NABOKV-L post 0019322, Wed, 3 Feb 2010 23:18:22 -0500

Footnotes are very convenient on the Kindle ...


Kindle Fail: Shallowed reading of Bleak House
Published by kipbot on January 28, 2010 08:10 am under books, IxD, reading, technology

I finally hit a wall with the Kindle where I could no longer continue reading a book on the device and had to get a pressed-pulp book. The book is Dickens’s Bleak House. The factors that moved it into unKindleable, and which make me think there are serious limits to the academic application of the Kindle are:

- complex, rich novel
- first time reading of the novel
- taking notes for more than the recall of a passage
- not a translation, and a deeper engagement in the language

I think Dickens, in particular, provides some challenges for e-reading. His long, circuitous sentences - loaded with asides and interjections - cross Kindle pages in ways that make the button navigation and screen flashes unbearable. Less particular to Dickens, but more to 19th century British writers, the language poses a challenge too. The otherwise convenient in-line dictionary lookup function is helpful less than half the time in Bleak House because the subtlety of the word choice isn’t covered in the dictionary (small dictionary limited definitions), the particulars of the word’s use isn’t covered (British vs American dictionary), or the word isn’t covered at all (19th c.).

Before diving into the real problems with reading Bleak House on Kindle, some things that did work:

Footnotes are very convenient on the Kindle - highlighting the note, clicking the d-button, reading the footnote and then hitting “Back” to return to the text sounds arduous but is actually fantastic. Looking up footnotes with a big brick of a paperback can be a sufficiently prohibitive drag to make me just ignore the reference or word that I don’t understand and stick to the larger flow. (Whether the footnotes are worth reading is a different matter, of course. In my Kindle edition, they ranged from useful historical information, to the explanation of the image or metaphor, to cheesy HS English tips for understanding the book.)

Connecting margin notes to specific text is also an improvement on the Kindle. In paper, you typically have to cram something into the margin and then draw a line to the passage or word the comment refers to, or do an asterisk in the text, and then an asterisk on the note. Kindle is kind of handy in this regard.

Margin notes in general are cleaner and clearer without the space limits of the margin on the paper, it’s possible to take much clearer (no abbreviations or omitted words) and much more legible (no sideways or cramped handwriting, it’s all keyboard) notes.

Now for the #fail part. To transition into the downsides of the Kindle when reading a rich, complex, non-translated book for the first time, an image:

This is a page from Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘teaching edition’ of Madame Bovary. It can be found in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. The book itself is great. Nabokov’s lectures are opinionated, rich, and show how exciting a deep read of a book can be. Each lecture is accompanied by a page from his teaching edition. And the image above shows some of the problems the Kindle potentially solves: tight margins creating illegible notes, the difficulty of noting a particular word choice.

This picture also begins to highlight the problems of the Kindle. The first problem is access to the notes. On the Kindle, there is no scanning for notes. Many times, I’ll try to find a note or passage which I imperfectly remember — I remember the spirit of the passage, or I remember that I put a question mark next to it, or I remember simply that I made a note in a particular scene. On the Kindle, I need some precise information to do a search, or I’m stuck browsing through all my notes.

A bigger problem is when I have more complex notes. The left hand side of the page is mostly highlighting or attaching a comment to a part of the page. But the right hand side is much richer and deeper. On that side you see Nabokov connecting one word to another (in this case a word associated with a character) and highlighting how the sentence structure works or is altered in translation. Kindling Bleak House, I quickly got frustrated at how hard it was to connect Dickens’s carefully worded and important description of a character’s physical attributes to the actual character. In a book, I would circle the name and connect it to the phrase, making it easy to find and emphasizing that relationship. Not easy on Kindle. It was also hard to track the evolution and repetition of word choices with Kindle’s note-taking. The start of Bleak House is all about atmospherics of muddy, foggy, smoky London and the people moving through it and its thick air. Noting what makes it work, or how it connects to the muddy, foggy, smoky Chancery Court is impossible with the Kindle.

Another Nabokov screen highlights both his intense reading and a dimension of the note-taking problem that seems unsolvable for several more years. This one is from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

OK, not everyone is going to spend time to draw the specifics of Gregor Samsa’s transformation. And some of Nabokov’s extensive note-taking simply can’t be done in the book and forces him onto plain sheets of paper: a map of Leopold Bloom’s circuits through Dublin, a map of England highlighting the action in Bleak House, a floor plan of the houses in Mansfield Park (all to be found in the book). But it does highlight a problem with all e-readers and tablets and the iPad, the obvious and reflexive answer to which is “give the reader a touch screen and a stylus.” But the resolution is just too low for good note-taking. Anyone who has worked with a tablet over the years or drawn on the iPhone has seen that the lines are unusably jaggy, the letters look terrible, even an asterisk or a simple circle is impossible to use. The iPad video mentions that there are 1000 touch points on the new screen, which is quite a lot but nowhere near enough to be a meaningful input/note-taking device.

The last bit of suck in reading a rich, serious book on the Kindle is random access. I’m using the phrase loosely, but the idea is that this kind of reading experience (and re-reading and referencing) benefits from or requires the ability to jump around in the book quickly — going back to a character introduction, following a passage that covers several pages, recalling a passage of dialog — in order to re-orient yourself, or, more importantly, follow a development or theme. Not a big deal with a lighter weight business book or genre fiction, but maddeningly off-putting for deeper reads of deeper stuff. (Random access has always been a problem with e-readers - even with the wheel of the first Kindle or the side buttons of the Sony Reader, this seems unsolveable - but in the context of this kind of book, is crippling rather than merely inconvenient.)

So, my personal choice was to switch over to a Penguin edition. It will solve most of the problems above and leave me with the problem of how to turn a page on the subway, the dilemma of whether to find the footnote or just keep reading, and force me into tighter, messier note-writing on the margin. If I want to read deeper (and enjoy more), it seems I have to let go of Kindle-y conveniences.

Which raises the bigger issue: is my Kindle making me a sloppier, less thoughtful reader? I have a line that “I read more and better in less time” with the Kindle. This line is practically a reflex when people ask me about it. I think it holds true for middle-brow reading, work stuff, and periodicals, but I’m worried about more complex books. Is my reading style flightier and more focused on catching the high points and moving onto the next book now?

One of the few ‘technology is hurting us’ arguments I’ve ever bought is Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly piece about the new cognitive style being created by Google. (I blogged it here, the original article is here.) The key passage that threw me off in Carr’s article seems relevant to the Kindle-enforced shallowness of my reading of Bleak House:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

I don’t think there’s economic interest in the Kindle making us shallower readers, but I think it is a natural outcome of the design — at least for encounters with new books or books that require deeper engagement and a record of that engagement.

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