Thumbs Down to Scrolling E-Books

The enthusiasm of this Mashable article on scrolling text on the new iPad model disheartens me.  He can have his opinions, don’t get me wrong. I just hope his bold prediction about the future of books his wrong.

I guess I should explain what the author is so thrilled about:  in most e-readers, the current status quo is to simulate page turning. There is no technological reason for this, it is an aesthetic decision, designed to mimic the act of reading a book.

The new iBook reader has a different option: scrolling text.  Rather than divvy text up into pages, you just use your thumb to keep scrolling down as you go.  The author says it helps him get lost in the text.  I worry that the very medium of “the book” is getting lost in the shuffle.

First, I should make an important semantic distinction. When you are on an e-reader, you are not reading a book. You are reading a text that is often also published in book form.  As such, what you are reading is actually fundamentally different than a book.  Many reception studies theorists have touched on this point and, as a student of reception studies, I have to agree–the way in which you an encounter a text directly impacts how you interpret that text.

Let’s take fonts for example.  A font may seem like a relatively innocuous component of the book, but the author and publisher selected it for a very specific purpose.  That font does not translate in e-readers.  Nor does the initial page numbering, as you can adjust the font size to your liking.  As such, the text you are engaging in differs from people who read the tactile book form.

You may be thinking this sounds great, but hear me out.  Take a chapter of a novel.  You know you are reaching the end of it, because you see the blank space when you turn the page.  I know when I near the end of a chapter, I tend to read with more focus and perhaps a bit faster, because the conclusion of the chapter tends to pack more of a punch than the last sentence of a paragraph.  When you manipulate where the last page of a chapter stops and starts, you are potentially undermining the message of the book.

These page breaks are what immediately came to mind when I read this e-reader news.  The scroll eliminates that suspense on some level.  The visual impact of turning a page and realizing the end of the chapter is near is gone.  And I think you lose some of the meaning of the story in the process.

No one else really voices these concerns though.  The movement now is to produce texts that can be viewed in multiple mediums and things like when you turn the page are conversations of the past.  While this fluidity is good for the reader demanding flexibility, for the writer, not being able to take full advantage of the medium the text will be consumed in is one less tool in their arsenal.  Once again, it seems like the ease of access trumps viewing or experiencing a text in the way it is intended to be viewed.

This isn’t the most well thought out rant, I admit. I am sure there are flaws in my statements and there are certainly more reception studies scholars to source to better support my point.  But I keep coming back to this subject these days and I want to start getting these thoughts down somewhere.  The pipe dream is some day to draft something akin to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  Even though he wrote this before the age of computers, his lament about the loss of aura seems even more appropriate in this digital age where the consumers seems to feel more ownership and agency over texts than the authors who created them.

That is another subject for another time though.

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