The iPad & the Future of Reading

What we used to mean when we said 'book'

What we used to mean when we said 'book'

The other day, while in an Apple store to buy a gift card, I stopped and messed around with the iPad for a few minutes. My first concern was trying to get the hang of a skateboard game, which had me using my fingers to tilt and turn and (not) ollie. The game proved to be beyond my capabilities – I even managed to get lost for a while in a backwater expanse of gray pavement bordered by chain-link fence – so I turned my attention to iBooks, Apple’s e-reader.

I count myself among those who love books not only as sources of information and entertainment, but also as physical objects, as what we understand to be meant by the term book when it denotes a mass of paper printed with words and/or images and bound together with glue or string or (rarely) staples. And so, I get a little worried when we start talking about e-books and the future of publishing, because it seems to me, and to a lot of other people, that e-books will, at some point in the future, become what we mean when we say book, and what we used to mean when we said book will be no more. No more glue, no more string, no more paper and ink.

Still: I walked away from the iPad thinking, “I could get used to this.”

The arrival of the iPad, long a rumored game-changer for digital books (among other things), has already caused a great deal of consternation and upset in the publishing world. Although the iPhone had a compelling interface for digital books – at least, according to Nicholson Baker, who should know – its small screen and its primary purpose as a phone presented seemingly insurmountable physical barriers to its ever being adopted as a primary text-reading device, even if, as Baker concluded, its interface was superior to that of the Kindle. And while Amazon’s e-reader was itself a kind of warning shot across the bow of the publishers, the high price for a device that essentially only performed a single function (the first Kindle was offered at $399; it’s down to $259 now) ensured that it would not be adopted on a mass scale.

The iPad, however, is much more than an e-reader, which depending on your point of view may justify its price ($499 for the cheapest version; substantially higher for models with more memory and/or 3G). Although strictly speaking it’s more limited in scope than even a generic laptop, it’s essentially a personal computer, with the iPhone’s user interface transformed into an integral part of the computer’s functions. For example: when reading, you slide your finger across the bottom edge of the screen to turn the page, in the same way you would turn the page of a book; to tilt a skateboard, you tilt your fingers in the direction you want to go; to play the piano, you – well, you play the piano. It’s shockingly intuitive, and gives a great deal of credence to Apple’s claim that “you already know how to use it.”

I suppose that’s a good thing. I played around with iBooks on the iPad for about ten minutes, which is hardly enough time to form a deep opinion about it; but its interface approximated the feel of a book just enough to give me the unsettling feeling that what I love about books-as-physical-objects isn’t really all that intrinsic or necessary. The iPad is not a book: it’s heavier than most books, for one thing, and it’s slicker, and it doesn’t provide the tactile pleasure of thumbing through pages. Nor does cracking its spine yield the fresh ink smell of a new book or the musty denseness of an old one. It doesn’t even have a spine to crack. Instead you launch iBooks with a touch of the finger, and, presented with a virtual shelf of book covers, selected your desired reading material in the same way. But once underway with your book of choice, the general novelty of the interface begins to fade, replaced by the same absorption in text which allows the world to drop away whether it’s delivered on a page or a screen.

This, I imagine, is what matters to most people, and this is why I suggest that those properties specific to physical books really don’t matter all that much. In the end, the text is the thing, and if the medium through which text is delivered becomes sufficiently invisible – and by invisible, I mean “sufficiently book-like” – then the barrier to e-books being adopted on a wide scale will be gone. Arguably, the iPad has accomplished this, and even if not, it’s certainly an important milestone along the way. E-book sales are way up, and every day the endangered status of printed books becomes more evident.

It’s hard to envision a future utterly devoid of actual books, but it’s easy to envision a future where the mass market paperbacks, the trade fiction, the celebrity memoirs, the political memoirs, and every other kind of book essentially intended to be read once and then sold or traded or passed along – the meat-and-potatoes of the publishing industry – are published only as e-books, and the only books actually designed and printed and bound are those which accrue some sort of value, fetish-based or otherwise, in being objects in and of themselves. Photography books, art books, novelty books, first editions. I read a blog making a similar point a while back – the precise place and time eludes me, I’m sorry to say – and the thought has stuck with me ever since, because I think it’s quite prescient.

We’ve seen a similar process happen to photography and to music, and in some ways I’m surprised it hasn’t happened to books sooner. But then, digital photography posed an almost transcendently clear advantage over film: instant development. And was anyone ever really all that into CDs, with their cheap jewel cases and easily-scratched surfaces? But books are much more entrenched, much more established as a medium. Even so, I think the balance is shifting in favor of e-books, both among publishing folk and in the general market, aided in large part by the iPad. Whether that’s a good thing, and what it means for the future of reading, only time will tell.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);

3 comments for “The iPad & the Future of Reading

  1. May 31, 2010 at 10:07 am

    This is a really great article about the ebooks. Everytime I look at ebooks and readers I walk away disappointed because they lack the selection of poetry and literary fiction I lean towards reading. There is also the simple fact of wanting to take notes while I read sometimes. I guess I’m just not their target consumer 🙂

  2. Andrew
    June 1, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    I’m a total Luddite on this one. I’ll never own an e-reader.

  3. June 11, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I’m late to this blog, but great article. It was very calm and balanced. You actually had me considering e-readers without wanting to runout out of my house screaming and ready to set fire to something (not books of course). Still, I think Apple is the devil, even if I do have a Macbook, and Ipad is Satan spawn.

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