Monday, August 31, 2009

( i )Touching Jane Austen

Reading books in a time of technological transition

Like a lot of devoted readers, I reacted to the roll-out of Amazon's new Kindle two years ago with a sense of wary fascination. As someone with a deep feeling for bound books -- and as someone who quite rationally considers the book the most powerful and user-friendly media technology ever invented -- I wasn't crazy about the idea of the printed page becoming obsolete. On the other hand, there were features of the Kindle, like the ability to download books instantly and store multiple books on the same device, that I found undeniably arresting. And I'll admit that I liked the idea of finding myself at the vanguard of a technological revolution (for once).

So at various points in the last two years, I was on the very cusp of making the leap into the new format, particularly when the Kindle 2 debuted earlier this year (of course by then I'd largely forfeited my media vanguard bragging rights). Even the well-publicized limits of Kindle in terms of Amazon's control of downloaded books and the inability to move them across e-book platforms didn't deter me; I actually kind of liked the idea of having an electronic device solely devoted to reading. Nor did Amazon's involuntary recall of downloaded copies of George Orwell's 1984 (of all books!). No new medium comes without a price, and the old one would be around for a while in any case. Besides, books are always being banned, confiscated, and getting people into trouble. I'd made the decision to go ahead and do with electronic textbooks in my U.S, history survey course; now, I decided, it's time to go the rest of the way with books to be read for pleasure.

As it turned out, the biggest obstacle I had in acquiring a Kindle was the Kindle itself, which I would periodically have a look at courtesy of friends who had acquired them. No one would ever call it a lovely piece of machinery. Whatever Amazon's claims in cutting-edge innovation, it's hard to shake the perception that the Kindle is little more than a gray piece of plastic, even if you can't plausibly call it
cheap plastic. I understand the bona fide achievement in developing non-backlit electronic ink, but that too is depressingly gray. I will admit here to being an avowed sensualist when it comes to books -- touch, smell, even the sound of flipping pages matters to me. And I do judge books by their covers, without apology. All of these qualities get bleached out of existence with a Kindle. Even at $9.99 per hardcover, modernity seemed to have a very stiff price.

And yet for all this I was
still going to make my move and hope for the best when I read Nicholson Baker's recent piece on the Kindle in The New Yorker. I began that piece with a sense of skepticism; I'm always interested to hear what Baker has to say, but have long regarded him as a bona fide weirdo in terms of his off-beat take on subjects ranging from phone sex to the coming of World War II. But he confirmed a lot of my still inchoate unease about the Kindle, and made a surprising case for the iPod Touch as a better way to make a transition to e-book reading.

I resisted that advice. I also seriously considered staying on the sidelines pending the introduction of a new wave of devices, among them a larger reader to be unveiled by Plastic Logic as well as larger Apple e-document readers to be pitched to the academic and business market in the coming months. (Kindle also has has a larger version, the DX, though the reviews are no better than mixed.) In the end, I decided to take the plunge and go for the iPod Touch. In my Verizon family of multiple lowest-common-denominator cheap-o cell phones, the iPhone was too rich for our blood. So an iPod Touch was the next best thing.

There were three reasons why I finally went this route. The first is that I decided in the end that smaller was better; I liked the idea that an iPod would fit in my pocket, even smaller than a rack-sized paperback, and at the same time the iPod screen is in the end not that much smaller than that of a Kindle, much of whose bulk is actually devoted to its casing, keyboard, and pagination buttons, none of which were particularly appealing to my chronically carpel-tunnel ravaged hands. Baker claimed that neither the size nor the backlighting of the iPod Touch proved to be a problem -- in fact for him the latter was a genuine asset, particularly when reading beside a sleeping spouse -- and I have found he's right on these counts. (It's staring at a screen at a distance, not reading something in your hand, that I find difficult.)

Second, I realized that a multi-tasking device really does make more sense. Being able to play music, games, and access the web all on the same device is great, even when reading books on that device was at best an afterthought. That Apple CEO Steve Jobs's would famously assert last year that "people don't read anymore" continues to bemuse me. But he may soon laugh off that one all the way to the bank.

Finally, as has been widely noted, the iPod Touch is a beautiful object, both in form and function. Crucially, that elegance exists in multiple formats when it comes to reading e-books. Amazon, already half-conceding that the Kindle may lose the race to become the go-to hardware option, now offers free Kindle software for reading on iPods and iPhones. (Even if the Kindle ultimately flops as a piece of hardware, the software is the gateway to untold riches as a means of selling e-books.) So does Barnes and Noble. Other purveyors, notably Stanza, offer readers that are widely considered better. There are various features and trade-offs involved in any reader when compared with another, but they all offer a legitimate reading experience, and they all allow you to turn pages with a painless swipe of a thumb.

I got my iPod Touch just before leaving on a family vacation, which took me to a New England location where I did not have easy Internet access. This limited my ability to play with my new toy (which of course my kids stole from me anyway), though I didn't mind because I had a stack of old media books to work through. As it turned out, my Barnes & Noble e-book reader came pre-stocked with Jane Austen's 1811 novel
Sense and Sensibility, which I'd never read. I mentioned this to my wife, an Austen fan who has read all her work, and she suggested we read the book together -- she the old fashioned way she has no intention of surrendering, and me on my new device. Since her multiple copies of the novel were at her office, she dropped by our local Barnes & Noble and bought another in what turned out to be a Barnes & Noble edition. So it was that giving away content for free redounded to a retailer's (and publisher's) benefit. I'm certain this is not a unique scenario, even as I understand that electronic books are very likely to do to the publishing business what music downloads did to the record business. (Why do you think that I, a ten-time book author, am now blogging away?)

I always assumed that reading on an electronic device would take some getting used to, though I got comfortable with e-book reading surprisingly quickly. (In another ironic twist, I found myself comfortably esconced in a bookstore section of a Massachusetts supermarket, reading my e-book while my kids watched a video and my wife picked up catfish for dinner.) I developed the requisite interest in the marital prospects of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, thinking, as so many Austen readers already had, about how much of her fiction is really about the vagaries of real estate. But I also found myself repeatedly wondering what Austen herself would make of e-books, and the way her body of work -- which she published anonymously in her lifetime -- will extend her global fame. No doubt she would be pleased, but no doubt too she would find it very, very strange, and perhaps not entirely appropriate.

I think this question has special significance for a writer such as Austen. She came of age in the late eighteenth century, when the novel had emerged as the premiere form of literary expression in Western society, and book publishing was about to become a truly mass medium. Books were physical objects, and prized as such, but they were
mass produced physical objects, whose uniqueness was now, in contrast to the illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval era, a contradiction in terms. Today, Jane Austen's artistry exists as an abstraction that may get embodied in multiple ways forms in multiple media. In a way, she's become more like a composer such as her contemporary, Beethoven. Beethoven's music exists as a scores on paper, records on plastic (various kinds), wavelengths over the radio, and live performance. Austen's work is embodied in books, audiobooks, e-books, and a veritable cottage industry of movies. (In my teaching I've paired her 1816 novel Emma with the 1995 Amy Heckerling film Clueless, which is a very clever form of homage to the novel.) Austen is more insubstantial then ever, and yet more potentially immortal than ever. It's all a little intoxicating to comtemplate.

But like many intoxicating perceptions, there's probably less to this than I think. Here's withdrawal of Orwell's
1984 is a reminder that what the web giveth the web can take away. But for now, at least, let's end on a note of hope. A new day is coming -- it's not here yet, but it's coming. Let's greet it with open minds and open hearts. And in the meantime, let's turn real pages as well as virtual ones.