An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Reading a novel by the bits

I have just finished reading my first novel on an electronic or e-reader. The novel was Tibor Fischer's excellent Good to be God and as I had expected it is another carefully written and clearly expressed examination of what it means to be a modern human being in a complex society such as ours - Tibor seldom disappoints and I would happily recommend any aspiring writer to read his stuff rather than the fluff that comes out of modern creative writing courses.

Reading a bitstream book on an e-reader is a very different experience to reading a cellulose based book. First up let me admit that most of my novel reading is done in bed last thing at night and the Sony e-reader is both lighter and easier to hold than a medium sized paperback. It's a lot lighter and easier to handle than a 4 or 5 hundred page hardback! The screen is clear and crisp and the page turning is simplicity itself. I love the fact that when I switch it on it goes straight to where I left off reading. It is good that it switches itself off if I fall asleep and do not turn a page for half an hour - that has been known to happen.

I love cellulose books and have done since before I could read. I think I first fell in love with the smell of books - old books don't smell like new books; hardbacks don't smell like paperbacks.   Dust jackets are wonderful - almost as good as old LP covers. The heft, the feel, the texture: every cellulose book is different whereas I suspect that every bitstream book is the same in sensory terms.

The thing I wasn't expecting to miss with a bitstream book was the thing that I had clearly absorbed so deeply about cellulose books that I didn't consciously know it was there - so I suppose I couldn't reasonably have expected it to shock me but the very first time I settled down and got past the title page, the dedications and the fluff I felt a massive sense of loss. Architecture!

A cellulose book has an architecture of that has a lot to do with the layout of the text and a lot to do with the physical form of the artefact itself. Most strikingly missing from a bitstream book is the right page: when you read a cellulose book you have two pages visible at one time; if you are reading the left page you can see what is coming ( a full page, a chapter end, a set of endnotes, whatever); if you are one the right page you can see where you came from. Moreover you can with a cellulose book, and at any time, know how much you have read and how much more there is to read. The e-reader tells you your current page number and how many pages the book has but as a measuring device it is like making a comparison between a watch with a face and a watch with a digital display - the quality of the imparting of the requisite information is simply more satisfying and profound with the analogue version. 

I recall, as a youngster the introduction of the CD and remember hearing that the length of a CD had been determined by making sure it could hold a complete performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Now this may or may not be true - apocryphal tales abound but I sure as hell wish that the makers of e-readers had decided that any device would, with fully charged batteries, see the average reader through the full length of a long novel - say "Infinite Jest" - but mine needed recharging 200 pages into my chosen novel and you could hardly call 279 page a long novel!!!

Cellulose and bitstream reading are different. Cellulose books have limitations imposed by the physical architecture but many people will never realise it. Bitstream books have limitations imposed by current implementations and "standards" and many of them can easily be removed but many of the implementors don't even know they have problems. Don't even talk to me about pagination on e-readers - it just sucks.

I'll carry on with both - probably for the rest of my reading life but we shall see how the comparison.contrast stacks up in a few years time.


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