The P versus the E [part1]


[this post is dedicated to my newest subscribers (upper right corner on this screen): Balo Makiwane & Sian Butcher, LOVE YOUR SUPPORT!]

The problem, then, isn’t that screens aren’t sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren’t screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens. – Cory Doctorow, Content, p.54

The praise of pulp

On the other side of the panorama pane Switzerland’s hinterland is flickering by. My head slowly dips towards my chest then pops back up as I try to stave off sleep. Very hypnagogic. For maybe half-a-second I try to thumb the page, unusually thick and inflexible – no good. I am roused to 100% wakefulness: it’s a graphite grey e-ink screen. The device is docked into a Moleskin-note-book-like leather binding, intended, I assume, to simulate the more ancient paper and ink iteration of this medium.

The p-book then, the e-book now. At long last in my hands. I mustn’t thumb, I must depress. Happily I do. The screen blackens for a little less than a moment then the next page of Zero History pixels into focus. Not a page but an interval of locations, which is how the Kindle indexes its electronic texts (e.g. locations 427-434).

My bibliophilia never manifested as an interest in the physical medium itself. As many books as I read, I steered clear off reading about them in part because it seemed certain to destroy their charm. Despite the deployment of quite different organs as unadvisable as contemplating the technicalities of sex in coitus res.

But now this new artifact has come along[1] and regarded in relation to the books of old, a comparative module deep inside my brains has sputtered into action cranking out a few questions that demand answers: What is important about the actual experience of reading? Do and how do reading habits change when one transitions from the papery page to electronic ink? Have we, citizens of those minority quarters of the world where one can buy an e-book, indeed crossed a wooden pulp Rubicon?

To answer these I turned to the digital reader of endless pages, the web. However, my query quickly ran into a mire of articles on copyright issues, e-book model comparisons, book pricing and the evils of Amazon. Issues of copyright are relevant in a day and age when big business is trying to strong-arm IPRs but the overkill of this type of articles is reductive. And then there are the tired jeremiads to paper[2] and the scent of freshly glued book-backs by literary experts who for inexplicable reasons have temporarily abandoned their interest in content/meaning to sing the praise of pulp.

Inside the digital white cube

Disappointed by this careless technophobia, I have turned to the object itself, the smooth, black graphite, 16 shades of grey, 247 gram book of books. The main protagonist with who I am in touch with a couple of hours a day. It is an object alright but it is also a bit of a personality, as head of Amazon Mr. Bezos has stated: «When people see it in person for the first time they do a double take» (my emphasis). I did not do a double take but I did take to it at the double.

What immediately caught my attention upon reading the first few pages of my virgin download is how the e-book takes its time moving from one page to the next. What happens is that it fades to black for an instant with all letters invert to white, like a page made from anti-matter, then re-pixelates into the next page. Certainly this takes less than a second, probably even less than half-a-second. The tech jargon is refresh rate. Most reviewers find the duration of the refresh unacceptable, which leads me to the twin assumption that A) they have better ways to spend those 0.42 seconds[3] and B) when reading a tree-based book they are extra-ordinarily fast page-turners. They might indeed be those reviewers that equate good books with being page-turners. I find the leisurely refresh rate refreshing – time for a breather, a biblio-blink. Mean-while on the iPad, I imagine a smooth, stylish swipe of the index, something to keep those needy touch-screen-fingers entertained.

ATTN remains key

[1] The e-book has been around since the early noughties but given the sales figures of the Kindle 3, a good case could be made that the device is somewhere near its take-off point. «According to anonymous inside sources, over three million Kindles have been sold as of December 2009 while external estimates as of Q4-2009 place the number at about 1.5 million» states the Wikipedia entry. At the very least, the fact that it is not deliverable to Germany till January 2011 is hailed as an intermediate catastrophe to literary culture by certain German bloggers.
[2] Not tired but strangely detached is this example: B5BDEF0DA/Doc~E2617D7CF274D4A48A3F7A06F0F2207AA~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html
[3] That makes two minutes to the 300 page book. Now we’re cooking!

About tmabona

writer, reader [bolano, DW, bellow, deLillo], runner, badmintoneer
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