Notes on Reading

At Barnes and Noble last night I was given an extended demonstration of what it’s like to read The New Yorker on their e-reader, The Nook. The magazine arrives so late in the week at my home that I usually head out to buy a second copy on the newsstand the day after it hits the streets in New York. To avoid this unnecessary extravagance, I have wondered what it would be like to read the magazine moments after its publication on an e-reader at a fraction of the cost of the printed version(s).

And what I learned is that electronic version of The New Yorker is nothing like the edition that has been coming my way in the mail for ages. In the version of the magazine I read or tried to read on The Nook there are no ads, no little sidebars, no color photos, a fraction of the cartoons and unless you’re reading the both the print and the electronic version simultaneously, you have no idea what else is missing and that includes some of the articles, essays and reviews. Frankly, I thought the e-reader version of the magazine was a fraud.

While weekly edition The New Yorker is also available on the Web, much of the print version is also missing and a good many of the essays are blocked and can only be read by subscribers to the electronic edition of the magazine which is sent each week to subscribers via e-mail. I confess I’ve tried to read this digital version and I found it to be impossible.

I’ve also been worrying a great deal lately about what is happening to practice of reading on these devices. It is claimed that you can “read” countless books and periodicals with them, a large number for free. But what does that mean, what is meant by “reading” anyway? Is it simply from moving from one sentence to another, page after page with a flip of a thumb? Is that all that is meant by reading?

For me reading has always meant much more. It is reading carefully and slowly and sometimes deeply. It is marking passages, making notes, flipping back and forth between pages, and when you’re all done keeping a record of the best of what you’ve read in a notebook or as it’s usually referred to a commonplace book. Doing all of this with an e-reader is not anything I’ve ever observed anyone doing. Nor have I heard anyone tell me this is the way they read with the Nook, Kindle, or iPad. Of course this might be said of most readers of printed books too.

Recently a few blogs have made mention of the commonplace book tradition. Amanda at Desert Book Chick discusses the history of how she uses her commonplace book and over at Kittling: Books, Cathy does much the same in her post There's Nothing Common About Commonplace books. I was amused to read some of the comments to these postings.

I’ve been considering something of the sort for quite some time (didn’t know that there is actually a name for it) but I have this problem with the fact that I need to have it someplace close in order to use it, otherwise I don’t feel like getting up to retrieve anything while I’m immersed in a book. But I do actually need one because at the moment, my thoughts are scattered on post-its everywhere and that really won’t do.

Wow – i have never heard of these – what a simply WONDERFUL idea!!!

I have never heard about commonplace books either. I kept a diary when I was quite young, though, and looking back at that stage, I think it helped me finding a writing voice.

I wish I had kept something like that years ago - it would be wonderful to look at now to see how (or if) I've grown.

And then there is the matter of the future of the printed book, a future that many predict with be short. I realize printed books are expensive to produce and publishers lose a good deal of money on most of them. On possible solution to this problem was recently suggested by William Gibson.

My dream scenario would be that you could go into a bookshop, examine copies of every book in print that they’re able to offer, then for a fee have them produce in a minute or two a beautiful finished copy in a dust jacket that you would pay for and take home. Book making machines exist and they’re remarkably sophisticated. You’d eliminate the waste and you’d get your book -– and it would be a real book. You might even have the option of buying a deluxe edition. You could have it printed with an extra nice binding, low acid paper.

How cool is that? How would it work? You’d come into the bookstore, go to the shelf where the traditional book has always been located, read a short summary of it on a few pages within a slim pamphlet-like volume or do the same on the bookstore’s Web page, decide if you want to read the book, and if so, head over to the machine to print the complete volume on non-toxic, recycled paper with a soft cover. Or something like that.