Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nonlinearity: E-Books vs. Physical Books?

The Reading Device: A Short History
Illustration by Joon Mo Kang
New York Times

Lev Grossman, writing two years ago in "From Scroll to Screen" (NYT, September 2, 2011), made an incisive point about e-books and physical books:
We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet's underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don't turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It's no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That's the kind of reading you do in an e-book.

The codex is built for nonlinear reading -- not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn't just another format, it's the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel's dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn't be done.
Nonlinear reading is easier in a codex than in an e-book, as I've recently discovered, though I'm happy with my e-books' convenience in other respects even though the e-book poses difficulties for "a single rich document like" my novella, given the "way a deep reader . . . [reads] it, navigating the network of internal connections" that offer the joy of enjoyment in reading.

I think, however, that solutions will be devised to overcome the e-book's limitations and render its reading fully as easy as a physical book.

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At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a reader who likes to jot down notes as I read, for instance if another book is mentioned that I want to read more about or an unusual phrase or place is mentioned, I rely on index cards for the duel purpose of being a handy bookmark and a place for my notes. I've used this method for decades and now I tuck index cards in my kindle cover and my tablet cover too. Sure, I highlight things on my kindle screen and even jot down electronic notes, but a simple index card sure seems easier.

Trying to actually search a book on Kindle leaves me frustrated. In many books I love to browse through the bibliography at the back or the Index and that's hopeless on my Kindle and on my tablet. Formatting presents another area fraught with aggravation, due to the wide variance in the quality, with some books having next to no way to search through them.

The ability to carry a veritable library's worth of reading material in one small e-reader and having the ability to read anywhere outweighs many of these small inconveniences.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree that the convenience of an entire library overcomes the small inconveniences.

Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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