Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘e-readers’

Reading is a Technology that is still Changing

When Greeks began to write, Plato lamented this new technology, claiming it would ruin learning and memory. Instead of having to memorize everything, people could store knowledge externally in print and in text form. If you have some time to read more about how writing is a technology, check out this article (warning: it’s long and dense). In the long run, people still retained knowledge and added to our knowledge base over the millennia in art, science, math, literature, and so on. We live in an age where one newspaper may contain more information than the average citizen might come across in a lifetime just a few centuries ago. But how well are we remember these days in a new era? Nick Carr explores how we treat memory and attention span differently know that we are constantly on the Internet and can store vast amounts of information in cyberspace. Why remember when Marie Antoinette was beheaded when you can look it up in seconds on Wikipedia? Why memorize your friends’ phone numbers when they’re stored on a mobile device?

Out With the Old, In With the New 

I’m getting off topic, but what I mean is that whenever we develop a new way to store and disseminate information, we evaluate if this new technology will affect our way of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. And it usually does, although we cannot fully analyze the long term effects for decades. Along with multitasking and web surfing affecting our train of thought and ability to concentrate  we’re changing the way we read because of the e-book. I read an article that explores this topic. I’ve already talked about how e-books change reading comprehension for people who’ve grown up on print books (though not children). I’ve also talked a little bit about how some publishers and retailers like Amazon want to make reading social with shared underlinings and annotations (Amazon, stop sharing my notes! It’s creepy); some applications like Riffle try to make reading and recommendations a social media experience.

But apart from sharing our highlights and notes, e-readers gather information about our reading habits–how quickly we read, where we stop and start reading, how often we read, etc. What you read and how you read it is no longer your private information. This is obvious when we get book recommendations from retailers, but publishers might use this gathered information to encourage readers to edit. For example, if readers on average stop around page 50, the publisher might recommend that the writer shorten the exposition. What if a book you buy is automatically tailored to your tastes via algorithms that know your buying habits and your preferences? What if readers have the option to group edit a text? Of course, publishers have been coming out with new editions of books for years, but usually a new edition takes a while to write and is widely publicized.  What if the edition is specific to you, or you never know that what you’re reading isn’t what came out originally? What if the accessibility of a book is dependent on other readers? All of a sudden, that quiet, private afternoon curled up with a book seems way more disturbing and intrusive.

Is Sharing Caring? 

Mikhail Bakhtin theorized about the relationship between writer, audience, and genre. From what I can remember, a writer writes a book and publishes it, but its reception and genre is dependent on audience. For example, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was intended as an adult novel, but now it is widely considered YA fiction, though much of the content is memoir. Now, that relationship might books more malleable and changeable than ever before: writer publishes book, audience reads book on an e-reader, publisher gathers information and edits the book, and the book comes out again in a new, revised form based on the reader’s preferences and tastes.

I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. If publishers really do start changing books to appeal to the audience preference’s, both the author’s autonomy and the reader’s choice will be limited. However, as long as the original print version is still available, I guess I’ll just switch back to print instead of risking reading a book that is not what the author intended. I would like to interpret and make reading decisions for myself, thanks very much.

The E-Reader Wars

Okay, fine, that title is a little incendiary. But the wars behind e-readers are varied: libraries getting mad at publishers because publishers limit the number of e-rentals before the libraries have to pay again; price collusion on e-books leading the DoJ to sue five of the Big Six; self-published e-books taking on the traditional publishing industry. Yes, the battles are varied and many, but I want to go back to a topic I discussed a little while back: a new meaning of “ownership.” I read another article on another e-reader war about digital rights management (DRM). The Big Six publishers require that their e-books be sold with DRM protection so that readers cannot make copies of books, and because of DRM requirements, a book you buy for Kindle can only be read on other Kindle devices or apps (or Nook with Nooks and Nook apps, etc.) Many consumers hate DRM because if they decide to switch e-readers, there is no way for them to convert the file to read on another device. However, the issue goes further; non-DRM books can’t be read on Kindles (some can, but relatively few). So, if you have a Kindle, you’re pretty much stuck getting your e-content from Amazon. An “easy” way to circumvent this problem is to get a tablet with multiple e-reader apps, but a Kindle e-book has to stay in the Kindle app, and an iBook has to stay in the iBook library. 

Independent booksellers want to sell e-books without DRM so that no matter the customer’s e-reader/tablet, that customer will be able to buy whatever book he or she likes. Some imprints of major publishers are ceding to this trend and allowing non-DRM content to be sold. Hopefully other publishers will come around and let independent bookstores fight Amazon’s growing market share of e-readers and e-books. 

As a writer, I’m pretty torn about copyright law and piracy. On the one hand, I respect intellectual property and do not want my work stolen without my permission, but I feel that in some ways copyright law is outdated, overly strict, and stifling. When a music label sues a mom for using a song on a YouTube video, that label comes across as out of touch and stingy. I know; I know; the music industry is struggling right now, but the woman didn’t intend to break the law, just add a cute soundtrack to her video. And don’t get me wrong–I’m super against piracy. Unless a friend gave me the song/CD, I’ve bought every song on my iPod and every book on my Kindle. 

I’m just not sure that ruthlessly cracking down on every possibility of copyright infringement is really in the creator’s or the consumer’s best interest. I’m glad that the resources in the creative commons are growing, but we are a long way from recognizing that copyright laws might be getting in their own way. I’m going to go into more on this in my next post, so stay tuned. 

The Book as Social Media?

I recently read an article I found on my PW Daily e-mail about if books will become more social over time like the newspaper and other media (for the full article: http://gigaom.com/2012/04/02/is-making-books-social-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/). Apparently technophile Clive Thompson believes that the book, which has stubbornly resisted the trend to become social, as a solitary activity will disappear, replaced by the social book. I have severe reservations about this claim. Thompson thinks that books online and on e-readers will feature more commentary and conversation embedded within the book as you read. I am not sure that this feature will appeal to readers. I’m usually already annoyed when my e-book on the Kindle shows how many other people have highlighted a particular section, like they’re imposing on me what I should find important or poignant just because everybody else did. Add on inserted conversations embedded in the text, and I will begin a literary uprising. Bibliophiles read because they like the solitary nature of reading a book: curling up on the couch with a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a book is a relaxing past time for many people who enjoy taking time out of their day to be alone and in their heads while reading a book. Books allow our imagination to roam freely precisely because we are the only ones projecting the mental image in our heads, the only ones adding interpretation as we go along. We don’t want influence from others unless we discuss it (either forcibly for class or willingly for a book club).

Speaking of which, we already treat books in a social light. We go to book readings and signings; we join book clubs; we participate in online forums about book; we loan our books to our friends. This system seems to work–we seek out the social capacity of books when it suits us, and when reading alone strikes our fancy, we don’t have the internet blogosphere and twitterverse chattering in the background. The joy of reading, at least in my opinion, is the love of doing something on your own, that for that time is your own, your own experience. There is a reason that book lovers have a stereotype for being shy and introverted: many of them are, which is precisely why they like to be alone, in their own heads, reading a book.

Here’s a quote from Thompson about how much books will enormously benefit from a social aspect: “Books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers. I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books.” Like I said above, we already do this. It’s called the book club. If I want to talk about a book, I’ll seek out other people who have similar literary tastes, and we’ll eat pastries and drink frothy, foamy drinks in little cups and discuss man’s inhumanity to man in the book. We already post reviews of books on Amazon or comment on others’ reviews through the various websites that post commentary on books for potential readers. I am not sure how Thompson proposes we integrate the conversation further into books, and if he’s proposing adding in comment features onto e-readers automatically, there better be an option to turn that stuff off. I’d say, “Get your comments out of my reading experience and your annotations off my e-pages. Get that highlighting off my electronic ink.”

Apparently, young people don’t like e-readers because they aren’t social. If this is the case, I’m deeply worried about our youth who appear unable to spend time alone, so desperate for artificial connection that they spend hours on facebook and twitter without ever picking up the phone. Through social media, are we training kids to rely on constant external stimulation and validation? Are we giving them the tools to never be disconnected and fear that disconnection, fear of being alone? Being alone is important, for solitude allows us to recuperate, to repair, to relax, and if we are afraid of being alone, ever, then we are afraid of being human. Sherry Turkle discusses this phenomenon in her Ted Talk, alone together, which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtLVCpZIiNs

Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves why newspapers, books, movies, etc, must become social activities. Perhaps this impulse to constantly share and connect is a negative rather than a positive. Maybe it’s time we find time to be alone and live, just for a little while, within the pages of a book.

Fanning the Flames

I recently read an article about Jonathan Franzen claiming that e-books are damaging society (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/9047981/Jonathan-Franzen-e-books-are-damaging-society.html and http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/01/30/jonathan_franzen_ebooks_are_not_for_serious_readers_.html). Franzen asserts that e-books are impermanent and too open to alteration and change. He enjoys the durable quality of books, that if you spill water on a book it’s still readable (usually) and that most of the things in our lives today are so fluid that we need an unchanging medium. The ability to alter an e-book concerns Franzen, and he contends that “serious readers” aren’t satisfied with the malleable and temporal nature of the e-book; serious readers are enjoying a specific text in a specific time and place that was meant to be printed in ink, not read on a screen.

I’m probably allowed to see myself as a serious reader, and I have a Kindle, so I take a little offense to Franzen. I have to make a concession to Franzen: he sold three million copies of his first book, so I’m going to give him his due. A man of his skill is allowed some latitude in making such proclamations, and his expertise makes him somewhat of an authority on the subject. In short, he’s a serious reader and writer, so I’m not going to question his personal opinion.

But I am going to take issue with his blanket generalization that all serious readers are dissatisfied with the e-readers. I read both on my Kindle and print books. Each have their merits and their drawbacks. I received my Kindle as a Christmas present back in 2009. I love my Kindle; it’s light, cute, and portable. For someone with so many books, I like knowing that when I pack my bag to travel (which I do quite often), I’m not going to be weighted down by several books. Writers who do serious amounts of research for their books such as Eula Biss and Amy Tan enjoy the iPad and Kindle, because they can travel with massive amounts of books and articles on a single lightweight device. As a CNF writer, I do a fair amount of research for my essays, and sometimes I just can’t keep all the necessary materials with me.

When I told my friend that I received a Kindle for Christmas, she was temporarily incredulous. “You? A Kindle?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Are you still going to buy books in print?”

“Of course. I’m not planning on switching exclusive to an e-reader.”

“Okay good. Because a writer like you just wouldn’t seem right without a lot of books in your home.”

I believe that no room is truly complete without a few books. I believe that books in printed form are beautiful, living things and holding them in our hands and reading them is to connect to the human experience.  Reading taps into the human story, the one story that encompasses what it means to be human and alive. Print books are important to preserving cultural heritage and staying connected to thousands of years of human history. From cuneiform to hieroglyphs to the alphabet, the written word is enduring, what links the past to our present.

And of course I believe we should still continue reading print books. We do miss something when we read from a screen and lose the interaction with the page. We sacrifice some of our relationship to the books, when we press a button instead of turning a page, when we highlight with a cursor rather than underline with a pen, when we set aside a book by flipping a switch rather than closing a cover. The physical connection between our hands and the printed book is delicate and precious. We should do what we can to preserve the magic of that feeling.

But at the same time, “serious readers” (I’m not even sure what that means) can still engage a text, even if it’s on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad. One could even argue that serious readers benefit from the advent of the e-reader–they can buy books more quickly and more easily with less money. Browsing is easier online (although I do sometimes miss my frequent trips to the bookstore), and downloading a book happens almost instantaneously. Maybe we should have to work more to acquire a book, but I think breaking down the barriers between discovering a book and reading it is worth the transition.

Although I don’t know if I qualify as a “serious reader,” I think my attachment to books might put me into that category. I’m a writing major; I read both on my own and for school on a regular basis. I have a life-long love affair with words, so yeah I’d say I’m a serious reader. I do miss being able to loan out books I like; you can’t just say, “Here, take my Kindle for a few weeks and read this book.” But still, the Kindle is a way to read many books at once and not break your back in the process.

Franzen also talks about how those who e-publish don’t put the same painstaking effort into getting the words just right and making the language appear just so on the page. He believes e-publishing makes room also for “sprinkling” classic works with advertisements and liberal editing. Those who publish online won’t put as much thought and effort into correctly formatting and modifying a classic text for e-consumption. I’m not a publisher, and I don’t work with re-formatting print text to e-text, but blaming publishers for taking a classic and essentially perverting it for profit is unfair to the publisher and the consumer. And on the subject of classics–books should be accessible and enjoyed; I dislike classics worship as though they’re sacred and untouchable. The reason classics are classics is that they effectively tap into the human experience that I mentioned earlier. They can adapt with the times; they’re meaningful and applicable years later. Maybe they should be put into e-reader form so that they can continue to reach and affect future readers.

Plus, those who self e-publish view the work they’re publishing as their brain child, their opus. They will not skim over the details or cut corners for the sake of being on the Internet. Your credibility is on the line when you e-publish; lots of major errors put your reputation in jeopardy because your ethos as a writer is at stake. Franzen underestimates the dedication of those who self-publish online and the amount of effort and labor writers lovingly pour into their work.

So here’s what I have to say to Jonathan Franzen: make your own Luddite opinions on the e-reader revolution, but e-readers are probably here to stay. The publishing world is currently experiencing serious growing pains as it acclimates to this new reading environment. Speak for yourself, Jonathan Franzen, because the serious readers of the world remain dedicated, devoted, and faithful to the written word, no matter the format.

Walks with a Dinosaur

To understand this post, you need to know something first: I’m twenty. I’ll be twenty-one very soon (a month and a half, not that I’m counting). I can’t legally drink or rent a car, but I already feel obsolete. I have a year and a half left of college, and I already feel behind the times. I recently read an article stating that children have little to no preference learning from e-readers than they do from actual hard copy print books. Comprehension-wise, as long as the story doesn’t have too many distractions through applications and games, children retain and comprehend books on e-readers just as well as print books. (For more info, check out these links: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/for-reading-and-learning-kids-prefer-e-books-to-print-books/ and http://www.marketwatch.com/story/study-finds-e-readers-equal-print-for-childrens-reading-comprehension-2012-01-11)

Fourth-grade children comprehend and remember e-books better than I do. I’m primarily a visual and kinesthetic learner, but with an important focus on the kinesthetic: I remember from writing things down, pointing to things on a visual page, remembering the location of a word in a book–left or right side of the pages; top, middle, or bottom of the page; beginning, middle, end of the book. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a Kindle, and trust me, I’ll address that issue at a later date. But here’s my issue with reading from screens and e-readers:

I rarely remember books I read on the Kindle as well as I remember books that I read on print. Ask me to summarize a book I held in my hands and physically turned the page, and I have no problem relaying the story back to you. Ask me about a book I read on my Kindle, and I’ll be able to recall some of the major details, but not as clearly or concisely. So this technology has affected my reading. I lose the kinesthetic feel of where information is on a page, how it’s physically organized.

Reading from a computer screen is similar. Because there is no sense of spatial organization, I tend to skim. Scrolling pales in comparison to flipping a page, running your fingers over text, imprinting the memory of the image of the words onto your mind. You can’t interact as well with a screen as with a good old-fashioned print book. You can’t annotate; you can’t underline or highlight; you can’t bookmark or dog-ear pages.

I’m currently taking a cyberliteracy course where we’re trying to examine whether my generation’s preference for print is from habit and upbringing or from how humans must learn. Most of my peers, when assigned a reading online, print out the reading and use the hardcopy to underline and make notes. I do this. I just printed out a 55-page white paper on children learning through technology. I printed front-to-back, but I still took the time to print out 28 pages just so that I could read better. When we read from a computer, we skim. Reading from a computer requires bullets, shorter sentences, a get-to-the-point, hurry-it-up chase to the message. We tend to read the first few sentences of a web page then scroll quickly through the rest, so if you have something important to say, say it at the top of the page.

I think the preference for print is probably from habit and taught modes of learning. Students learn to take notes physically, to annotate books for class, to read from hard-copy textbooks. I had the option of buying an e-textbook for significantly less than the print version, but I sprung for the print version just because I knew I wasn’t going to remember an e-book as well as the print version. It’s the way I learned, and I’m not going to break easily the surface, superficial learning I do from online sources. It’s going to take some time.

But back to my feeling old at a young age. Yes, my generation grew up learning to use computers and came of age during the myspace and Facebook revolutions, but we still learned primarily from a traditional pen-and-paper classroom setting. I have a feeling we’ll have trouble keeping up with students who are learning from computers, who will have more training in comprehending from a screen, who will (maybe) be better able to concentrate and control the distractions inherent in learning from a computer. I’m not sure I’ll fully be able to do this within the next few years. I feel obsolete and behind-the-times, and I’m still waiting for my twenty-first birthday.

A Ticket to the Literary Rodeo

I was in New York last weekend, and one of my favorite things to do there is explore little independent bookstores in the East Village. I live in Fort Worth, Texas, so most of my bookstore experiences are at Barnes & Noble or Half Price (and Borders from time to time back in the day). Although the large chain bookstores are great for book browsing of popular titles and seeing the newest and bestselling books immediately in your face, there’s something enticing and entrancing about diving into a little shop–maybe a converted studio apartment–and finding books that may be out of print, that may not find their way into popular bookstores (small press distribution, the odd textbook, etc.) and digging deep into the shelves to find gems. For example, I found a deluxe copy of Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. I was sorely tempted to buy it before realizing how low on funds I was. These treasure troves dot the urban landscape of Manhattan, and I wish I had more time to go spelunking in the petite mines of indie bookstores, the shelves shafts of papery mines.

Occasionally these stores will hold events for readings and book signings. Up until recently, many of these events were free and open to the public. Now, however, bookstores are charging for admission to readings and signings–often you have to buy the book, buy a gift card for a certain amount, or pay a small fee. The reason? Sales in bookstores are decreasing while online sales are increasing. I read an article in the New York Times that details this new trend in bookstore events (for the full article see: www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/business/media/22events.html). Part of the issue involves the fact that many customers now treat bookstores as libraries or a place to browse before going online and buying a cheaper e-reader version of the same book. Customers will walk in, browse, write down titles, and leave without buying anything. This practice is part of the reason that brick-and-mortar stores have seen book sales suffer in print while online sales have increased dramatically. Stores must now turn to other sources of revenue in order to stay afloat.

While bookstores are important, as are books in print (no one wants a Fahrenheit 451 situation on our hands), the charge to get in to events hurts those who have already bought a book or can’t afford to pay admission such as students or the elderly, and authors worry that they will lose potential readers. However, these events are often publicized and might boost book sales anyway. Publishers resent the fact that bookstores charge when they are the ones footing the bill for the author and the production of the book itself. But the main concern remains that charging will discourage readers, seem unfriendly to the public, and hinder the community sentiment so often found in independent bookstores.

I see both sides. Hosting an event costs serious money, and bookstores must look for other sources of revenue when so many sales are going online. I’ll admit that I’ve gone into bookstores several times to check out books, write down titles, and go home to find the books online. But I have to add that I do still make a regular habit of buying books in print. I can’t help it. As a bibliophile, I act like a junkie in the presence of books, and when I’m jonesing for that book in front of me, I need my fix and I need it now. My apartment is proof of this impulsive behavior, where I’m running out of shelf space at an alarming rate. Anyway, I digress. Bookstores need to make money from more than print sales, and events are great ways to get publicity and make a profit at the same time.

But I’m also a student. I have a part-time job that doesn’t pay well, so I often can’t afford to pay $25-30 for a hardback book, and I’m a little unwilling to pay for something that was once free. Fortunately, my university has a reading series through the English department (www.liveoak.tcu.edu), which is free, but I’ve attended other readings to learn more about the author, get a sample of their work, hear how the writer intended the work to be read, or connect with others in my community who appreciate reading. Smaller bookstores can act as an integral part of a community, whether it be a small section of Manhattan or part of Boulder, Colorado. Either way, charging for events fractures with  community feel and divides what might have been a closer community.

So here’s my call-to-action: even if you have an e-reader that you love and cherish, consider going out and buying a couple print books every now and then, buy gift cards, go sifting through the shelves of bookstores for gold that may not be available online. There’s something enticing about the smell of books, the feel of the paper underneath your fingertips, the rustle of pages, the look of an open book. We may live in a digital age, but I’m here to advocate for the continued consumption of the printed word. We need to keep print books and bookstores alive. As Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores.”

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