Monday, February 9, 2009

Flat Screen Novels

Today’s introduction of the second wave of the Kindle brings to mind certain aspects of reading on a screen versus reading on a traditional book.

According to Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, the physical layout of the book as we know it supposedly evolved around the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, Manguel attributes the folded nature of the book to Caesar himself, who found it difficult to carried rolled scrolls on his person as he was riding into battle with the Gauls. The opening of The Gallic Wars, Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (All Gaul is divided into three parts) gave rise to the folding of a large page, or printer’s sheet, into four parts (which resulted in the quarto), eight parts (the ubiquitous octavo), and the mostly outmoded twelve parts (the duodecimo). This lasted about 2,000 years, until Sony and Amazon, “taking a page” out of Caesar’s book (where will that expression go, I wonder), decided that the most comfortable way to read would be on a tablet, as the middle-easterners did before the scroll, a single, smooth, untextured screen, a rectangle of limited size. (By the way, I’m kidding about Gaul being divided into three parts as having given Caesar the idea for the book).

One difference between the screen and the printed book is that the former has no depth while the latter has the illusion of depth. When you read an e-book, you read from edge to edge. When you read a printed book, you read from the edge to the interior, and then the interior to the edge, again and again and again, a metaphor of immersion (unlike edge to edge reading). And this is the case whether you read left to right or right to left (or even up and down, as do the Chinese, since the sequence of columns moves to the interior). The “frame of reference” becomes the center. The physical act focuses the reading experience.

Another difference is the lack of uniqueness for the book as an object. Even though you may be reading a Stephen King novel along with a million other people, the object in your hand is a unique item. Sure, your own Kindle is unique, but the cover to the book never changes, and again flattens the reading experience from a unique physical experience with unique content to the same physical experience with unique content.

Is this bad? Only to those of us who grew up with the metaphor of depth and immersion. I find it interesting that, as cinema explores the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen and virtual realities re-define artificial “reality”, the e-book is providing the means to move in the opposite direction, away from representation. It’s also interesting that, even though King today promoted the Kindle at the Amazon press conference, I believe that his story-based work will actually be less successful as a reading experience (aesthetically) in e-book format, simply because it is figurative and the e-book is not.

From time to time, I read books on my iTouch, and I find it most successful as an experience when I read material written for the screen, not things written for the printed book. Several posts back I suggested that Amazon give 100 Kindles to writers around the country and see what they come up with when they approach writing for the screen, writers of all different stripes, from Bruce Sterling to Nora Roberts to Mark Danielewski. Then we might see reading on the Kindle as a new aesthetic experience. Right now it's just a convenience.