Tuesday, June 22, 2010


This is your Kindle.

This is your Kindle on the ipad.

A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education prominently featured "A Special Forum on E-Readers," in which seven academics held forth on e-readers and the future of reading. Some of the responses might well cause you to wonder about the present state of reading.

In "Loving the Idea of E-Books (But Not the Kindle)," NYU doctoral candidate Alice E. Marwick offers a list of things you can't do with the device, including "mark important passages with Post-it flags. Highlight articles. Write notes on articles. Cut and paste text into other documents."

Ms. Marwick, meet Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College, whose contribution is titled "The iPad: A Great Digital Reading Device." While outlining the joy of iPad, Dr. Fitzpatrick notes in passing that "The Kindle app . . . allows bookmarking and highlighting as well as text annotations, but it doesn't permit copying and pasting at all." Now, one reason the Kindle app allows these features on the iPad is that the Kindle itself allows them. While it would indeed be pointless to stick a post-it on the Kindle, and the technology certainly doesn't prevent one from making that pointless gesture, what Ms. Marwick wanted to do was simply to highlight text, which you have always been able to do on the Kindle, and which can now be done even more quickly and easily on the iPad's Kindle app. Similarly, it has always been possible to annotate text on the Kindle. Indeed, this was one of the several advances over the then-existing e-book technology that caused me to be an early adopter. Here again, annotating is considerably easier and smoother on the iPad Kindle app than on the Kindle itself, but it has always been possible.

For that matter, if the contributors to the Chronicle's forum had simply moseyed on over to the Kindle support page they would have found easy-to-follow instructions on how to do each of these supposedly undoable things.

Evidently Fordham professor Leonard Cassuto hasn't paid a visit to the instruction manual either. In his response, "An E-Reader Will Be in My Future -- Eventually," he complains: "I need to be able to write in the books I read, and if I own the book--whether in the form of pulped trees or as a collection of magnetized zeros and ones--I want to be able to take notes in it." He goes on to remark that "the latest version of the Kindle does allow the reader to annotate the text," but then asks: "Is it yet possible to annotate a copyrighted e-book . . . Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that question is how hard I had to look for an answer . . . The answer I, eventually discovered, is still no."

Hmmmm . . . . let's see here. I turn in my Kindle to my copy of the very much copyrighted recent publication of Ralph Ellison's unfinished, massive second novel. Yep, just as I remembered, there are my copious annotations still intact where I left them, along with my many highlighted passages.

Indeed, despite what these special forum end users seem to think, I have just copied several clippings from the novel into a text file along with my annotations so that I can paste them into a conference paper one day.

Another issue is raised by Mark Sample, a George Mason Assistant Professor in the department of English, one that won't be answered on the Kindle's FAQs page, but one whose answer should have been readily apparent given any reflection at all. Sample concedes that the iPad and the Kindle "are marvels of engineering and commerce." The problem, according to this self-acknowledged gadget lover, is that "e-books are simply not interesting ." That should strike you as rather like hearing someone say "recorded music is simply not interesting." Sample argues that the e-books we might read on an iPad "are much less experimental than any paper-and-glue book." He chooses an odd example to make the point, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, which I read in paper-and-glue format when it first appeared. According to Sample,
"it'd be impossible on any kind of e-book reader." There is nothing in the text of House of Leaves, though, that wouldn't be easily reproduced in e-book format.

Guess he hasn't noticed that David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, replete with its infinite footnotes, has been available on Kindle all this time and is quite readable. It is true, as Sample says, that most novelists are writing books that don't experiment with form, and it has always been true. Sample might have a somewhat different view if he spent some time hanging out among the e-poetics crew who have been busily experimenting with form in electronic formats long enough now that there are several academic books dedicated to their results. In truth, House of Leaves is not impossible to present on an e-reader; it's just that nobody has made the commercial decision to make it available in that format yet.

As so often proves to be the case, the answers to these readers' problems are found with a bit more reading.

There are still things you can't do with a Kindle or an iPad, or even the Kindle on the iPad, and what's truly frustrating is that the obstacles are not in the technology, but in the commerce. More about that in a future posting.

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