On The Pad

     |    Wednesday April 11th, 2012

As those of you who follow my other blog know, for the past five weeks I’ve been careening around North America. Needless to say, this meant some ingenuity when packing, especially if I were going to acquire anything over there, as I inevitably do. I was going to hit two distinct climate zones, for one thing, so there were a lot of clothes. Something had to go.


Easy: reading material. At long last, I had the opportunity to do first-hand research on how this new generation of devices stood up to the demands of everyday reading. I usually pack a bunch of magazines — New Yorkers and New York Review of Books — and then wind up buying a couple along the way. These pass my time on planes, in airports, and in hotel rooms late at night. And, inevitably, because I’m such a pass-alonger to my fellow Anglophones overseas, I then save the copies I’ve read and pass them on when I get back home. I also try to find a nice thick book so I’m only toting one with me, and make it something that’s optionally disposable like science fiction or other light reading so I’m not also lugging it around, too.



I’ve got a bunch of reader options on my iPad (and one that’s only for my computer, unfortunately, Adobe Digital Editions, which is quite clunky, although a free-e-book program from the University of Chicago Press makes it worth having). There’s something called Stanza, which I’ve never used, and which seems to have come with a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So far, I’ve been unable to find anything else for this app. Then there’s the Kindle app, which I’ve used in the past for stuff to read, published two mini-books for, and to which I’d downloaded some free or cheap stuff — Best American Travel Writing, something called The Fall of the Roman Empire (not Gibbon) — to read on the road. Apple’s own iBooks app recently had a major revision, and as I was playing with it some weeks ago, I noticed that an author I liked, George Pelecanos, was selling his new novel What It Was for 99 cents, and I couldn’t pass that up. (Unfortunately, iBooks sells through the iTunes Store, which I hate because it’s so difficult to navigate, and has a kind of middle-American, squeaky-clean taste that drives me nuts: finding something as gritty as Pelecanos there was a real surprise.)


I’ve also got some periodical subscriptions: the New York Times, Saveur magazine, the New Yorker, and Wired. I already read the Times every day, at least when the app isn’t crashing, which it does pretty regularly. I usually read my New Yorker on paper, and as usual, I was several issues behind. The digital edition is free with a paper subscription, so I just downloaded the unread issues to the iPad, which turned out to be a great idea for the trip. After all, I wasn’t at home, but the subscription just kept being delivered, so I got to keep up. Saveur is a mess: they appear to scan the paper magazine, and if you can’t read it at that size on the iPad (and you can’t), tough. There’s some hyperlinking of recipes, but all in all, this is a failure. And Wired, well, you’d think they’d get it right, and they sort of do. There are plenty of interactive charts and illustrations, short videos, and so on, which really do enhance the stories, especially for laypeople like me. There are also silly bells and whistles, which are often on the first page of a story. The only one that was really annoying was a short piece on Josephine Baker, which had an embedded video with sound at its start which annoyed my neighbors on the plane. There was no way to turn it off. Also, Wired‘s digital subscribers seem to be second-class citizens: although I have a subscription, as I write it’s April 10, and no sign of the new issue yet.



I have to admit, though, I was pretty proud of myself, saving all this bulk, and reading on the iPad became part of my daily activity on the road. The newspaper was particularly good: whenever I opened it, I was getting the latest news. There was no buying it in the morning, only to have later developments render the articles stale. It’s expensive — $20 a month — but worth it. But then, I noticed something else: fatigue. I’d be reading along and suddenly start yawning or even dozing off. Was this a result of reading on the device, or was I still jet-lagged? I could double-check, though: at SXSW I’d picked up a copy of Texas Monthly at a panel moderated by John Spong based on his cover story about “outlaw country,” and I wanted to read that. (It’s eight pages on their website, I see, and I know I couldn’t read all of that without getting fatigued). I grabbed the magazine, and an hour later, I’d finished the article and felt fine. Was there something about paper which was easier on the eye?


Right around this time, my schedule changed so that I had a chunk of book-reading time available in the evenings. Time to fire up the Pelecanos book, I decided. This was the first time I’d used the iBooks app, and I found I wasn’t getting fatigued. How could that be? I was using the same iPad that I read the magazines and the Kindle stuff on. And then I noticed something that may or may not have had something to do with it: the way the app presents itself, there are two subtle design features. On the left side of the “page,” it gets slightly darker. Not where the text is, but like you’re looking at the point where a page fits into the binding of a book. And, around the top and right-hand of the “page,” there’s a brown line suggesting a binding. Ridiculous, I thought. Am I so easily fooled? Or is this a result of a long-imbued physiological impulse I’d been unaware of? Hard to say, but reading What It Was was the easiest digital reading experience of the whole trip. (The book itself is, well, odd).


It seems ridiculous to me that I acquire all this digital reading material in such an assortment of formats and applications, and it’s clear that the book industry is currently in chaos over this, a situation I’ve likened to the Vienna Philharmonic discussing whether or not to disband because Edison has just introduced the cylinder and Emile Berliner‘s announced a flat-disc format. A nice index of the state of confusion is contained in this article on the Paid Content site: if publishers are insisting on DRM, why can’t they add it on their end and pass the encoded books on to the sellers? I may be missing something here, but this reads like shipping loose pages to bookstores and expecting them to do the binding. And that’s just for traditional e-books: “enhanced” books are just around the corner, according to a recent Wired article, and there’s at least one by someone I know that’s already here, since Jesse Sublett has repackaged his debut novel Rock Critic Murders with original music and audio tracks. (I hereby guiltily acknowledge that I haven’t checked it out yet, although mine is one of the audio tracks).


But it’s the magazine industry, which is all but dead, that really needs to get on the digital thing. We’ll see if the newly-launched Next Issue Media is, as Wired seems to think, the Next Big Thing (although Wired is always coming up with Next Big Things), and I can’t weigh in on it because I don’t have an Android tablet. It’s still early innings here, and yet the old cry of “mutate or die” is very much in the air. Still, I don’t want to fatigue your eyes any further this week, no matter what device you’re reading this on, so that’s it for now. Don’t worry: I’ll have more thoughts on this!