Monday, November 26, 2007


It was very synchronistic that Alvina posted about her Sony reader yesterday as I was listening to this really interesting show on npr last week when the Kindle was released, which got me thinking about reading and technology.

I remember when I was going to art school one of my parent's friends asked me how I felt about the fact that I was going off to study a dying art form (book illustration). I said that even though technology changes the context of art, that doesn't mean it has to die. Photography changed the nature of representational painting (when we could take photographs, painting suddenly evolved to serve a different purpose than capturing reality), but this didn't cause people to stop painting.

I wonder how much that metaphor can be applied though, now that technology like ebook readers are getting closer and closer to the experience of reading a book. So my question is, what is it that is special about reading a printed book?

I can quickly list the tactile things that I love about reading paper books: the weight in my hands, the smell of the ink and the old browned paper. The anticipation that builds as you turn a page, the sound of that page turning, like the flap of a bird's wing.

I can also quickly bring to mind the things I hate about reading on a screen: the haze that comes over your eyes from long stretches of staring at something bright, the lack of design (most web sites use the same, universal type faces for the text). The confusing mish mosh of information and advertisements that, when poorly designed, can be overwhelming.

But apart from these tactile differences, which technology promises to overcome at some point (as the show above points out, it was only 50 years ago that a single computer filled a room), what about reading a printed book would be lost if all goes digital? Ultimately when you are really lost in a story, does it matter in what form you read it? Is there an inherent difference when it comes to children's books in particular?

Because picture books are so much about the art, it seems that the readers out right now are a far cry from catching up to duplicating the experience of a printed page of artwork... so perhaps printed picture books will live a longer life than printed novels. But it does beg the question, what do we value about reading with children, and how will the essence of this change or stay the same as we move away from printed books, if this is the trend?

One of the guests on the show points out that these new devices help us connect with authors more, since we have access to more information about them... blogs for instance open up the writer/reader relationship in a whole new way... more and more it seems necessary that writers actively interact with their audience for their books to be successful. Do ebooks provide ways to further this connection?

If reading a book must increasingly be an interactive, participatory event for the reader, so that they can feel part of the story and the author's world... and if technology makes this easier, does that take some responsibility away from the author/illustrator to accomplish this with the skill of their craft alone?


Mary Beth said...

I think the electronic readers are so impersonal where as real life books take a part of you with them. There are my tear drops on my copies of Anne of Green Gables and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where I just put my head down and sobbed. How can you do that on a screen?

With children's books, I can't imagine holding up a small screen to show the kids the pictures. To begin with, it's just too small. And even if we put it on a television screen to make it big enough for everyone to see, it's just one more way for them to stare at a screen. They need the tactile joy of turning the pages (and the glee of having the Big Book sometimes fall out of the teacher's clumsy hands). I never want to give that up.

Meghan McCarthy said...

Great post. I read Alvina's before I read yours and commented on hers... basically saying the same thing. The brightness of the screen does screw up the eyes after a while. I wonder if there have been any studies on that. And what about the cost of theses books? It doesn't cost anything to send out text via computer... so how will authors get paid? The only cool thing would be if bookstores just had picture books. You NEED to have the physical book and the page turn when sitting with a child... at least for now.


Daniel Mahoney said...

I agree with Meghan. There is nothing my son enjoys more then picking out a book from his bookshelf, and then sitting with me as we read and enjoy the book together. It's an experience that will never be replaced with technology.


alvinaling said...

I just read this in Publisher's Lunch, picture book e-books may not be far away:

"While E-Ink screens are a nice idea, black-and-white is an anachronism in today's world, and the contrast and brightness on current screens is mediocre. But the company now has a prototype of a color screen, and apparently it will be able to display video as well.

"This technology has long evolved slower than promised, but the company's director of marketing and planning David Jackson tells Forbes it might be ready for the marketplace by 2009."

I have to say, I love my Sony Reader still. I do love books and the pages and the tactile experience, but I do think they may be disappearing in the future. People get used to technology and different experiences. If these devices help save the environment/trees, I'm all for them.

To respond to Meghan's comment, the screen is not bright at all--it looks like paper. It doesn't strain the eyes. And as for the shared reading experience, soon parent and child will be sitting together scrolling through books on screen, and then reading together on an e-book. It's really not that different of an experience.