Thursday, December 04, 2008

Now entering Damascus: Please Drive Carefully

You like ebooks, you're an eejit. You think novels on dinky screens are great, you're mad. And now, as of midafternoon today, I am amazed and a little apologetic to say I stand beside you.

I've been reading Pride & Prejudice on my iPhone.

Look, it's not like I haven't had a go before. The idea of thousands of books where you had one before is simultaneously great and awful: I rather love having thousands of books. And no ebook reader has ever made me forget what a bleedin' tedious phrase "ebook reader" is. Just let me have the damn book, okay?

And Amazon's Kindle. Whose fault is that? I hear the screen is good, but it takes an age to turn a page and I read really, really and I'm going to say it a third time because at my reading speed this sentence is nowhere near long enough, really fast. Seriously: I never speed read, I do no trickery, I just happen to read at 600 words per minute. Back in the day, I used to type at 120wpm. You can imagine how handy this is in my game.

But this just means I am not even all that happy with turning real pages in real books; until I'm into it, that's another interruption, another distraction. With the Kindle, apparently you touch a corner of page and it gets around to it in its own time.

But then, the Kindle may be the ugliest device I've ever seen. You cannot, cannot hold even the display models I have and not put them right back on the shelf, thanks, goodbye, is that the time really?

Mind you, is 1970s crap the new black? I watch those TV ads for the DS Lite and I'm embarrassed: the graphics are right up there with BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum ones at best. Celebrities play with these pieces of plastic and try not to look ashamed. Go ahead, look ashamed: there are some feelings one has to be true to and playing with plastic that Mattell would've rejected in 1944 is one of them.


I read a lot on my iPhone. I mean, a lot. An awful lot. At the least I read several hundred news stories a day via the news reader Manifesto. (Link opens up the App Store in iTunes.) And as dispiriting as it is to to see 1,780 or more unread artlcles sometimes, it's a bit more dispiriting to read 0. I get itchy. I'm on a train, I've read everything I have to read and there's either not enough battery power left in my iPhone to watch a movie or there are plenty enough people looking like they'd take the phone off my hands, no questions answered, I get itchy.

And Stanza is free from the App Store.

In the space of an afternoon, I'm converted. You don't expect me to say it's better than reading a book, but I didn't expect to be saying that it's good. I was lost in Pride & Prejudice the story, it was invisible to me that I was holding an iPhone and tapping for the next page. No scrolling, just a light tap and you move on. And it moves so fast that it doesn't delay me and my freakish reading speed.

This reminds me of when online bookstores were just coming along. The big argument was that they could never replace real bookshops and as we've seen the answer is that nope, they didn't. They didn't need to, either: you could now have a really good time browsing the world for books online, you could have a really good time in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop too. It became two lots of really good, and I like really good.

I expect you're partial to a bit of really good, too.

So there you go. This morning, never! This evening, ooh, what would Jane Austen say about this then?

Fortunately, we know the answer. From Austen's own private correspondence we can hear the woman herself speaking across all these years to ask about battery life on the iPhone and doesn't the Kindle look so very 16th Century?


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