I think one of my bookselling colleagues thinks I have sold my soul to the Dark Side by purchasing an iPad. She practically ran away from it (and me) at a recent conference when I unveiled the thing.
It was a funny moment, because I absolutely understand her horror: the growing digital-book market is affecting all booksellers and we don’t know where and how the smaller indies will fit in—if at all—and what that will mean to our already challenged bottom lines.
On the other hand, I want to know what this format means, what it looks like in its most appealing state, how it works, what it does and doesn’t do in contrast to printed books, and try to guess where this whole digital reading thing is likely to head, and how I as a bookseller fit into the equation.
I’m a die-hard lover of real books (r-books, if you must, publishing people, or b-books for bound books, but never, EVER “p-books”—physical books—a term that has been bandied about mainly by e-book proponents who I am sure have tongues firmly planted in gleeful cheeks; call them p-books and I guarantee they will not gain cool points on the playgrounds of our fair nation). I will always love the feel of books: the smooth square fit-in-your-hand secret treasures and the big glossy coffee-table books, the books with pebbly matte covers, toothy papers, and deckled edges, the books that are improbably light or heavy for their sizes. I love the smell of books, of course, of fresh ink and also the lightly toasted smell of library books. I love running my fingers along age-softened pages, and fanning the bound sheaves of paper, and flipping back and forth to find favorite passages. I love the solidity, the heft, of a book at my side, the comforting there-ness of the object itself and the world it contains. This will never change. I’m a total bookie, and proud of it.
But I also grew up with a father who was irresistibly drawn to new gadgets, and I inherited his curiosity. I grew up at the dawn of the new technological era, old enough to remember a time without computers but young enough to adopt them with an easy, quick familiarity. I loved the Jetsons. Heck, in middle school, I subscribed to Omni (a magazine devoted to science and science fiction, my favorite section being the one describing future tech). So I straddle both old and new worlds with an opinionated but fairly open mind. At least, I try.
So, the iPad. It seemed like a waste of money to buy a giant version of my iPhone with fewer features, but I’ve felt increasingly frustrated not to be able to participate in discussions about e-books without a viable e-reader to experiment with. What really clinched my decision was an early May afternoon at the Apple store, where I’d gone to replace a laptop cable and saw Winnie-the-Pooh on the demonstration iPad.
The pages were crisp, bright, appealing; the graphics looked charming and unchanged from the original (well, unchanged from their color versions, which I have come to accept over the years). All in all, it looked like an e-book even bibliophiles would admire. Its very appeal alarmed me. So Winnie on the iPad (and the approach of BEA at the end of May) made me bite the bullet and buy.
I’d seen articles and raves for two books specially altered and formatted for the iPad. The first was The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray. There’s an impressive video in which the infectiously enthusiastic author shows how he used the graphic advantages of the iPad — motion, 3D capabilities — in order to bring the elements to life in a way that the printed book — as handsome as it is — cannot. I acquired The Elements by shelling out $13.99 at Apple’s app store, an act made especially painful by the fact that the hardcover version is still $29.95 in bookstores. I felt the first sting of competition. But then I marveled. The book in this form is truly amazing, a fantastic use of the technology. One can view all of the photos in motion, in three dimensions, from all sides, and zoom in close to objects that, in a bound book, are of course locked at a set size. This is the kind of book the iPad should be used to produce. (Side note: the book is sold in the app store but doesn’t seem to be available in the company’s new iBooks store. Odd.)
Exploring The Elements made me think of other books, other genres, that might benefit from iPad development. History, for instance. Imagine reading Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching to Freedom, that most excellent book, onscreen, and being able to touch a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and watch him spring to life, delivering a speech that you can listen to then and there. Or imagine following the Selma march route as a virtual protestor, seeing the landscape unfold as you ‘walk,’ and getting a feel for the sheer length of the walk. Or getting to hear the songs Partridge refers to in the text. All of those could be a powerful experience for readers, especially for young readers whose knowledge of history and contextual understanding are still nascent. I can imagine books in just about every area of cultural or scientific study enriched in this way, and be happy about it.
But not every book benefits from screen conversion.
The other iPad book I was eager to see was an adapted version of Alice in Wonderland that was similarly hailed as revolutionary, interactive, and gorgeous. It was all of these things. But it was also… curiously flat as a reading experience. First of all, it’s greatly abridged — which automatically turns the book into a different animal. Secondly, it’s so handsome, so glossy and slick, that there is no room for the reader in it. When kids read, they create the world along with the writer. Pictures serve as touchstones, but the real world-building in books goes on inside the reader’s head. This app is more like TV, in that the reader is more of a passive receptacle for the media experience of the book than a co-creator.
The interactive elements — falling and suspended objects you can manipulate and move by touching and tilting the screen — are entertaining the first time around but I suspect pretty soon will seem rudimentary given what the iPad medium is capable of.
I don’t mean to pick on this Alice, which was obviously thoughtfully and creatively designed, but its very beauty makes its limitations more evident, and makes what is missing stand out.
For instance, when you think of Alice in Wonderland, one of the most iconic images in a reader’s mind is that of Alice falling down the rabbit hole — that long, long, endlessly l-o-n-g drift downward. You can see it in your mind’s eye, that drop, can’t you? Yet in this Alice, the journey is truncated to the point of near irrelevancy.
The text, cut from a page and a half in the original to a few sentences, just doesn’t do justice to the girl or the rabbit hole. Visually, the designers chose to use as the falling object (one that actually drops quickly from the top of the page to the bottom when you turn to the page), not Alice, but the rather insignificant jar of marmalade she picks up and discards on the way down. Alice’s fall is all but lost. Here, the design replaced the literature rather than enriching it.
To me, this symbolizes the biggest problem with adapted e-books: the transformation of it into a one-way experience, beaming out at the viewer like a TV show. With recent studies showing that the human brain while watching TV is less active than the brain while it’s asleep (!), this is something to think about. There is a danger in losing the conversation that a book sparks between writer and reader.
So that, dear virtual readers, is my e-reader experience so far: a mix of awe and ehh. Like it or not, the technology is here to stay, and since it will only get better over time, we booksellers do need to figure out how to participate in that market. However, the experience of reading a book in hand and a book on screen are different enough that as long as there are trees, there will always be a need and a desire for both formats. So I don’t think we have to start succession planning just yet, or shelter ourselves from pieces of the falling sky.
Colleagues, have you read digital books? Avoided them? Made peace with them? Found a way to share the market? I’d love to hear what your experiences have been.
P.S. There’s a good article comparing e-readers here.