Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (8 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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The iPad story is a great one, but I wasn’t a part of it. I didn’t have to put in the grueling hours or countless meetings on product development. It’s one of those stories that we get to read and enjoy. One of those stories where you say that the author did an amazing job. And Steve Jobs did.

Apple understands a lot, including great product design. The iPad is a multifunction device, unlike other e-readers that are dedicated to reading. Dedicated e-readers are as sharp as steak knives in doing what they’re supposed to do, which is let you read books. The iPad is more like a Swiss Army knife—it can cut the steak and uncork a wine bottle, and there’s even a toothpick to use when you’re done eating! It’s got it all.

Sure, it’s got its flaws. For example, there’s the headache the iPad gives you when you try to read in direct sunlight, since it doesn’t have a nonreflective eInk screen. But overall, Apple did an amazing job in creating a product that actually feels like a book. The iPad has the same heft as a book. It’s got the same-sized screen as the average printed book, and it’s as responsive as a book when you turn the page. You don’t have to wait half a second like you do with eInk readers. It’s truly, as Apple is fond of saying, a magical device. A device consumers love.

That should be no surprise, because as one of America’s favorite companies, Apple has some of the most famous lovemarks of all.

A “lovemark” is the concept that a brand isn’t enough. That brands are dead and products are commodities, so to make a product succeed, it needs the love that comes with fads and the respect that comes with established brands. If you’ve got this love and respect, you’ve got a lovemark—something that combines intimacy and mystery and sensuality.

A great example of a lovemark is the Swiss Army knife. Every time you open it, you find a new tool or screwdriver or spoon or toothpick or who knows what inside, prompting surprise and delight and gratification. It’s gratifying in the same way the Kindle was when it first came out. With a Kindle, you could download a book in less than sixty seconds. (It still stuns me today that you can do that.) Even the name “Kindle” connotes something mysterious. What’s more intimate than the experience of curling up with a book to read? Amazon got a lot right with the Kindle that made it into a lovemark.

And what’s even more amazing is that Amazon created a lovemark by focusing on the product, not the ad campaign.

The first round of Kindle commercials emphasized the lovemark, imaginatively making books come alive, in a way that was at once amateurish and approachable. But later commercials have seen a return to Amazon’s retail roots. In one, a man and a woman are sitting by a pool in Las Vegas. He’s reading a print book and she’s reading a digital book on her Kindle, and she cheerfully explains what the Kindle does and how it’s cheaper than a pair of designer sunglasses, pulling no punches when it comes to commoditizing the Kindle. There’s no lovemarking here.

Such commercials treat Kindles as mere commodities with price points that serve utilitarian needs. Admittedly, it’s the kind of commercial you expect from a wholesale retailer of goods, but it’s not the kind of commercial that speaks to the soulful, mysterious aspect of books themselves. I suspect this disparity turns some would-be consumers away from Kindle.

Barnes & Noble’s commercials for the Nook, on the other hand, are intimate and sensuous. One follows a beautiful little girl through childhood and adolescence and adulthood, and you get into her mind as she reads. The commercial stays true to the way that reading simultaneously transports you to new places and comforts you where you are now. At the same time, the commercial factually communicates that the Nook is an e-reader with a wireless connection and all sorts of content available—something the original Kindle commercials never quite conveyed.

The Nook is an under-appreciated genius of a lovemark. The team at Barnes & Noble got a lot right with the Nook, and from a lovemark perspective, I think they created a more intimate product than any other dedicated e-reader. The rubber back behind the Nook is soft and pliable—not hard metal like the later Kindles—making it sensual and intimate. Barnes & Noble also recreated the engraved faces of famous authors from their stores and used them as Nook screensavers. It’s brilliant, not just because it makes reading more intimate, but also because it solidifies the Barnes & Noble brand itself.

And I admit that I love Barnes & Noble and other physical bookstores. An hour spent browsing a bookstore is a day well spent.

It’s hard to love Amazon, though. Not the way we love Apple or a bookstore. At best, you respect Amazon for its obsession to detail, for its cheap prices, and for how it achieves the promised arrival dates for its products. You may not love Amazon, but you trust it as a brand. It’s sort of like the Post Office. It’s hard to love the Post Office, but you never worry much about whether your package will arrive. Although mishaps happen, the Post Office has a great track record.

So for Amazon to launch the Kindle was like the Post Office launching a new e-letter product, a clipboard-sized plastic gadget with a screen on which you can read your letters. You trust Amazon as much as you trust the Post Office, and you absolutely want to read content as soon as it’s available. The devices save you trips to the mailbox or the bookstore, and they’re excellent adjuncts to your leisure time or business reading. But nobody ever declares themselves a Post Office fanboy and rushes to “unbox” the latest book of stamps.

I should explain that a
is a person who’s so smitten by a brand that he’s often the first in line to buy the brand’s newest gadget. A fanboy will often rush home to film the “unboxing” of his new gadget. If you’ve never heard of
, which is the process of unwrapping a new tech gadget while filming it, I encourage you to search this word on YouTube and watch any of the hundreds of thousands of results.

Unboxing is a new voyeuristic phenomenon that’s erotic and technical at the same time. It’s tech pornography. It’s as if we desire total carnal knowledge of our consumer electronics goods. The sheer number of unboxing videos on gadget websites and YouTube is a testament to how obsessed we are.

The fanboys and gadgeteers of our culture are starved for sexy e-readers.

We’re a culture that fetishizes technology, and the way people film the unboxing of gadgets is similar to how people ogle lingerie models on the fashion runway every year. How long will it be before we start running new product launches like fashion shows, displaying the new electronic goods on runways with sultry music, paparazzi snapping photos, and the CEO or vice president reduced to someone shilling the product like it’s next season’s lingerie, a one-handed appreciation of Silicon Valley’s newest creation?

There’s an economics term for this called
. We fetishize a commodity by assuming it’s worth more than the sum of its parts. For example, the money we use is worth less than advertised, because it costs mere pennies to make a dollar bill. Beanie Babies at their peak were likewise more expensive than their pure manufacturing value. Consumers perceived that the stuffed animals had higher value, so they rocketed into the status of collectibles, like Cabbage Patch Kids.

The idea of commodity fetishism was created by the wooly-bearded economists of the nineteenth century, making it all the more amazing that they came up with this idea in the age of the horse and buggy. It’s still surprisingly relevant now, surfacing as what I would call a techno-commodity fetish that whips people on every year to buy the latest and greatest gadgets.

You can see the techno-commodity fetish in action every time there’s a new iPhone. Lines spiral around the blocks near AT&T and Apple stores, and fanboys wait in line for days to be first on their blocks to get the new device. Marketers are savvy to this and play it up. That’s why companies like Apple will pre-announce a new iPad: so they can take pre-orders weeks in advance of the new device’s availability and drum up demand and, at the same time, very practically let the assembly lines crank out the last of the old devices, using up all the last parts.

By all accounts, this techno-commodity fetish is thriving, judging by the number of gadgets released every year. Barnes & Noble and Apple may have been among the first of Amazon’s competitors, but they’re not the only ones. In fact, by the start of 2013, there were forty-five eInk-based e-readers for sale, and too many tablets and smartphones to count, all with ebook support. Thanks to booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, we now enjoy instant on-demand ebooks, which to me is still something fantastic and futuristic, part
and part

Bookmark: Book Browsing

The ability to browse for books by their covers and flip through them from front to back before buying is also fading with the ebook revolution. It’s sad, but it’s a consequence of the way independent bookstores and even major bookstores are faltering and closing their stores.

But browsing through a bookstore is slow—just as slow, in fact, for ebooks as for print books. Whether you’re walking down an aisle at your local bookstore or clicking through different categories and subcategories of content on Amazon.com, it’s time-consuming.

A better approach than browsing might be something like a Foursquare for bookshelves, so people could become the self-appointed librarians or mayors of a given stack of books and provide recommendations for good books in their section. They could not only function as experts at their local bookstore, but also operate on a regional or national scale. To provide an incentive for good recommendations, an element of competition could be added, with the mayor-librarians defending their turf from would-be challengers.

Imagine checking in once you’ve read a book on a given topic and developing subject area expertise on something more productive than the microbrews served at the local bar during happy hour. Maybe I’m a tad bookish, but I think an ebook-infused Foursquare would be an interesting idea for a startup. You’d check in every time you read a given ebook and gradually rise in stature within the domain of your expertise in a measurable, uncontestable way. On finishing a book—
—you’d score points on this online social system. And if I’ve learned anything from social media, it’s that we like to get rewards. They motivate us, especially when our reputation is at stake.

I can especially see this socialization of learning happening now that encyclopedias and other top-down sources of authority have been tossed in the Dumpster in favor of crowd-sourced information like Wikipedia, and as sites like Goodreads and Amazon’s own Shelfari democratize book recommendations. But social reading is still relatively new.

Do you trust the recommendations of people online who you’ve never met? If so, have you discovered a great book through any of these sites? Or better—because we are social, after all—have you met any really interesting people through using these sites? I’d like to hear your story, because let’s be honest: you’re never going to have an enjoyable chat with Amazon’s or Apple’s book recommendation software!


The Neurobiology of Reading

I’ve learned a number of things about the nature of reading and e-reading that are essential to understanding where we are in these early stages of the ebook revolution and how much further the revolution needs to go to be truly successful.

First and foremost, e-readers don’t hold a melted candle to print books in terms of how crisp and textured their ebooks can be.

When I look at my favorite print books from a tactile perspective, I’m drawn to my childhood Bible, with its thin, translucent onionskin pages like starched Kleenexes. Or my Boy Scout manual with its curiously dated but somehow reassuring 1970s color palette. Or my pulp science-fiction magazines from the 1930s with their brittle, yellowed pages that flake if you turn them too fast and have a texture surprisingly like fiberglass.

The current displays for e-readers are too primitive to adequately convey texture. There’s something artistic about eInk, about the almost-random accumulation of tiny titanium dioxide balls in a bath of black ink. But eInk does not produce a warm texture. It’s not soft and reassuring like a weathered, slightly scruffy page from an old book. And I can see how poorly an ebook’s text mimics the type in a print book. Even seen under a magnifying glass, the type is too pixelated.

No e-reader is able to match the resolution of reality. At best, current eInk readers are able to show 200 dots per inch of resolution, but that’s paltry when you consider that even the most mediocre of mass-market books is printed at 300 dots per inch, and photography and art books commonly have two or four times as much texture. If you’re on the side of print books, I agree with you on this one. They win on texture, and ebooks still have a long way to go.

There’s also a solidity to print books that lends itself well to the gravitas of the ideas expressed within or to the solidness of the story. Moreover, the sense of touch—of pages that are perhaps rough or smooth or crisp or corrugated—gives readers an anchor, continually re-establishes a link between the book and the reading experience, and prevents the mind from wandering while reading. The physicality of a book anchors you to it, unlike the denuded, sterile sensation of sheer plastic or numb glass on an e-reader.

» » »

Your brain is aware of this too.

In the brain, reading is as much a sausage factory as the ebook conversion process is. As long as the sausage factory doesn’t get choked up, you’re able to read each word sequentially. You chunk these words together from your storehouse of understanding about semantic meanings, syntax, and grammatical structures. And as your eyes race ahead to the next word or backtrack a bit to reaffirm what they just read, you have time to think and ponder, to come up with ideas of what the book is about and what you’re reading. In other words, to make sense of it.

How does reading work biologically? In a nutshell—and the brain is shaped like a kind of walnutty nutshell, after all—your parietal lobe disengages you from what you were just doing to draw your attention to the words. Your midbrain moves your eye along them, and your thalamus focuses your attention on each letter or word that you’re reading. From within the cingulate gyrus, your eyes are directed to each of the words, and then your brain checks to see if the word you’re reading is familiar or comprehensible.

Just as a web browser caches parts of a website for faster access later, your brain does the same thing for words. There are caches of visual word-forms for your reference in the part of the brain called area 37 of your occipital-temporal region. Your temporal lobe then translates these symbols into sounds, and the anterior gyrus in the back of your head converts these sounds into your interior monologue, the voice you hear inside your head. Your left temporal lobe and right cerebellum and Broca’s area are all brought to bear on making meaning out of this flow of sounds.

It’s a complex sausage factory that fits inside your skull, and it moves swiftly, taking no more than 100 milliseconds per word and often less, as long as nothing gets in the way. As long as there are no distractions like strange flickers or ghosts, what you see on an e-reader is just as meaningful to your inner monologue as what you read in a printed book.

Okay, that was all very technical. So let me emphasize the important thing: there’s no cognitive difference in reading a sentence in a print book versus a digital book.

However, there’s more to a book than the sentences inside it. After a lifetime of habitual reading, your brain is used to considering the whole page of a book in its entirety. Your brain is used to having a dialogue, if you will, with the typographer and page layout artist of the book you’re reading. That’s why the occasional use of a new font or a drop-cap—or heck, even an
word—helps you stay focused. It keeps your brain from yawning and switching to something else. With e-readers, though, this dialogue often stutters. The digital page is often bereft of nuance, of any anchor besides a list of monotonously formatted words, like plain black beads on an invisible string.

When you talk to neuroscientists about how the brain works, they’ll tell you that a book is meaningless if you don’t actively engage with it. That’s why poets use unexpected word combinations, or why Friedrich Nietzsche used irony, or why David Foster Wallace used footnotes. These touches disorient you as you read, forcing you to put 10.5 watts of energy into the reading process to actually focus on what you’re reading. Why did I say 10.5 watts? It could have been any number, but it was unexpected. It got your attention, and you’re more likely to remember this passage now than you would have been if I wrote it in a dry, journalistic way without any memorable facts to catch your attention.

There’s something important and touching about the palpable physical presence of a book: it engages the senses. In this way, the act of turning pages helps to anchor information, because we have a visual, geometric sense of where one page is in relation to all the others in a book, a tactile dog-eared map. This is something we lose with e-readers. We’re used to processing a 3D world around us in everyday life, and while many e-readers have built-in progress meters to show you where you are within a book, they’re often insufficient.

Such 2D progress meters require some mental agility to use. They’re no better than gas meters on a car, which show you’re halfway through a tank but don’t tell you how many miles or gallons you have to go until empty. By comparison, there’s no ignoring the handiness of the physical presence of a book as you hold it and the sense of achievement in knowing how far through it you’ve come.

With ebooks, we also lose the ability to flip back and forth quickly through pages, as we can in a print book. I can flip through perhaps a hundred pages per second in a print book as I look for a given passage, but even on the fastest iPad, I can only see about ten pages per second. Current e-readers are still ten times too slow to match print books in this respect.

So clearly, in some respects, print books are still superior to digital books. Just as we are what we eat, we are what we read. Literally. The act of reading changes the layout of the brain, rewiring it. The more your brain can engage with a book, the better the reading experience becomes, and the more you remember of what you read. And physical sensations—the texture of the paper, the smell of the ink, the raised or recessed letters on the book cover, a peeling price tag on the spine—all help center you in the reading experience and help distinguish one book from the next in your mind’s mental map.

That’s not to say that e-reading doesn’t have advantages, though. And one key advantage is the ability to store and link the books you read.

Some people take the time to meticulously write down and log each book they read, compiling a lifelong list of books that have influenced them. Digital books can not only enable all of us to keep such a list, but also help us do it better.

More than academic curiosity drives people to log the books they’ve read. In some ways, it’s an intimate journal of your mental development. It gives you a ready way to look back on yourself as you were or to retrace ideas to their origins. It may even serve as a memory aid if you’re searching for a book you know you once read but subsequently forgot. Also, the act of creating this history helps solidify what you read and anchor it in your mind. It’s like you’ve clicked the Save icon on your word processor and are more likely to recall more of what you read because you saved it to memory.

Ebooks could enable this history automatically for everyone, no effort needed. All it will take is one retailer—say, Barnes & Noble—to add a feature to the Nook that creates a website with a reading history of every Nook book you’ve read. Every time you buy a new book, it would add to that list, and you could share it with friends and brag about the books you’ve read.

But I think the biggest boon that digital reading can give us is improved contact between people through better social connections. Reading is often a private experience, and current digital books encourage readers toward even more privacy by allowing them to interact with buttons and joysticks, with toggles and keyboards, instead of directly with other people. It’s so much easier to tweet a passage in an ebook we read than to call someone up and talk about it. Digital books are in some ways hastening the lazy, solipsistic narcissism of our culture. We use our gadgets as proxies for other people and genuine human interaction. And yes, I think that’s bad.

As a species, we seem to be designed for social interaction, so taking that away leads to problems. For example, research has shown that staying socially engaged keeps a brain vital and fit. A 2001 study published by the American Academy of Neurology found that a healthy social life may cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 38 percent. Ebooks alone aren’t responsible for reducing the quality of our social interactions—we have telephones and chat windows and Facebook feeds to “thank” for this as well—but clearly, e-reading doesn’t have to be antisocial.

However, the reading experience can change in the future. It can let you bring your friends or family into the book as you’re reading it. Digital books have the promise of giving you the choice, in the moment, of making reading public or private, depending on your mood.

I’ll give some examples of these possibilities later in the book. But I want to pause here and agree with print-book lovers out there, because yes, you’re right. Digital books aren’t quite the same as print books.

Not yet.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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