As you may have gathered, if you’ve been following along, the reason I no longer post much around here is that I’m in grad school, in a program that doesn’t have anything to do with books. Not usually, anyway. It’s a two-year master’s deal, and I have to come up with a thesis sometime in the next couple of months, so I’m hoping to find some way to work books back into it. In the meantime, however, most of the connection between school and books is in the readings I do for my classes.
A few of these readings are in the form of actual bound books, most of which I’ve bought because I don’t have time to wait for them to be available at the library. Many more of the texts I have to read are stapled photocopies, just as Gutenberg printed them when I was in college six hundred years ago. But the majority of my readings this semester are online, either on good, old-fashioned Web pages or in dedicated e-book sites such as Safari or Books24x7, to which my university subscribes.
So, uh, I know it’s old news, but reading books onscreen sucks.
One of my teachers asked us to fill out a midterm questionnaire, which included the questions, “Are there any specific readings you would recommend removing from the reading list? Any readings you particularly liked? Any good readings that you think should be added to the reading list in the future?” Admirable. But all I could think of, staring at the open text box, was, “What’s the point?” All of the readings for this class are online, and I don’t feel like I’ve retained a single syllable of them, except in the ones that I was able to print out.
The pages from Safari and Books24x7 can’t be printed (you can print from a paid Safari subscription, but we don’t get this option through the university login), and though I can copy and paste them into TextEdit files and then print those, it’s tedious and doesn’t work well with heavily structured books—like, for example, most computer books. 10/24/09: I’m an idiot. Yes, I can print, though the process is tedious, from Safari; Books24x7 still requires the cut-and-paste workaround, however. 10/31/09: So, just to confuse matters further, Safari Books Online has just redesigned, and they killed the HTML view, which was what I’d been printing from. So now you have to print a book one print-sized page at a time. Idiotic—and so unpopular that they’ve promised to fix it. But for now, neither service has a workable print option. Fortunately, complaining to my teacher helped (I was not the only one, apparently): he’s going to start supplying hard copies of our readings. Take that, Paperless Office! And you evil, evil trees!
help! my book is trapped in this tiny, nasty box! (this screenshot is of the old HTML view)
It’s great that we can read excerpts of all these hot, young technical books without having to buy every one. Last semester, in a panic, I bought three computer books at a Barnes & Noble, the only bricks-and-mortar store I know of that even carries computer books in any reasonable imitation of diversity: $157. When I got home and my sanity returned, I ordered those three books “Like New” from Amazon for $71, shipped. Returned the first set. Yes, it’s people like me who are killing the publishing industry and putting people like me out of jobs. And it’s pricing like this which makes a $43/month Safari subscription seem reasonable . . . until I consider that anything I read through Safari feels ephemeral: I don’t read it as attentively as I would on paper, because I just want to get out of that awful reading interface as quickly as possible, and then it’s such a nuisance to relocate something I’ve read there that I’ll never do it again.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t retain much on the first read; the first run-through is just for warmup. If I liked a book or if it’s important, as soon as I get to the end I’ll often start over at the beginning, so that I can really read it. If I had these chapters on paper that I’m supposed to read for school, I’d probably reread parts of them many times; since I don’t, though, I might as well not have read them in the first place. All I’m left with is a fuzzy sense of having seen some words once that were kind of about the subject in question.
This impression of vague, irretrievable information is exacerbated by the dearth of place cues in e-books of all kinds. A few months ago, for the sake of science, I started reading books on my iPod Touch. First, I read The Three Musketeers in the Kindle iPhone app; then I read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in Stanza. Surprisingly, considering that I’m, y’know, a book designer and typesetter, what irritated the !@#$% out of me was not this—
text in Kindle iPhone app
text in Stanza iPhone app
a table, so help me god, in Stanza iPhone app
but rather the near impossibility of thumbing back a few pages’ worth to find something I’d already read. Stanza offers much better wayfinding aids than Kindle, showing your relative position within each chapter (that thin two-tone line along the very bottom of the two Stanza screenshots), and not just within the whole book. But there was still no substitute for that visual aspect of reading, which lets one narrow down a search: “The sentence I’m half-remembering was on a verso page, about five lines from the top,” so you can then scan quickly backward, looking only at that part of each page spread, until you find it.
You can search an e-book, yes, and that’s a big selling point, but it’s not helpful when it’s just a dumb text search. Searching an e-book (assuming the software lets you—the Kindle app, as far as I can tell, does not) is not like searching with The Google, where putting in the wrong terms can still get you to the same place if enough other people have used those terms to link to the page. Nor is it like a good index, which cross-references guinea pig to cavy and back; if I search an e-book of The Three Musketeers for lackey I don’t get all mentions of Mousqueton or vice versa, whereas in a properly indexed edition of the book, I would.
Is this a deal-breaker? Obviously not, since blind people successfully read and retain information from books every day. And I certainly absorbed some information and enjoyment from these less-than-ideal reading experiences. If printed books—all of them—were to disappear today, replaced by electronic ones, I trust that I’d adjust. Somehow.
At the moment, I can’t imagine a reading interface that I’d prefer over a codex-style book, but that says more about my lack of imagination than about present alternatives or future possibilities. Can you think of a good way to indicate position in a book that is either unpaginated or divided into pages so small that they can’t help you remember where you read something?
Also, while you’re at it, can you think of a thesis project for me? Kthxmuch.