13 March 2007

Cory Doctorow: You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen

from Locus Magazine, March 2007

"I don't like reading off a computer screen" — it's a cliché of the e-book world. It means "I don't read novels off of computer screens" (or phones, or PDAs, or dedicated e-book readers), and often as not the person who says it is someone who, in fact, spends every hour that Cthulhu sends reading off a computer screen. It's like watching someone shovel Mars Bars into his gob while telling you how much he hates chocolate.

But I know what you mean. You don't like reading long-form works off of a computer screen. I understand perfectly — in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I've checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.

This is not an ideal environment in which to concentrate on long-form narrative (sorry, one sec, gotta blog this guy who's made cardboard furniture) (wait, the Colbert clip's done, gotta start the music up) (19 more RSS items). But that's not to say that it's not an entertainment medium — indeed, practically everything I do on the computer entertains the hell out of me. It's nearly all text-based, too. Basically, what I do on the computer is pleasure-reading. But it's a fundamentally more scattered, splintered kind of pleasure. Computers have their own cognitive style, and it's not much like the cognitive style invented with the first modern novel (one sec, let me google that and confirm it), Don Quixote, some 400 years ago.

The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.

Computers want you to do lots of things with them. Networked computers doubly so — they (another RSS item) have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.

There's a persistent fantasy/nightmare in the publishing world of the advent of very sharp, very portable computer screens. In the fantasy version, this creates an infinite new market for electronic books, and we all get to sell the rights to our work all over again. In the nightmare version, this leads to runaway piracy, and no one ever gets to sell a novel again.

I think they're both wrong. The infinitely divisible copyright ignores the "decision cost" borne by users who have to decide, over and over again, whether they want to spend a millionth of a cent on a millionth of a word — no one buys newspapers by the paragraph, even though most of us only read a slim fraction of any given paper. A super-sharp, super-portable screen would be used to read all day long, but most of us won't spend most of our time reading anything recognizable as a book on them.

Take the record album. Everything about it is technologically pre-determined. The technology of the LP demanded artwork to differentiate one package from the next. The length was set by the groove density of the pressing plants and playback apparatus. The dynamic range likewise. These factors gave us the idea of the 40-to-60-minute package, split into two acts, with accompanying artwork. Musicians were encouraged to create works that would be enjoyed as a unitary whole for a protracted period — think of Dark Side of the Moon, or Sgt. Pepper's.

No one thinks about albums today. Music is now divisible to the single, as represented by an individual MP3, and then subdivisible into snippets like ringtones and samples. When recording artists demand that their works be considered as a whole — like when Radiohead insisted that the iTunes Music Store sell their whole album as a single, indivisible file that you would have to listen to all the way through — they sound like cranky throwbacks.

The idea of a 60-minute album is as weird in the Internet era as the idea of sitting through 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen was 20 years ago. There are some anachronisms who love their long-form opera, but the real action is in the more fluid stuff that can slither around on hot wax — and now the superfluid droplets of MP3s and samples. Opera survives, but it is a tiny sliver of a much bigger, looser music market. The future composts the past: old operas get mounted for living anachronisms; Andrew Lloyd Webber picks up the rest of the business.

Or look at digital video. We're watching more digital video, sooner, than anyone imagined. But we're watching it in three-minute chunks from YouTube. The video's got a pause button so you can stop it when the phone rings and a scrubber to go back and forth when you miss something while answering an IM.

And attention spans don't increase when you move from the PC to a handheld device. These things have less capacity for multitasking than real PCs, and the network connections are slower and more expensive. But they are fundamentally multitasking devices — you can always stop reading an e-book to play a hand of solitaire that is interrupted by a phone call — and their social context is that they are used in public places, with a million distractions. It is socially acceptable to interrupt someone who is looking at a PDA screen. By contrast, the TV room — a whole room for TV! — is a shrine where none may speak until the commercial airs.

The problem, then, isn't that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren't screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.

Electronic books are a wonderful adjunct to print books. It's great to have a couple hundred novels in your pocket when the plane doesn't take off or the line is too long at the post office. It's cool to be able to search the text of a novel to find a beloved passage. It's excellent to use a novel socially, sending it to your friends, pasting it into your sig file.

But the numbers tell their own story — people who read off of screens all day long buy lots of print books and read them primarily on paper. There are some who prefer an all-electronic existence (I'd like to be able to get rid of the objects after my first reading, but keep the e-books around for reference), but they're in a tiny minority.

There's a generation of web writers who produce "pleasure reading" on the web. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are enraging. Most dwell in Sturgeon's 90th percentile and below. They're not writing novels. If they were, they wouldn't be web writers.

Mostly, we can read just enough of a free e-book to decide whether to buy it in hardcopy — but not enough to substitute the e-book for the hardcopy. Like practically everything in marketing and promotion, the trick is to find the form of the work that serves as enticement, not replacement.

Sorry, got to go — eight more e-mails.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated. Anonymous comments will not be posted.


At Wednesday, March 14, 2007 10:10:00 AM, Anonymous S. F. Murphy said...

No, I hate reading fiction off of a computer screen. Nonfiction I will read, but not if it is longer than a thousand words.

Besides, paper doesn't require batteries, which aren't environmentally friendly anyway.

At Thursday, March 15, 2007 8:31:00 AM, Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I can't see reading novel off of my *computer* but I would definitely rather have something like a Sony Reader than p-books for my pleasure novel reading, which tends to be big thick paperbacks suitable for long plane rides (lately I've been reading Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series and Peter Hamilton's books, both sets of which get bigger with each release).

I had the experience of hand-carrying a Sony Reader to Manila and got to use it for the length of the flight from Houston to Tokoyo. I ended up reading 1984 (pre-loaded on the reader--is that subversive or what?) in its entirety on the flight. At least in the context of reading on a flight, I found the reader more convenient than my typical thick paperback would have been--it's certainly no heavier.

So at least for the application of paperback replacement I think Sony Reader-style devices could work quite well--if it wasn't so expensive and if the set of available titles wasn't so limited right now I would have bought one already.

At Thursday, March 15, 2007 1:08:00 PM, Blogger Pauline B Jones said...

The only reason for print books, IMHO, is to read during that time on a plane when you can't have your electronics on. Period.

I will check for an ebook first and find print books clunky to haul around and deal with.

I love the portability and the extra shelf space.

Only thing I don't like, is when publishers charge too much for ebooks. Punks.

At Friday, March 16, 2007 5:04:00 AM, Blogger Rich said...

I've read all sources.

I do tend to prefer reading books at home while relaxing or watching TV/movie.

I read both short and long fiction/non-fiction on the computer. I will admit that I usually break the longer work up in small pieces. I try and read 1 novel online (usually guttenberg) a month. I read them one chapter a day.

I also have a PDA that I have various long and short material on. This is usually my back-up, just in case I don't have a book with me solution.

My biggest difficulty is that both the PDA and online reading don't have very friendly user tools, bookmarking, marginalia, making notes or highlighting sections.

Some of the non-free software comes close, but then you have to look at supply. Many of the proprietary packages have a limited selection of books (especially the older materials), and the compatability/portability (coping form one reader to another) is an issue.


Rich G.

At Friday, March 16, 2007 6:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Cory's making a larger point that we do read a lot of text off of screens even if we don't usually read novels. But we're willing read *part* of a novel or other book on-screen.

My main problem, and I think it's a problem for many people is: I already look at a screen eight hours a day or more. I need the break when I read a book. So that's why I don't want to look at a screen. I also don't want to take my laptop to the park. I want to be disconnected from the fake world for awhile.


At Sunday, March 18, 2007 8:45:00 AM, Blogger Rick said...

Hi Cory,

I just want to say that while agree with almost everything you write here, I do have some personal experience that I'd like to share. I bought a Sony Reader last month and it has changed the way I read - I've read a half dozen whole novels on the thing (the first was in fact Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom!) and I love it. I never want to go back. I've got 129 books on my reader now, most downloaded free from manybooks.net. I know lots of people say they'll never give up real books and Azathoth knows I love 'em too, but I love this Reader thing - it's perfect for 90% of the kind of books I read. It sucks for any kind of reference material and the DRM Sony puts on books you buy from them kinda bites, but I love the thing - and I think coming generations of similar products will be even better.

rick dakan

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 8:51:00 AM, Anonymous urig said...

Cory, You're over-complicating.

Computer screen make people's eyes hurt and they're not as comfortable to move around as books. That's why people prefer books to them.

People do a lot of reading off screen but that's because they have to. There's no paper internet.

Simple enough.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 8:52:00 AM, Blogger John Markos O'Neill said...

Sturgeon's 90th percentile? I had no idea what you were talking about -- was this a trick to get us away from reading this article and over to Google (thus proving that we couldn't read the article straight through)? In case this is so, I won't reveal the answer.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 8:59:00 AM, Anonymous Andrew Mayne said...

I have a different opinion on this. Portability issues aside, I'll watch a YouTube clip but I won't watch a feature film on my computer for the same reason I won't read a novel. I never sit at my computer for as long as I'll sit in a chair reading a book. If I did that with my computer my eyes would probably bug out of my skull.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 9:08:00 AM, Anonymous Janne said...

I relocated for a year (a year that is no three years and counting) and got html or Pdf-versions of most fiction I'm interested in (format shifting was, and is, legal in Sweden). I just weren't prepared to cart boxes and boxes of books across two continents, just to cart them right back again a year later.

Turns out, I like reading on my laptop just fine. It took an adjustment period, and finding out just how I wanted my reading environment set up (Mozilla full screen, largish sans-serif typeface, pale yellow background and turn off all distractions like music and email). By now, I'm as happy reading long fiction on the computer as I am on paper. Perversely, it's non-fiction I have more trouble with; I really like being able to jot down notes, word translations and references on a paper copy. I still archive all papers I get electronically, of course, but I tend to print them out when I read them.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 9:10:00 AM, Anonymous ChurchHatesTucker said...

I'm actually reading "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" on my computer, but I'm doing via dailylit.com. They take CC and PD works, serialize them, and email them to you periodically.

I suppose it's a bit like watching a show diced up on youtube, but it works (at least for "Down and Out.")

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 9:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I regularly read long stretches of text from screen. The trick is to turn any notifier-type software off (or ignore them).

I actually like reading from my screen better than reading from paper because it's always nice and bright and not influenced by shadow (like paper), or even flare (like old monitors). In that respect I really like my Philips.

However, it's pretty hard to beat lying around on the grass in the Hortus with the sun shining and the birds singing. So a paper book gives you the ability to read everywhere you want and in any position you want. This cannot be said for a PC, or even a laptop. And PDA's are just too small and often fitted with mediocre screens.

Of course there are dedicated e-book readers and of course large PDA's, but they're horrendously expensive.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 9:53:00 AM, Blogger nex said...

The basic premise of this specultation is inane and thoughtful at the same time. On one hand, you'd have to be an idiot if you walk away from your computer if you want to read a paper book without distractions, but don't shut down those same disctrations when you attempt to read that book on your computer. On the other hand, when it comes to technology that didn't exist when they grew up, people generally are idiots.

And of course not everyone has a PDA or small notebook computer that can basically be a book equivalent. Most people still have a desk-bound machine that they can't take to the couch, to bed, to the park, etc. This will change within a couple of years.

But I don't think that novels have to become more screeny. It's merely their presentation that has to change. If you have a PDF that is optimized for printing and read it on a small screen, it's a chore. You constantly have to scroll, because either a page doesn't fit, or the type is too small. But if the text was reformatted to fit your device perfectly, which is what e-books are meant to be about, that's enough screenyness. Catering to shorter attention span is a factor that is just completely irrelevant here. Maybe people, by and large, do want their literature more snack-sized nowadays, but this is a requirement that you can't address by replacing an electronic device with an antiquated paper book, and it isn't a reason why people are too stupid to read a novel off a screen.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 10:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read "The Time Ships" on my computer, and a couple of other Baxter novels that -- er -- ended up on my machine somehow, and it's perfectly possible to sit still and read the same thing off a screen for a long time.

It's all about the interface, but the interface is not, in fact, the screen. The interface is your eyeballs, your fingertips, and your butt:

Maximize your reading window, set the colors to white text on a black background, increase the font size until each line is a dozen words or so and the story dominates the screen, put the dang mouse away and page up and down with your keyboard. And if you can do all this from a couch instead of an office chair, that's ideal.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 10:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Sony ebook reader is analogous to the first MP3 players. I'm just waiting for someone to get it right: No DRM, inexpensive, and an online interface that provides formatted free content - say all of the Guttenburg project. If I could carry around a 500 book library in an easy to use $150 dollar device I'd go for it.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 10:55:00 AM, Blogger HHHEllen said...

This a very interesting post and comments for me. I work in a public library and we've been offering downloadable ebooks for a long time now, with only moderate success. I've always wondered if the problem was that people just don't care about the library or people just don't like ebooks. Maybe both.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 11:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with JeffV. I do not have an issue reading anything via my laptop. That said, a ludite _book_ feels good in my hands, won't kill sperm by heating up my lap, gives my eyes a break (or at least a change), and won't make me look like a goober while sitting on the beach.


At Sunday, March 18, 2007 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Stephen A said...

Sorry, I'd have to argue the opposite, I read short works (Stross' "Missle Gap" for example) in dead tree format, while I read long involved novels (Cryptnomicon, Acellerando, Harry Potter Books) on my PDA. Why? In part, it's the simple logistics of not having to drag around cinderblock sized books. But the most important reason is the ubiquity of my PDA. I generally get to read at odd unexpected intervals, waiting in a long line, wating for somebody to show up, stuck on a long train, plane, or bus trip. At that point I fire up my PDA and read a chapter or two of a novel. Chapters generally provide good breakpoints. Long novels actually seem to work "better" than a lot of short stories in this regard in that chopping reading of a long story is natural but reading 70-80% of a short story is excrucating.

Actually, the concept that people of "the golden age" read huge novels in one sitting is rather silly as well. Keep in mind that authors such as Dickens often serialized their works forcing readers to consume their works at weekly or monthly intervals.

Arguably, the long form story hasn't gone anywhere, it's just been chopped into little pieces for modern consumption. Just look at Babylon 5, a five year long story, coherently and deeply structured with a distinct beginning, middle and end. In the same sense, most good anime and manga follow the same structure. A good anime is as much a 6-13 hour movie with 13-26 intermissions as it is a a set of episodes.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 2:08:00 PM, Anonymous fruey (Let's Have It) said...

I've read a few novels on my PDA. It came preinstalled with "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" which I read. Then I downloaded a load more books that are modern and free (see http://www.caperet.com/2005/07/25/reading-for-free/), and a bunch of classics, some of which I was re-reading on screen even though I probably had a hardcopy somewhere in a box in storage.

I think the main issue is eye strain. Reading bits on a screen, then focusing on something else, is more comfortable. Listening to music, closing your eyes, focusing in the distance, etc.

Properly reading a novel requires a level of concentration that short text does not. So the PDA was the only solution. I've never read a long text on a PC screen save a book on nanotechnology which I could read more easily in paragraphs. I can read a novel from cover to cover with no breaks, if I ever (which is rarely) get that much straight time without another commitment getting in the way.

eReaders are probably a solution for eye strain, but I'm not well placed to comment since I've never seen one. In the meantime, reading on a PDA screen without eye strain means that you need to give your eyes a break more often than for a hardcopy. But once you get used to that, it's fine, and way more convenient when travelling.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 2:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The difficulty with e-books in my opinion is that you need a light weight reader so you can read comfortably. It is not comfortable to sit in a desk chair at a desk reading off your computer. It is also not comfortable to use a dedicated e-book reader because many of them are too heavy to hold comfortably in your hand.

I have been reading e-books from project gutenberg (english literature) for many many years and more recently (science fiction) from baen free library. I used the very light weight microsoft hand held pc's staring with the "clam shell" models and then later on with the palm style pocket pc's using "handy book 2" software.

It totally boggles my mind that this technology hasn't taken off. The pocket pc paid for itself in a couple of months. I read hours and hours every day reading ebooks on my old obsolete HP jornada 520 pocket pc.

Ebooks technology is here today, it's been here for years already. The problem is that very few people are aware of it.

At Sunday, March 18, 2007 9:09:00 PM, Anonymous Wendy said...

If I'm reading Cory right, his argument seems to be that on-screen reading is essentially an interrupt-driven practice, and that it is this that makes it inimical to reading long-form on screen, not the inadequacy of the technology per se.

Well, this is a good argument, but it's only half right.

One of the delights of reading novels, is getting lost in it. When you can not put a novel down, strangely enough, the technology of the novel, the paperback, allows you to do just that -- not put it down. Schlep it from bus to bath to dinner table to dentist's waiting room to lover's living room.

The technology of the screen -- not yet bathtub-optimised -- and the practice of screen reading -- interrupt-driven -- together work to make reading a novel on screen somehow 'wrong'. And the converse is true. The portability of the paperback technology -- use it everywhere -- and the practice of novel reading -- dive in until reality hauls you out again -- work together to make something about reading novels out of books 'right'.

If the new novel technology doesn't let us happily shrivel up into prunes in the bathtub, alone and deliciously oblivious to the outside world, what good is it, I ask you?

At Monday, March 19, 2007 1:12:00 AM, Anonymous Brent Edwards said...

I's all about the user experience: usability, UI, user interaction. All of these go well beyond screen issues.

It's the aesthetic of reading a book that we are used to: holding it in one hand, turning a page, flipping back to a previous page that we want to re-read. Take the IDEO approach to experientially defining what a book is, and the closer that an e-book reader can come to that definition, the closer it will come to being accepted by readers.

Of course, one aspect of book reading that e-books will have a hard time replacing is the pride of ownership that goes into putting a book on your shelf where visitors can see what you have read.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 1:42:00 AM, Anonymous Kathryn of Sunnyvale said...

The big, big reason I try to avoid reading on my monitor (although it never works: here I am posting):

'Reading from paper is significantly faster (10-30%) than reading from screen'

(Zaphiris and Kurniawan 2001: http://www.soi.city.ac.uk/~zaphiri/Papers/hfes2001_reading.pdf)

Epaper with good UI might finally be changing this, and there's always a place for books on my pda, but

1-2 books a week = 500-1000 books a decade.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 8:21:00 AM, Blogger Hysteresis Monkey said...

One variable in the equation is cost-per-destructible-unit. I read a lot on commuter trains and the subway. I get jostled as I'm getting off the train, and I'm always worried I'll drop my book on the tracks (or any of a myriad other destructive possibilities). If it's a paperback, I'm out eight bucks. If it's an ebook of any sort, I'm out one or two orders of magnitude more.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 8:23:00 AM, Blogger Almansi said...

Rich G. wrote:
My biggest difficulty is that both the PDA and online reading don't have very friendly user tools, bookmarking, marginalia, making notes or highlighting sections.

Actually, you can open a .txt file with a rich text editor (OpenOffice, NeoOffice, AbiWord and presumably Word though it's years since I last used that one), use the tools you mention and then save the result in the rich text format you prefer. Well, maybe it's safer to do "save as" in the rich text format at the beginning, lest you absentmindedly do a simple save in .txt at the end and lose all your annotations.

(I learned the trick from co-translating a long text where the authors had made a crazily inconsistent use of over 15 different styles, so I had to save it as .txt to clean it before we started working and cross-revising each other's work, using comments).

At Monday, March 19, 2007 8:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While there are some good points made, the one thing forgotten is that the brain needs "print" stimuli in order to "recognize" words. There is one small part of the brain that MUST have print in order to learn language, and the flickering of a computer screen will interfere in this process.

Which is not to say that reading off a computer does not develop word comprehension, but rather that it causes a different part of the brain to take in this word recognition.

Reading test scores for children now prove that the more time they spend on computers, the less able they are to read print materials.

As for me, In my capacity as a librarian, I have read both forms and still prefer curling up with a print book.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 9:55:00 AM, Blogger librarybob said...

I suspect the "deeper issue" is that many people do not want transient books (or at least not those books that are important to them).

To mash a phrase, "We are what we read." We make a connection with the ideas/characters/writing and at least somewhat identify with them ... they become part of our selves.

Hence, we want to keep them. We desire a concrete presence that software just cannot provide. This may even be an unconscious antidote to our hyperfrentic daily lives.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 10:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read Cory Doctorow fiction on big screens, small screens, and printed out. It seemed equally delightful either way.

One needs to keep a historical perspective. When I did primitive word processing in 1966 (yes, 41 years ago) it was ugly fonts badly printed, and correction by replacement of punchcards.

I became addicted to composing my fiction and poetry directly at the punchard machine or teletype. Without computer support, I'd never have reached 2,400 publications, presentations, and broadcasts to my credit. I contend that, independent of quality, the computer infrastructure can increase a writer's productivity by one or two orders of magnitude. Of course the reader experience has not increased as fast -- but the Web itself is a rather significant chunk of hypermedia.

I used to tell people, via panel discussions in the 1970s, that they would be reading and writing via computers, and all but hard-core geeks didn't believe. For that matter, I ticked off j michael straczynski when we paneled in the late 1980s, by my saying that the 3 major artforms of the 21st century would be music videos, hypertext, and terrorism. In retrospect, a darned good extrapolation.

I recall Robert Silverberg telling me in the 1970s that he didn't want to be read on computer screens "because I don't look good in green."

We've come a long way, baby!

-- Jonathan Vos Post

At Monday, March 19, 2007 1:02:00 PM, Blogger bytehead said...

Not my family. I've read many a book on my (ancient) Palm IIIxe, and my wife reads all the time on her TX. The kids fight over her old M105.

I may upgrade to a TX myself since it's a decent screen size (Color as well). The TX I couldn't take myself, the screen is just a little too teensy unless I put on reading glasses, and I don't even do that when I'm reading tiny fonts on my 1600x1200 Samsung 19" flat panel.

Reading off of a computer? As Cory said, too many interruptions, and unless it's a laptop, too hard to drag to the beach, let alone the pool.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 1:57:00 PM, Anonymous EllenH said...

Just a thought in passing. I read mostly at home but also while commuting to and from work, so I thought: at home, in my bed, I'll read this paper book (a collection of SF stories) that I already have, and I'll get a copy for my Palm to read on the train. So I go to buy that ebook and... I don't. Amazon sells the paper book for less that $13 and the ebook in Palm format costs about $22... Something's wrong there I think. On the other hand, if I like an ebook (free or reasonably priced), you can bet I'll buy the paper one for my collection.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 3:27:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

As a previous commenter said, eBooks are here if you just look. Baen sells excellent scifi for reasonable prices and I carry dozens of books around all the time on my Palm TX.
One barrier to me though is that a lot of the publishers are trying to sell ebooks at dead tree prices. Ridiculous considering that the long-term costs are so much lower with ebooks.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 4:51:00 PM, Anonymous Sean M. Burke said...

Proper ebook readers-- here they've been and here they come!. Now featuring actually decent screens.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 6:15:00 PM, Anonymous Gary Frost said...

Here is an essay that talks about some issues not yet considered in print and screen reading.

At Monday, March 19, 2007 8:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To build on some of the comments above...
Give me a reader that is the approximate size/weight of an easily-carried book, costs less than a year or so of book-reading (which comes to any new/used books purchased minus those resold, any borrowings from friends/library and any book trades being practically free), maintains battery life for the time required to read at least one novel, does not cause significantly more eye-strain than ink on paper, and offers any book I can get in print for unlimited reading/annotation, and I will stop reading print books.

Right now, I'm still looking for a used VCR because there are films I can't find in any other format.

At Tuesday, March 20, 2007 4:33:00 PM, Anonymous gabe chouinard said...

Unfortunately, all of the non-techies who would never dream of reading a novel on a computer aren't checking websites like Locus Online, so I don't think the sampling of commentary we're getting here has much merit.

At Wednesday, March 21, 2007 12:22:00 AM, Anonymous jere7my said...

Who doesn't think about albums anymore? Albums have always been subdivided into singles. That's why we had, y'know, singles. What, the only way to obtain The Summer of '69 was to buy the whole album, with Kids Wanna Rock along for the ride? Where did B-sides come from?

And some artists today — some of the best, in my eyes — are still concerned with the album as a unit. Sergeant Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon made artistic sense as albums; today, Come On Feel the Illinoise and OK Computer and 69 Love Songs do. (69 Love Songs — a 172-minute unit!) The artists who record them are not "cranky throwbacks"; they're working long-form instead of short-form.

What's changed in fifty years? Some people buy the hit singles, and some people buy the whole albums. Some artists work with an eye toward hit singles, and some record concept albums, and some try to make their album an artistic whole with a couple of easily extractable singles for commercial purposes. There's no "long-form past" and "short-form present"; both have always been with us, regardless of the medium. Both will continue to be available as the media change, because, just as with novels and short stories, people will always want things they can listen to in three minutes, and they'll always want things to listen to for an hour.

At Wednesday, March 21, 2007 6:14:00 AM, Blogger gurdonark said...

I do not wish to make too much of a rhetoric comment, but this caught my eye:

"No one thinks about albums today. Music is now divisible to the single, as represented by an individual MP3, and then subdivisible into snippets like ringtones and samples. When recording artists demand that their works be considered as a whole — like when Radiohead insisted that the iTunes Music Store sell their whole album as a single, indivisible file that you would have to listen to all the way through — they sound like cranky throwbacks".

I like that the current technology moves us to constructs other than the "album or 45" construct of my youth. Yet I also think the paradigm shift works in both directions, rather than merely 'for brevity'. My mp3 player can hold not only numerous of the 2-4 minute ambient pieces I enjoy, each derived from a different ambient netlabel, but it can also hold in seamless perfection Peter Koniuto's 57 minute "past andromeda" on http://www.statisfield.com, which would have had to have been an "LP unto itself" in a prior time. Simiarly, an eight hour experiment that might have been multiple disks in an earlier time is now just a small burden on modern players.

As with ebooks, though, it's inevitable technology advance that is the key. When compression technology creates a far better open source device than mp3 (and even than the existing one ogg), then the leaps forward in how we receive music and sound will seem boundless and lunar-surface-like.

best, Robert, who records as gurdonark

At Friday, March 23, 2007 10:07:00 AM, Anonymous S. F. Murphy said...

Gabe, I do not and WILL NOT read novels online yet I purchase a large number of books in the dead tree format each year. They do not require batteries and their operating systems do not go obsolete in the next year.

And I check the internet fairly regular. I suspect plenty of folks who do not read novels or fiction online check the net regularly as well.

At Monday, March 26, 2007 4:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" a 1100 page book, with about 200 pages of footnotes, on my PDA, and I loved every minute of it. I could seamlessly look up footnotes and bounce back to where I left off. Try doing that with a meatspace book! My only complaint with e-books is that graphics-intensive books don't work well with PDAs yet.

At Tuesday, March 27, 2007 3:16:00 PM, Anonymous S. F. Murphy said...

Anonymous, I used to do that all the time. It was called "Grad School." Not hard at all, really.

At Thursday, April 05, 2007 12:12:00 PM, Blogger Jim Kingsepp said...

I am late to this party. (It is April already and I am catching up with my feeds.)

I think that most of you have missed Cory's point, unless I have.

The point is that the medium dictates the formats of the message, to mangle Marshall McLuhan.

People read off screens, sure. But what they read is not the same as what they read in a book or newspaper.

Think of a novel converted to a film. Or a play converted to a film. Or a film serialized in a novel. The medium directly effects the way the tale is told.

This might be a bit of an stretched analogy, though.

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 6:20:00 PM, Blogger Blue Tyson said...

'Reading from paper is significantly faster (10-30%) than reading from screen'

I don't agree, at least not in the case of a Palm on autoscroll. Stops bad eye wandering habits back over things again, etc. No page turning, either. So some methods are definitely faster.

At Sunday, May 20, 2007 10:29:00 AM, Blogger Tree said...

I've been doing almost all of my reading on my PDA for more than 5 years now. The Palm format hasn't changed, though I've changed devices a few times. It's incredibly convenient -- I can read in bed without distubing my S.O., in the grocery line, on the subway (a wrist-strap is your friend), anywhere I have time, including long hours snuggled on the sofa or sitting on the deck. It's fine on my eyes -- I can adjust the brightness, font size, background color, to suit the ambient conditions. Most of my reading material is available under Creative Commons, but not all; I'm looking forward to the day when it's easy and reasonably priced to get ebooks without violating somebody's law somewhere.

And it's far more environmentally friendly and cost-effective than killing trees. We stopped buying CDs and saved tons of wasteful packaging material. We need books to get with the program.

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 4:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize this is WAY late, but I want to get my thoughts out there:

I sort of agree with Cory's thoughts... however, when ebooks get cheaper, or other devices become easier to use as an ebook (say the iPhone?... I'd say straight PDA, but it's gotta be a phone/combo, otherwise people won't carry it all the time)

Also... in response to the library worker: I have a very good answer, as to why the ebooks never get "checked out" from the library's websites.... BECAUSE THEY USE DRM THAT'S TIED TO WINDOWS ONLY! That's horrible. I've had countless memberships at digital libraries (all around CT, NY, and FL) and NONE of them support anything but Windows. Not to mention, they all require some rediculous software from the company that makes your ebook library software. We need standard, simple, easy ways for people to read digitally.... I even tried to use Windows at a library, on one of their PC's to access an ebook, and I didn't have permission to install the required software. If the library itself can't even manage to set their PC's up to access their ebook library... what does that tell you?

At Friday, October 19, 2007 8:36:00 AM, Blogger Faris said...

Hey dude!

Thanks for the link - I totally agree - the form creative content takes is delineated by the technology of the age - poetry begat novels, from linguistic to literate, but one doesn't die because new forms are born.

New short form writings - like blog posts - come into existence and complement other forms.

But until epaper feels the same as paper, and we've run out of trees, people will still be taking paperbacks to the beach.

Btw - rock on!

At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Gilles Mioni said...

You're probably right. But there is a new fact. The initial edition of ancient book that anyone could only think really to read, are very soon available on-line for free.

National libraries owners of historical and precious edition of the best litteray textzs ever written are digitalising these books. Only readable with thecnological stuff with screen and so on.

Dear Cory Doctorow,

You're probably right. But there is a new fact. The initial edition of ancient book that no one could only think really to read, are very soon available on-line for free.

National libraries which own historical and precious edition of the best litterary texts ever written and they are digitalising these books. Only readable with technological stuff with screen and so on.

Read Shakespeare poetry in his first edition !
Who would dare to refuse that experience ?

At Saturday, January 17, 2009 3:04:00 AM, Blogger Jason said...

wow. Many people have said very smart and insightful things based on this post. I hate to be redundant, but I'd like to state this in my own way: Cory, your analogy about LP's and MP3's is great: So, in other words, literature should be similar. Like our mp3's, literature will need to broken down - possibly even more than chapters - to be digested by the masses. My guess is that some very intelligent web savvy company will eventually do this, attracting an unbelievable amount of "suscribers." "Spoon-fed" seems like a likely comparison.

At Wednesday, July 22, 2009 9:54:00 PM, Blogger dan said...

cory, what about screening as a new verb for reading on a screen, google my blog zippy1300

dannh bloom in taiwan

At Thursday, July 23, 2009 9:58:00 PM, Blogger dan said...

Cory, what about my screening idea? and why do you write "reading off a screen" in your post, don't you read on a a screen? why OFF a screen? do we read OFF a book? come one. zee zippy1300 in the blogspot area and you can see what screening is all about or email me, which of course you are too busy to do, at danbloom in the gmail dept.


Post a Comment

<< Home