Thursday, November 4, 2010

E-books, narrative context and the future of reading

Here is today's set of desultory thoughts, this time about where technology and narrative come together in e-books.

The end of the line, or, a unique opportunity

About two years ago I found that the time had come to read the works of Anton Chekhov. (Oh God, she's on about literature again -- No! It's about technology! Computers!) Ahem. The trouble was, there is apparently no comprehensive published English version of all of Chekhov's 200+ short stories. Instead, several compilations overlapped, and to read the entire set I would have to buy some stories three or four times. I calculated that to buy the entire set with the repetitions would cost about $120. But all of the earlier translations of Chekhov's work are available for free on the internet. The books would cost almost as much as an e-book reader. The perfect opportunity had come to enter the e-book revolution.

So I bought a Sony Reader. Since then I've read not only all of Chekhov's works on it, but also a few dozen novels and plays as well as three entire Star Trek series in transcript form. The reader has paid for itself three or four times. It's a nice device, small and light, easy to read and use. It holds its charge fairly well and can even be used in a hot bathtub with the addition of an AquaPac protector. I have loaded about 200 free books onto it, most from the excellent Many more are to be had there and elsewhere. (I use the also quite good calibre to manage my holdings.) I don't travel much lately, but I can imagine it would be wonderful to travel with the next hundred novels you might like to read in your pocket. "It's my new best friend," I told my husband.

But the bloom of friendship has faded. I have become increasingly unhappy with the reading experience I get from my e-book reader. Because I wanted to read some authors whose works are not available for free, I've been bouncing back and forth between the e-book reader and real books for most of the last two years. It has taken all that time to understand what is wrong with reading on the e-book reader, but I've finally figured it out. It has to do with the stories of stories.

A warning: I am going to talk quite a lot about what I do when I read books, on the e-book reader and elsewhere. I know everyone reads books in their own ways, and I don't mean to say that I am somehow magically representative of all readers. This is very much my own view based on my own experiences. But it still may be useful and interesting, if you like reading or e-books.

What happens when I read a book

When I read a real physical book, I connect the story told within it to the story of my life using the physical book as a sort of recording device. Here is where I nearly dropped the book into the bathtub; here is where I carried it to the living room and read it half the night (that's the non-water-warped part); here is a jelly stain from breakfast; here is the place where I lost it for a week under the mail; here is the place I copied a paragraph out to put on my blog; here is the spot I marked to read out to my husband; here is where I grasped the book so strongly during a tense moment that I broke part of the spine; and so on. Some of my favorite books have forests of sticky notes coming out of them at all angles; some have small and large dog-ears; some obligingly fall open to the same spot every time. Each book becomes a record of my reading, a story surrounding the story inside it. The changes I make to a book as I read it, sometimes more than once, remind me of what the book means to me.

In my parents' library is a series of books handed down from my paternal grandfather, who was also a great book lover. In each of his books he wrote the dates on which he read it. When I was a child I would read those books and think about how I was following after the grandfather I had never met, reading his story along with the stories inside. Every time I think of Zane Grey or F. Hopkinson Smith or E.D.E.N. Southworth or the other authors of books he left behind, I remember those days in the library, touching his writing and thinking how those books connected our stories. It may be why I treasure my own library so much.

In my own library, one of my favorite things to do in odd moments is to let my eyes run over the books on the shelves. As I glance at each book I recall not only the story contained inside it but also the story of my reading it: how I felt when I encountered each surprise and disappointment and elation, and what was happening in my life when I felt those things. I remember why I read each book, what came before it and after it, what it meant to me at the time. Looking at a shelf full of books I've read becomes a way of remembering life itself. Around the time I was reading Jane Austen and George Eliot I made the dreadful mistake of clearing out some books, and I feel sometimes like that year of my life is missing from my memory because I don't have my milestones to mark it. Some books recall several periods: my copy of Naguib Mahfouz' Children of Gebelawi has been read several times, as has Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, and those books greet me as old friends should. I know some people journal their book reading, and I wish I had started on that back when, but it seems silly to start now, halfway through my reading life (if I had the time for it). I use the books themselves as my journal.

Now before I am attacked as a profligate book-waster, let me say this: I am fully aware that dog-earing books and reading books in the bathtub are flaws in my character (that's what husbands are for). I'm aware that I shouldn't presume everyone else has these ruinous habits, and I'm aware that many people read library books and return them in pristine condition, as they should. However, even when I treat books with more care, I still use them as connective tissue. I was certainly ginger with my grandfather's books, and I remember them well. I didn't own the copy of Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales I read yearly as a child, but when I did buy a copy of the book as an adult, I made sure it looked a lot like the one I treasured in my school library, so the memories would have somewhere to settle down. If you read mainly library books, imagine visiting your favorite shelf in your local library, with all its familiar smells and rustlings. Do you not visit your memories as you run your eyes over the books, then select one and peruse its headings and sections and beloved little flaws? Does each book not tell you the story of your time together?

Peering through the porthole

Now, to the e-book. It has no context, or rather, its context is reused with every book read on it, so it has no context. Just now I'm reading Dickens' Little Dorrit on my e-book reader, and every time I pick up the thing I think "Ah, I'm reading Great Expectations. It's Pip. How nice to -- wait -- it's not Pip, it's -- what am I reading?" It is not until I've read a few lines on the page that I can put myself into the right context.

I have tried to articulate the feeling I get when I read on the e-book reader, and I've settled on something like this. It's like I'm in a submarine or time-traveling pod or supersonic spaceship or something, and I'm looking out at the world through a tiny porthole window. The world outside the window keeps changing because the submarine or pod or spaceship keeps moving, but the window always stays the same. I remember the window, but I can't keep track of the changing world outside it because the frame of reference never changes. The window seems more real than the view.

You might ask, if reading on an e-book reader is like looking through a tiny window, aren't all experiences on computers like that? Yes, but it depends on your real estate. In my work I use four screens with about five million combined pixels, so if it's a window it's a big one. (General advice to programmers, writers and other detail workers: if you want to be more productive, get more real estate. It's magical.) In my screen world I maintain different lands with different meanings in the story of my work. Here is the e-mail train station where I speak to people in hushed conspiratorial tones; there is the gleaming future world of here-you-are-there-you-are Skype sky-ports; here is the musty file cabinet with its higgledy-piggledy heaps of past mistakes and triumphs; there whirrs the gears-and-levers programming environment; the accusing calendar lives here; and so on. I lay out my screen world in a way that helps me remember the stories that play out on it, and I never vary its meanings. If I have to temporarily put the e-mail on another screen, I can hardly read it: the train riders wander in the sky-port looking for the gaslights among the laser beams.

When I use a laptop I also get the peering-through-a-porthole feeling, but the e-book reader is even worse than that. At least on the laptop you have some semblance of a landscape, with the seaside docks, the icon peaks, the soaring menu ridge and the great desktop hinterlands. But on the e-book reader, there is only one space, it is always filled with words, and the words are about anything and everything. There is no there there.

This would not matter, except that it leads to something. I cannot remember Chekhov's short stories. I keep searching my mind, and the only one I can find any remembrance of at all is "The Lady with the Little Dog", because I saw a picture for the compilation with that title on Yes, I'm saying that I can only remember the book I didn't buy. That doesn't seem right. In fact I realized with growing concern that I can't bring to mind any of the stories I've read on the e-book reader, at least not in the intense, deeply connected way I usually remember books I've read. I read The Idiot once on the e-book reader and once in a paper book (for the new translation). Where do I look to ponder The Idiot? The paper book. The story lives there. It was on the e-book reader for a little while, but it left no trace when it left. It was just a window.

All this makes me wonder whether my investment in the e-book reader was indeed valuable. If I can read lots of books for free, but I can't remember any of them, was it such a good idea? What is the value of a book you read but can't remember or connect to your life? Isn't that why we read? To make sense of our own lives?

Perhaps I am unique in being such a thoroughly visual thinker; but surely I am not the only person on the planet who has had such a porthole experience with e-books or who has had trouble remembering books read in this way. If that's true (and let's pretend it is for the moment) it has implications for the way we all remember and weave together the stories we read on non-paper devices.

Connecting stories with their stories

So, I've been thinking. What would an e-book reader look like that did not sacrifice narrative context? What would take me through the porthole and into the world beyond? How could I get the convenience of the e-book reader without losing the connected narrative of the real book? What are the essential elements of narrative connection a real book provides that an e-book reader does not now provide but could?

To start with, e-book readers could connect narrated and narrative events by preserving the story of the story. Stories are made up of narrated events: things that happen in the story. The story of you reading a story is made up of narrative events: things that happen as the story is told. You feel emotions; you are surprised; you are disappointed; you notice things; you ponder. When I read a physical book, I build the connections between narrated and narrative events by repeatedly looking at the book, the picture on the cover, my progress through the book, and my physical location and circumstances as things happen within it. I use the context of my reading at the moment of the narrative event to keep in memory the connection between it and the narrated events it depends on, so I can find it again. This is similar to people remembering where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy was assassinated or Reagan was shot or the Challenger exploded or 9/11 happened. People remember events partly by remembering context, and we do this when we experience stories as well.

To give an example, recently I was reading Dickens' Great Expectations. A significant moment in the story of my reading, not only of this book but of this genre, was as I will now describe. It grew upon me that when Dickens switched from describing Pip's humble childhood as the poor adopted son of a blacksmith to describing his "coming up" as a newly-financed gentleman of society, the writing style changed. I could be wrong, but I got a strong sense that Dickens felt more at ease describing someone of his own class and was able to take on both a more jocular tone and a more authentic one. I felt a loss of stiffness in his writing as he arrived at his social-class home. This sense was strengthened later, when the narrated events returned to the blacksmith's home and Dickens wrote a chapter that made me cringe. He jarringly carried the jocular tone into a rural funeral and poked fun at the local color when hushed reverence would have been more appropriate. I felt almost ashamed for his mistake and thought he must have realized it also. But since most of Dickens' work was published in segments, there must have been little he could do even the next month after the chapter was published. My guess is that Dickens got carried away with his satirical description of the funeral and didn't realize he was carrying the disdain of Pip's new higher-class world with him as he went back into the poor village. This was a significant moment in my understanding of Great Expectations, of Dickens' work, and of the work of all the social-causes novelists of Dickens' day. My mind immediately flew to the work of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy. Poor people didn't write novels about poor people, and that has implications I had never noticed before.

If I had read Great Expectations in a physical book, I would remember that entire realization, with all its manifestations intact, every time I looked at the book on the shelf, and more so when I sought out the pages where the realization took place. However, because I read it in my e-book reader, I can only remember it now because I just read Great Expectations two weeks ago. And my sole visual tag for the realization is: bathtub. It was in the bathtub. That's all I remember, and it's not much to go on, and it will be soon lost, written over by more "it was in the bathtub" memory fragments. I'm sure within a year if you tell me about it I will be surprised. I don't think I like that.

How could e-book readers help people build stronger connections between narrated and narrative events? As I mentioned above, my books come to tell a story of how I read them, and I read that story along with the book years later. If we put aside the fact that I shouldn't be ruining books in this way, we can examine what constitutes that larger story and how an e-book reader could do something like it.

To begin with, water marks show me whether I read the book in the bath or out of it (which is telling in itself). Places that fall open tell me that I either loved a spot and copied it out, or lost or abandoned the book open. It could be either, but I always remember which it was on seeing it; excessive loving looks different than abandonment. Places where the pages are ripped, marked or in disarray are places where the book had an accident (child colored on it, dog walked over it, coffee fell on it) or I had an accident with the story (it upset me, like the time I threw Anna Karenina across the room on finding that Tolstoy had betrayed my trust).

Dog-ears are also great story-of-the-story recorders. Little dog-ears mean "here is where I am" while big dog-ears shout "OH MY GOD!". The distance between dog-ears is also a recording device. If a long series of pages has no dog-ears, it either means I loved that part so much that I put aside other things (possibly sleep) to take it in, or that I hated the part so much I flew over it quickly to get to what came after. Sections with lots of dog-ears either mean I was very busy at the time and read it in snippets, or that it was so dense with meaning that I read and re-read every paragraph trying to tease out the meaning. Some books that slowly revealed critical elements have special very large dog-ears, or even sticky notes, that I kept returning to as I pondered "did he really mean that?" or "was she getting at this?". Books with dog-ears in both the main body of the text and the "notes on this text" section had enjoyable explanations of minutiae. Where the dog-ears appear in relation to chapters is also telling. If they appear only at chapter ends, it usually means I found the book so compelling I was probably telling somebody "I'll stop at the end of this chapter, I promise." When the dog-ears are not at the end of chapters, it means I could bear to turn away at other times, which means either that the book was not that compelling, or that I had no spare time that week. In short, the pattern of dog-ears on a book recalls the story of its reading at a level of detail that allows me to access the full story of the story.

This is where I think e-book readers could excel and even surpass physical books if they tried. There is an endless parade of useful data an e-book reader could capture, process and present; and as it happens, that's what computers do best. Suppose you look at a book on your e-book reader that you read a few years back. Suppose you can see: which parts you read fast and which slow; where you paused or paced back and forth between pages; which pages you went back to over and over; where you veered off the book to check something on the internet and how long before you returned; what words you looked up the meanings of; in what position you held the reader at each moment (were you looking up at it? down? sideways?); the humidity and temperature and amount of ambient light in the room; whether you gripped the tablet tightly or left it lying down; when you referenced the table of contents; when you looked at the cover picture and with what degree of detail and for how long; how gently or jarringly you put down the reader (with reverence? with disdain?); whether you carried it with rhythmic motion in your bag; whether it flew on an airplane or rode on a train; whether it sat in a drawer untouched for months; whether you read it out loud; whether you copied out text to post to the internet; and on and on through many nuances of the way people read and carry and converse with books.

Imagine if, while reading, you could tap a word or sentence to make a mark that meant "this mattered" but without the distraction of having to articulate it in words. Gestures could form a conduit between narrative and narrated events. Say you could tap a word or sentence or paragraph and the e-book reader could record how you tapped it. You might blot it out, cross it out, highlight it, drum out an exactly-so song on it, give it a gentle caress, slap it, stroke it, touch it gently, or poke it in anger.

We handle our physical books in all these ways, don't we? Have you ever caught yourself stroking a page when someone was hurt, as you would stroke the cheek of a crying child? Have you ever poked at a passage or slapped at a page that offended you? Have you ever thrown a book across the room or slapped it down on a table? Have you ever held a book to your cheek or cradled it in your arms? Have you ever patted or petted a book? (If you have not yet done any of these things, reader, you have not yet read a book.) Why can't e-book readers record our reactions in the same way real books do? An e-book reader is too strong to show marks of caress or violence, but many of our new technological devices can tell if we shake them or stroke them or hold them upside-down. Why shouldn't an e-book reader use that information to help us record our reading story? It would go some way toward building connections between events inside the story and events in our lives.

And do you talk to your books? Do you say "HA!" and "ooooh" and "oh come on"? Do you argue with your books? Do you chastise the characters? Why can't an e-book reader capture that and tell you the story of it later?

Here's a funny thing: it looks like the Kindle designers have got this exactly backward. Here is a bit of their promotional material:
The most elegant feature of a physical book is that it disappears while you're reading. Immersed in the author's world and ideas, you don't notice a book's glue, the stitching, or ink. Our top design objective was to make Kindle disappear—just like a physical book—so you can get lost in your reading, not the technology.
But a physical book doesn't disappear while you're reading; it holds and records your reading. That's exactly what is wrong with e-book readers, not what is right. Clearly these people need to talk to more readers.
What about deliberate bookmarks and notes? My Sony reader has bookmarks, and you can take notes on some of the newer e-book readers. I like both of these features, but there is something wrong with the way they are implemented. They are not enticing. They are hidden and easy to forget about and pass over. They don't tell the story of the story. When I make notes in a real book, I use sticky notes, because they stick out and draw my attention, even years or decades later. Sticky notes are bookmarks, annotations, and historical records combined. If the notes on an e-book could somehow stick out -- perhaps as little ticks or tabs on the book's event-studded story-of-the-story timeline -- I would surely be intrigued to find out what I wrote then, as I do when I see a book with sticky notes of different colors sticking out of it.

But I rarely add sticky notes to fiction. I annotate things, but I don't annotate people. It feels wrong to put sticky notes on the people in stories. It feels disrespectful. I'd rather touch them or speak to them than stick bits of paper on them. I wonder if the e-book reader designers are thinking of non-fiction? I wonder if they have really considered the narrative experience? Would an e-novel reader be different than an e-book reader?

A sense of character

There are two other useful analogues in the things I do with physical books that I haven't mentioned yet. (And here I pause to repeat my warning at the start: I am not the world's readers, so take this for what it brings to you, not more.) While I am reading a book I frequently peer at the cover. I love doing this so much that when I'm buying a book, if there are multiple editions available (there often are for older books), I look over the different covers and choose the one with the most memorable picture. I remember gazing at Madame Bovary over and over as I absorbed the events in the book. Granted, the pictures on the covers of most old books have nothing to do with the book and come from a painting of the same time period, but if some knowledgeable editor felt I could get something out of gazing at the painting they chose, I'm willing to trust them.

Whether it has a great cover picture or not, the physical form of each book -- its paper, its print, its fonts, its chapter headings -- becomes imbued with the book's character as I read it, and that character places it within a society of other books. When I look over my shelves of books I visit the stories and remember them and the stories of how I read them. My books are segregated by subject matter (fiction, physics, gardening) but not within that, simply because I have no time; but in my dotage I will probably arrange them in elaborate ways. I've heard of people who arrange their books by character, placing next to each other books that will "get along." Being a contrarian I think I may do the opposite. I already have Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian next to D. James Kennedy's Why I Believe. But in general the placement of books on shelves is another device we book lovers use to record the story of our reading, this time at the level that arcs across several decades of our lives.

How could an e-book reader facilitate the recording and telling of the larger story of a life's reading? Again, there is abundant information for the reaping. My e-book reader could show me: when I read each book; when I re-read it; what I read before and after it; which books took me a long time to read and which were eaten up quickly; which books have the most notes, dog-ears, pauses, back-and-forthings, dictionary look-ups, text copyings; which books I never finished; which I read out loud; which I read on a train, on a bus, in the air, in the kitchen, in the bath; how many books I read of each author; which authors I read all together and which I read intermingled with others; how the genres mapped out over time; which books I left and came back to; which books I cradled gently and which I threw down; which covers I stared at over and over and which I barely glanced at.

All of this information could be shown on the bookshelf inside the device, instead of a simple list of title, author, and genre. In addition, if books were represented by, say, little book-shaped icons, I might be able to shift them about and group them in meaningful-only-to-me ways that change over time. I might leave a book out on my virtual nightstand, or I might hide one in my "nasty books I hated" cupboard, or I might copy one into my "great gifts for the nieces" box, or I might leave one out on my virtual kitchen table so I'll remember to mention it to my neighbor the next time I see her. Why can't an e-book reader manage all this? No reason it can't.

The future of e-book reading, or at least the future of mine

So, will I abandon my e-book spaceship, escape its tiny porthole and walk freely in the world beyond? Meaning, will I go back to buying only real books? I don't know. I have a strong urge to buy all of Chekhov's works on paper and read them again so I can experience them differently. But for the same price I can buy a Kindle, so here we go round again. What the Kindle appears to offer me at this point is a middle path, where I force myself into regular note-taking to bridge the gap between device and need using my own rules and practices. If I can learn to read books in a new way, perhaps I can make an e-book reader work even though I am looking through a tiny porthole.

But I'm not satisfied with such stop-gap measures. I want a better spaceship. One that doesn't confine me. One that won't make me nervous, wondering what to do. One that makes me feel like I feel when I'm with books. My new spaceship should be made of glass, maybe, and it should talk to me. Yeah, and ask me questions and say "Something getting you down?" and "What did you think of that?" and that sort of thing. And if I say, years later, "Do you remember when we went to the desert planet?" it should say "I sure do" and launch into a funny story about our trip together and all the things we learned there. Which is all a way of saying that I hope someday e-book readers will mature enough to provide reliable support for the meaningful interweaving of stories into our lives that is the reason we read books in the first place.

[Update: Another post about this topic here.]


John said...

Good post, I love books as physical objects as well. Here is a small footnote to your very good reasons to love the actual book more than the electronic replica. Like many people, I deliberately leave mementos in books-- postcards, photos, anything on paper that I think might enjoy finding years later. This past summer my daughter was visiting and I pulled some books from my shelves for her to take home. As she was leafing through one of them, out dropped a word search puzzle that she had created as a young girl. Yesterday morning I was going through my old books on photography criticism looking for a broader definition of social documentary photography than the one posted in Wikipedia. To my delight, one book of essays was bookmarked with a gallery notice from an exhibition I was part of more than 25 years ago.
It seems to me that the actual object (as opposed to the replica) will always provide us with richer experiences-- experiences of the object as well as with the object.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

John, thanks for the comment, and thanks the valuable addition to our portrait of what real books are good for. I don't often put things in books myself, simply because things put in books tend to fall into the bathtub (don't ask why I know that). But you are right, this is another way in which real books can hold memories, sometimes literally, while e-books cannot. I could imagine an e-book tapping into this by providing the means to snap photos of things and places and "tuck" them into books so they could "fall out" later. Why not? It's just another part of the interweaving. I love it.


Indy said...

I'm possibly the opposite reader, when I read fiction (as opposed to work/non-fiction) books I treat them as gently as I can. I don't dog ear and my experience of fiction isn't something I generally make notes on.

And yet, I realise that feel the same way you do about real books. Seeing it on the shelf, feeling the combination of words and paper texture in my copy, the graphic on the front... These are all anchor points for me. I hadn't been able to articulate it before, but there it is, the reason I still haven't tried an e-book reader.

On your point about gestures, a friend has enjoyed making notes in iBooks on her iPad - although here in the UK she is frustrated by the lack of books on sale in that format. I think we'll see some even more interesting book reading - note taking possibilities over the next year.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Indy, thanks for the comment! I like how you said "my experience of fiction isn't something I generally make notes on" -- good way of describing it. Fiction is all about emotion and connection, which is not the same as taking notes for later reference, is it? I also like your term "anchor points" which gets directly to what I was trying to say (and faster too).

That's interesting to hear about notes being useful on the iPad. I wonder what sorts of "anchoring" annotations might be most useful for interweaving fiction into our lives. I've been thinking of a pseudo-gesture language, something like very short notes that record simple emotional reactions without extensive articulation. Like, oooooh, ha!, oh!, whoa, yeah right, hee hee, and so on. It's certainly not ideal, but it might suffice for a stopgap until the e-book powers-that-be notice some people are interweaving stories rather than just reading books on these things. One good thing about the iPad is that it has apps, so anybody could write a better e-book reader for it. That might be exciting ...

Thanks again - comments make the world go round :)