Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Evolution of Reading

I understand pretty much all of the arguments for e-books: ecological friendliness (Save a Tree!), lower costs, availability, accessibility, scalable type and so on. Good arguments.

But it's rare to hear anyone talk about the downsides. And oh, yes, there are downsides.

I understand that a lot of people read on their phones, and in fact, I see people doing it. But I simply cannot comprehend how someone could indulge in that activity for any extended length of time.

A cellphone has never struck me as an acceptable medium for reading fiction. Tweets and texts – fine. Most web sites are built to absorb in snippets. But chowing down on a 2000 or 3000 word essay – not so much. Even short stories lose continuity for me, as I zip from one screen to the next.

I am a reader who frequently flicks backward and forward; rereading passages to better appreciate something that comes later; doublechecking the names of characters to make sure they are who I think they are; reestablishing my place in the narrative; and so on. Poems and short stories are readable in that fashion, as long as they're not dependent on layout – but not novels. The centre cannot hold.

When the screen is tiny, there are far too many pages. It's easy to go too far or not far enough, and too hard to find my place again when I'm done my search. Reading Lord of the Rings or Moby Dick on a cellphone would be akin to listening to a song one bar at a time – which would suck the joy right out of it!

I've heard of people writing novels on their cellphones! Seriously? With those itty-bitty keyboards and my enormous thumbs, texting is a challenge. Maintaining a coherent narrative would be like painting the Sistine Chapel on playing cards (thus creating the world's largest and most unhelpful jigsaw puzzle – where every piece fits almost everywhere).

All of my problems are exacerbated if I'm connected to wi-fi or a network. The constant bleeps and whistles are complete concentration destroyers. Even if I'm unconnected, the telephone is a constant distraction. And God forbid the fucking thing should run out of power or spontaneously decide to install an update as I'm turning a page.

I've never measured, but I would guess that when I'm reading a hardcopy book, I read at least 20 full sized pages at a sitting. If I got through that many on a cellphone, it would be a minor miracle. And since it takes 12 cell phone pages to equal one real page, I would be clipping along at a rate of about a page per sitting. Anton Chekov stories would be mini-marathons. Game of Thrones? No, just no.

My reader experience doesn't improve that drastically with tablets. I've used small and large screens, dedicated readers and all-purpose androids. Each of them has different problems:

  • If I don't read fast enough, the screen dims.
  • If I move my hand, or touch the wrong spot on the screen, I turn pages I didn't intend to turn.
  • Or I turn them too fast – a chapter at a time is not unheard of.

At first, I thought that once I got used to this, it would get easier. But I've now read dozens of books in e-pub format and I still don't like it. Yes, it's doable, and it's convenient and desirable in all the ways I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I still don't find e-pubs very reader friendly. The tech, the apps, the connections are all unreliable. And adding bells and whistles somehow makes the devices even less reader friendly.

Maybe if I had grown up reading for pleasure on electronic devices, it would be less annoying, more intuitive. Maybe. But in truth, it would also be more distracting. Video games, movies, socializing, gossiping, videos, animation – they're ALL easier than reading and far, far easier than writing.

The formats in which we digest our entertainment have always been dictated by available media, and I honestly believe this is the beginning of the end for all the literary forms we currently know and love. There will always be people who love different forms and seek them out. But once the tools for modifying "literature" are available, accessible and easier to use, I believe that fiction will become more interactive, multi-channel and multi-sensual.

The seeds of it are at websites like sub-Q Magazine. Hasn't caught on yet and probably won't for awhile. And what we see there is a long ways from whatever form it will ultimately assume. But what they're aiming for is fiction that is created specifically to consume online – an admirable and inevitable goal that might actually make reading onscreen enjoyable. Until then – well it is cheaper, and more convenient. Maybe I'll...hmmm.

Hurry up interactive fiction. Your time has come. 

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