This began as a place to gather images and impressions in preparation for writing a book, Letter by Letter, about the history of the idea of writing; it continues to live as a kind of shoebox under the bed.
I'm Matthew Battles. I write about technology in natural history, culture, and our experience of the natural world. I'm a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I help out with metaLAB at Harvard, a collaborative investigating the roles of technology in the Arts and Humanities. On Twitter, I'm @matthewbattles.
What do e-books look like from the vantage point of bedtime?Reading’s deep roots in our consciousness are grown during the lengthy period we spend playing with books, looking at them, and hearing them read by loving adults. The symbiosis of reading with intimate domestic scenes is in part a product of the technologies that made inexpensive, colorful books possible. And as Maryanne Wolf discusses in her thought-provoking book Proust and the Squid, this relatively late-emerging nexus of print and childhood produces much of the framework—not only the cultural, but the cognitive—that makes our culture’s particular kind of literacy. Now technologies are changing. Where is bedtime reading in all of this? It occurs to me that despite the enormous commercial importance of the children’s book market, the new e-readers aren’t really designed with such reading in mind. Certainly one can read YA novels, fantasy books, and such on a Kindle or a nook—but this hardly begins to encompass the spectrum of the book in modern childhood. Despite its name, the Kindle is no kindergarten. The possibilities are legion, and I hope designers publishers will entertain many models. The notion of a kind of Kindle for kids, a Speak &Spell-esque plastic thingie that beeps and sings, frankly horrifies me. Kids don’t need opportunities to buy digital books, or to parrot answers in exchange for Skinneresque rewards like bleeps and jingles. Kids don’t need to read their way into markets and commercials; better is the feral, recursive, ever-growing jungle of the imagination that books can make. Perhaps e-reading for kids will work best if it’s disintermediated and incorporated into interesting objects of all kinds. The kind of thing I’m thinking of is represented well by Siftables, invented by David Merrill and Jeevan Kalinithi at the MIT Media Lab. Siftables are programmable blocks with displays, which can interact with each other to build stories or songs or games. (If you haven’t seen them, check out the embedded video; they’re amazing.) Maryanne Wolf worries that whatever comes next in reading won’t offer the same cognitive development as the book has given us in the modern era. Siftables are just one example of the beginnings of a solution. Of course, Siftables aren’t books (although I’m sure you’ll agree, the possibilties of a Siftables edition of Goodnight Moon, or Where the Wild Things Are, or some altogether new kind of children’s storybook experience, are pretty spectacular). But they seem to offer one way to offer a meditative, deeply immersive play with words, stories, and ideas that looks a lot like childhood reading. And failing that, or in addition to it, there’s nothing should keep us from lowering the lights and pulling out a battered copy of Where the Wild Things Are. With
Pointing out that “the Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book,” Jason Kottke urges us to think of reading, and not shopping, as the focal activity of an e-reader. In any ideal e-reader, he argues, blogs, magazines, web sites, PDFs, and email, along with books of all kinds, would be accessible and interpenetrating.
In a discussion of single-use devices at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody suggests splitting the difference between e-readers and digital Swiss Army knives like the iPhone. “Tear down the walls between the ’separate’ functions on multi-function devices,” he writes. “It should feel like a device that has one function — just that the function is complex, multilayered, integrated.”
Carmody and Kottke remind me of one of the greatest fictional single-use devices ever:
“What is it?” asked Arthur.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s it’s job.”
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.
“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
“I’ll show you how it works,” said Ford. He snatched it from Arthur, who was still holding it as if it were a two-week-dead lark, and pulled it out of its cover.
“You press this button here, you see, and the screen lights up, giving you the index.”
A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface…. Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still, quiet, measured voice….
Fortunately for Ford Prefect, the Earth had just been destroyed by the Vogons, so he didn’t need to worry about getting a takedown notice from the Author’s Guild over the question of audio rights.
A notable, dark-horse entry in the race to create the RL version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the Wikireader. It’s a small gray-screened device with three buttons, two AAA batteries, and an SD card with the entire contents of Wikipedia loaded for browsing anywhere.
There’s something appealingly quixotic about the Wikireader. It’s less like the Hitchhiker’s Guide than one of those “20 Questions” games—more of a hardware stunt than a product with real commercial appeal. But at $99, it seems way to expensive. It should retail for something like $29 tops. And come with a towel.
In the midst of the current explosion in e-readers; as the number of iPhone apps climbs beyond one hundred thousand; as standalone devices for reading Wikipedia arrive on the scene; I begin to wonder: where are the new genres these devices should be spawning? The emergence of the cellphone novel, or keitai shosetsu, in Japan seemed like a harbinger of this sort of thing. But despite the vastly increased capacity of smartphones, and despite the new reading niches opened up by devices like the Kindle, little or no generic innovation has occurred.
It’s possible that I’m missing something—if I am, let me know. iPhone apps that offer ebooks may be the answer, but the innovation there seems one of delivery, not genre. But if I’m correct, then why the dearth of invention? Maybe it’s simply a matter of time. Genres are a species of idiom, after all; they need time to evolve. Or maybe it’s because devices like the Kindle are content silos. Or maybe it’s because the iPhone app is the literature of the future.
When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death … it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.
It was the pride and function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could write itself into existence. We were Gutenberg Nation.
I’ve heard from blogger Danny Bloom about his campaign to coin a neologism to describe the behavior we undertake when we seek to decode and comprehend text displayed on computer screens. He’s concerned that this behavior and its impact on brains is fundamentally different from “reading,” and that neuroscientists may not be paying sufficient attention to this emergent phenomenon. As Bloom himself puts it,
to search for a new word (if needed, and if useful!) is to point out the need for scholars and scientists to study the very real differences between reading on
paper and reading on screens, and not just with learned opinions and surveys, but with hard science — that is to say, MRI brain scan studies in laboratory settings and hospital rooms to study — firsthand! up close and personal! — white matter and grey matter neural pathways and try to ascertain if reading on paper surfaces lights up different parts of the brain compared to reading on a screen.
Indeed there already is a great deal of interest among neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and educators in the neurology, the biology, of reading. Researchers are using MRI and other technologies, along with tried-and-true cognitive testing, to limn the circuits that reading forges and follows in the brain. And some of these researchers are turning their interest on the question of reading v. “screening,” as Bloom says. A few links—
Jonah Lehrer, a friend of mine and a great science writer, covers this topic in a recent blog post (see his book Proust was a Neuroscientist for much more):
And Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid, subtitled The Story of Science and the Reading Brain. Wolf (who also gets space in the Times feature linked to above) is especially concerned about the neural implications of the switch from paper to screens.
Of course to say “paper to screens” is a massive simplification of the transformation that’s underway. The cognitive, cultural, and technological shift we’re experiencing goes well beyond the medium of the literal surface to embrace electronic networks, the durability of texts, the ways we experience and share them … every aspect of reading and writing. But reading is always already undergoing constant transformation. Try reading a gothic manuscript from the 14th century with its many scribal abbreviations, its exotic letterforms, its strange way of organizing and managing words on the page. It’s nearly impenetrable, even to the student of Latin. What’s the implication? In the 14th century, brains were different. They were different in the 17th, and the 19th; they were different in Greece in 600 BCE. As we’ve gone from “claying” to “papyring” to “velluming” to “papering” to “screening,” our brains have reorganized themselves—reorganizing the media as they go. But where do we locate “reading” in that history? Is there one essential point at which it all culminates? Or does the process of transformation itself represent the essence of “reading”?
New means of putting text together are also new ways of putting the brain together. But that neural plasticity is what we do as humans; that, in a word, is reading, whatever the media.
I assume that technology will soon start moving in the natural direction: integrating chips into books, not vice versa. I might like to make a book beep when I can’t find it, search its text online, download updates and keep an eye on reviews and discussion. This would all be easily handled by electronics worked into the binding. Such upgraded books acquire some of the bad traits of computer text — but at least, if the circuitry breaks or the battery runs out, I’ve still got a book.Many books already have such electronics on board, in the form of RFID tags worked into the binding or slipped among the pages. These tags serve the simple function of security, but also carry enough unique data to make the book identifiable by title and individual copy to networked systems. But of course much more could be done.
The old fashioned novel is really dead, and nothing can revive it nor make anybody care for it again. What is to follow it?…A clever German who is here suggested to me last night that the literature of the future might turn out to be the daily exchange of ideas of men of genius—over the everlasting telephone of course - published every morning for the whole world….