genre of literary talk.

To wit: a certain amount of rambling about the smell of books. I’ll be eternally grateful to Gleick for introducing me to the term biblionecrophilia (borrowed from Ben Ehrenreich at the LA Review of Books). However, while he did a good job of making the smell of books feel like an unimportant issue, he spent a good ten minutes on the topic and still left me with the impression that he secretly loves a good whiff of the pages of a slim leatherbound volume. I can’t blame him: I don’t mind the occasional whiff myself.

Gleick also spent a lot of time on the myth of the death of the book. He rounded up a whole herd of related tropes: the death of publishing, printing, the author, the written word and the ‘long form narrative’. All were given a reprieve, thankfully, though he does think some traditional publishers might not “yet think that the experience of ebooks should be beautiful.” He also believes that the publishers who triumph will be those who “regain confidence in their traditional virtues”, especially the “art of editing”. I couldn’t agree more with both assertions, though neither are breaking new ground, as far as observations about the future of the book go.

Having said this, Gleick stopped short of allowing that the form of the book – whether it is within the container of physical pages or inside an e-reading device – will ever change dramatically. The book, he said, is a “narrow communications channel” – and that is a good thing. While he seemed emphatically against the idea of hypertext fiction, he seems to assume that the failure of that venture to make in-roads into serious literature therefore means that interactive fiction never will – and will always be something separate from ‘the book’. The videos, animations and other graphical quirks of ‘enhanced’ ebooks, are no more than improved versions of the photographs and line drawings found in traditional non-fiction books. “Books, after all, have contained pictures, along with words, from the earliest times.” However, he says:

I don’t want hyperlinks in my books, or in the books I’m reading; I don’t want social bookmarking, or opportunities for online dating, or any other form of multitasking. I don’t need a chance to create avatars for my favourite characters. I don’t want anything, that is, to take me out of the book. The book is not a multimedia spectacle with subtitles … They talk about mash-ups, where the creative user can mix and mingle fragments from books at will. They encourage user interfaces that allow annotations by the reader, not just in their private margins, but collective sharing … Books are to be liquefied, seeped out of their bindings. There are smart and famous people who talk as if this is a good thing. I think they couldn’t be more wrong about what books are and what they are destined to become.

Although I’m of two minds myself about the book transforming into a multimedia spectacular, I don’t rule this out as either categorically a bad thing or an impossible one. Not only that, but many of the features Gleick outlines as being both undesirable and impossible have already been implemented by Amazon and others in e-readers that are available for purchase right now. Yet the author, for all the research and historical evidence he has accumulated demonstrating time and again the inevitability of change – still firmly believes that the narrative long form book is both superior to other forms of storytelling and will not ever be superseded. Does this come from any kind of evidence? Or is this just what James Gleick wants to happen?

My question for you all today is what we talk about, now and in the future, when we talk about books. It seems clear that the establishment is (reluctantly) ready to accept the ebook as a tolerable receptacle of book-like knowledge – but what about the enhanced ebook? What about fully interactive book apps? Where do you draw the line? And how much do you think the boundaries of what we consider a book now will change in the future? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

iPad 2 Sells Out in the US: Should You Buy One?

 

As some of you may already know, the iPad 2 was announced on 2 March, and released on Friday in the US to much fanfare. News has officially surfaced about the tablet sales over the weekend and it seems overwhelmingly good (for Apple, at least): the iPad 2 has completely sold out, and sold more than half as many again as the original iPad. What does this mean for Australians – and more importantly, what does it mean for you?

The answer? Not much. Going by the early reviews of the second iteration, your decision to get an iPad should not be much different from when the first one was launched last year. If you were waiting for Apple to iron out the bugs for the second version, then wait no more – the iPad is ready. If you were dubious about the iPad the first time around, then it’s likely you’ll feel exactly the same way now.

Almost a year on from getting my iPad, I realise that although it’s a desirable product, it is something I found a use for rather than found useful in and of itself. It is a gadget, and as a gadget lover it is a beautiful thing. As an editor, I’ve found the iPad far more useful than I thought it would be. It’s versatile enough to read any manuscript you can throw at it, and as a device for editing it is as good or better than a laptop. As an avid reader of websites, blogs and other social media, it is a device that fits somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop. It’s also fantastic for travelling – ten hours of battery life takes you a good long way into a long haul plane trip. It is not ideal for writing – the on-screen keyboard is great for short bursts of text but for the most part it is inferior to a laptop.

For most casual users of a computer who are not yet in the habit of checking social media sites or email every hour or so, it is less useful than a laptop, and not as specialised as an e-reader in either battery life, screen quality or heft. And that means it falls between use cases. I am not an average user, and the iPad is not an average gadget.

For the most part, people still don’t really know why they want an iPad (or any tablet for that matter). Apple seems to be adjusting their own expectations as well. The original iPad was launched with a keyboard dock and a suite of Office-like apps. The iPad 2 has dropped the keyboard dock and is now concentrating almost entirely on casual media creation – it sports new video editing and music mixing apps, as well as a photo booth app for taking and editing photos.

Having said all that, if you’re still entranced by the shiny new iPad 2, and you have the money, then you should get it. This is a purpose-defining gadget – something you will use once you own, because it is a pleasure to use. If you’re a reader of ebooks, despite all my reservations about the direction Apple is going in, it is still more open and more versatile than a Kindle (or any other straight e-reader).

 

GIVEAWAY WINNER

It’s my pleasure to announce the winner for my last post’s giveaway. Congratulations to Melinda! I’ll be in touch with Melinda by email this evening to arrange the $100 worth of Booku Bucks.

What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

Has the focus on reading – and reading anything you want – been swept aside in order to make it easier to buy content? Until very recently, relatively speaking, e-reading was all about what digital text you could get your hands on. Most of it was free, out-of-copyright stuff from the web. Some of it came via longform journalism (also on the web). And some of it, yes, came from piracy. Although nowadays content can be purchased easily from multiple sources, I would argue the e-reading experience as a whole has not improved as much as Apple, Amazon, Google and their ilk would have us believe.

I first started reading ebooks and other digital content on a Palm Zire in 2003. It had a tiny screen, no wireless capabilities, and the only two stores you could buy content from were Mobipocket and eReader (both of which have since been bought out and absorbed by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively). At the time there were virtually no books available on these stores that I actually wanted to read, so my reading was heavily supplemented by free material from elsewhere. To add my own reading material, I had to convert the files manually, plug the device into my computer and transfer them across. Although wireless and screen technology are light years ahead of my old Palm Zire, the process of reading non-standard material  has not really changed dramatically since then.

At the time I owned the Zire, I also had a first generation iPod, which seemed to me to be the most amazing piece of technology ever. Just plug it in and fill it up with music. Conversion and transfer was all handled through iTunes, which could also organise your music library and play your music for you when you were at your computer. People have had their share of complaints about iTunes, and I certainly have issues with it in its current incarnation, but to begin with it was an incredibly freeing experience. The iPod was portable digital music. To your iPod, the music you got from a CD (or free off the web) was no different to the stuff you could buy (much later) from iTunes itself.

So where was the iPod moment for e-reading? It has never come. Although the Kindle ecosystem has come the closest to recreating the ease of use of the iPod it’s still not there yet, and may never be. Primarily it is a device intended to be used with purchased content – and that content has to come from the Kindle store. Can you imagine if you were only able to load songs onto your iPod if you’d bought it from Apple first? The iPod would never have achieved such a dominant position with such a narrow focus.

Where is the device out there that puts the act of reading at the centre of the experience? Where is the device that doesn’t care where your text comes from, but just wants you to read? My list of demands is not unachievable. Completely wireless loading and conversion of any piece of text I’d like to read; a built-in dictionary; highlighting and annotation (and wireless export of these annotations); Bookmark syncing between devices; and, of course, the sharing of passages and annotations through social networks. Most of these features are available to readers if you buy your books through Amazon or Apple and only read on a Kindle or an iPad – but what about other content? Reading has never been just about blindly buying what’s served up to you in a store – it’s an organic, social experience. And none of the major reading platforms cater to that.

My ideal reading platform has not been created yet. All the major players are far more interested in locking you into the device they make and the content they provide than wanting you to have an ideal reading experience. But I suspect that when that platform comes along, there will be another iPod moment. And the way things are going I very much doubt it’s going to be Apple or Amazon.

What do you think? What do you want from your e-reader? Are you happy with what’s already out there? Or do you think I’m just being a giant early-adopting whiner? Sound off in the comments.