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Apple’s book failure
and the Borgesian dilemma of reading the finite on an infinite screen.

Recently, I published an article in the Believer about the exciting opportunities eBooks afford writers and publishers to embrace the medium’s strengths without attempting to simply replicate the print technology of old. At the time of writing this piece, like many readers who prefer reading words on paper to a screen, I had not really done heavy reading on a device. I had an iPad, but I had only dabbled with plucking samples here and there from the iBookstore. This changed after two experiences.

The first was that I spent many, many hours with a designer working on a interactive version of my first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Thinking about how to adapt this book into an eBook was a rich, rewarding task but it also made me confront the current problems with how Apple delivers eBooks from its online store. For all eBooks that are simply straightforward versions of their print book counterparts (i.e. books that work in the ePub format) there is the iBookstore. Like many online boutiques, the iBookstore fails on many fronts in that it comes nowhere close to the wonderful tactile browsing environment of a real bookstore (there is certainly room for some brilliant designer to work his/her magic here), but at least all the books are in one place and there is some “if you like this book, you might also like this book” cross-referencing à la Amazon. The big problem comes if you want to (as we did) design an eBook that does anything interactive or innovative. The ePub format just cannot handle this. So in effect you have to handcraft your own “app,” as thousands of magazines and publishers are now starting to do, basically reinventing the wheel every time. Almost all of these apps are artisanal, and most are clunky, as were probably the first wheels or codexes or horseless carriages. To my mind, one of the most successful examples of innovation—that is using the strengths of the medium (ability to present audio/video extras, cross reference, etc) —is the New Yorker App, but then they had access to the kind of resources that many publishers/writers/draftsmen don’t.

The problem, however, is not really with the apps themselves, but with how Apple takes anything that is an app, including book apps, and puts it in its catch-all “App Store.” There is a category for “book apps,” but in essence your interactive book, which is trying to push the limits of what eBooks can and can’t do, is competing against Angry Birds and a host of other addictive, mind-numbing apps that are designed to help people gobble up thirty-second chunks of their day. There is no cross-referencing between the iBookstore and the “books” section of the App Store—in fact, these people are in competition with each other. As with all apps, everything has to be vetted by the Apple people. In its quest for a beautiful, streamlined environment, Apple is suppressing a real opportunity for innovation in eBooks and browsability by its readership.

Thus, after my experience navigating the pitfalls of eBook innovation on the iPad, I have to say I was even more reluctant to step into the quickly expanding world of e-readership. Given the choice, I will almost always buy a book in its print form. My attitude necessarily changed for the same reason I imagine it changes for a lot of people: I went on a trip. A long trip. And I wanted to bring along a bunch of books. In addition, as I was on my trip, I heard about new books that I couldn’t just run out and buy at my local bookstore in Moscow or Kigali. But I could download them instantly. Our cultural expectation for instant gratification is getting a bit ridiculous (another topic for another day) but I was glad to have these books available at the touch of a button. So I started to read on the iPad. At first I wondered about the backlit screen, but this is a real non-issue unless you are reading on a bright sunny beach or are a mole rat.  It is true that you cannot read during takeoff and landing, but I found I could occupy myself with other things during these times. For instance: watching my plane take off from planet earth.

I still find the “turning of the page” animation that Apple no doubt spent millions of dollars concocting a little ridiculous. Sometimes I stop and shake my head at the magic show taking place: I am rubbing my finger across a piece of glass, pretending to pick up a piece of paper that is bound to a spine of glue and then flip this piece of paper over? Maybe this visual metaphor was necessary for the first generation of tablet readers, to ease those of us used to the old print technology into the new digital age, but I suspect that this kind of song and dance will fall away as eBooks become the norm. I also hope that as our expectation of what print books can and should do falls away, we might be able to learn from the lessons of print technology (white margins, readable chunks of text, portability) while also pushing the boundaries of all the exciting things a screen can do that a print book cannot.

In general, I liked reading on the iPad. I like reading in landscape, I like how the iPad sits against my stomach. I like jumping around the book using the contents page. I use the notes function. I use the search function. I bookmark. The big thing I do miss is the geography of the printed book. Knowing instinctively how much is left by the thickness of the pages in your right hand. Print books also have unique physical dimensions. Each book has a different feel, a different weight, a different smell. You know what book you are reading even without your eyes open. When you read on the iPad, however, all books (particularly all ePub books!) come in the same wrapper. They feel the same, they look the same, they have the same fonts. In a way, reading on the iPad reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’s haunting story The Book of Sand, in which the narrator comes across an infinite book that contains the pages of all other books in the universe. At first intrigued, the idea of the book begins to terrify him. He considers burning it, but reasons that the smoke from the book would be infinite and thus suffocate the world, so he ends up abandoning it in the National Library, on some anonymous shelf. I feel some sense of this low-grade unease when reading on the iPad, as if the book I am reading at that particular moment in time might be part of a much larger book, and that I am actually reading all books at once. Then again, maybe this feeling is not such a bad feeling because maybe it is true.

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