Two brief thoughts: iPad book design, and what “books” are (or not)

Via Mark Crane, I came across this:  “Designing for iPad: Reality Check,” from iA.  This is pretty geek-heavy because iA is a web design firm (as far as I can tell, they do a lot of German language newspaper web sites) and it’s talking about some of the complex and largely invisible design issues of type and readability.  For me, the most accessible/usable points they make here are toward the end, and how the design elements being encouraged for the iPad by Apple to make it more object-like– wood and leather grain, for example– are what they refer to as “kitschy.”  I don’t know if I agree with that or not, but I think they are spot-on with the problems of the iBook app (and, for that matter, kindle) in terms of not knowing how many pages are left.    As they put it:

Having the same static thick paper stacks left and right in your e-reader application on the first as well as on the last page, is not just visually wrong, it is also confusing; it feels wrong and it is wrong. It’s kitsch.

I have to say that this is one of the things that I don’t particularly like about electronic reading on my iPad or my iPhone, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me as a reader.  Do I really need to know how many pages are left?  Is that a bad thing, always wanting to know where the end is?  Especially when I read before I go to bed (which is about half the time before I go to bed), I often will look ahead to see how far I’ve got to do before a logical place to stop.  Reading on an iPad doesn’t facilitate this that well, and some of the elements that the current designers are doing to help people bridge that gap between paper book (like these fake page stacks) and electronic book don’t help much.

I’ve also been thinking lately and again about the definition of “book.”  The experience of reading electronically– be it on an iPad or a phone or on a computer screen– has bubbled up in the news a bit lately because of Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows. I’d buy it to take on my upcoming vacation/trip and also because it sounds interesting, but it isn’t available for Kindle or iBook yet.  (Yes, that irony is intended.) But as far as I can tell, it is a book-length treatment of Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” To over-simplify, I think Carr’s basic point in the article and (probably) the book is that reading a book on the page is a more “real” and meaningful, deep-thought experience than reading it on a screen.

This is problematic for lots of different reasons, but the one that struck me again this past weekend is the definition of “book.”  What I think Carr means is the same sort of thing most of my students mean when we discuss the anxiety around the end of “the book.”  Generally speaking, I think Carr et al thinks of books as the sort of thing you buy in Borders and take with you on a trip or you give as a present or you read while in bed or in the bathtub or while sitting in an easy chair listening to soft music and drinking Chardonnay.  But a lot of books aren’t these kinds of “books” at all.

Last Saturday was the annual Normal Park (my neighborhood) yard sale, where there are like 100 yard/garage sales all going on at the same time on the first Saturday in June.  We didn’t have anything to sell really, but I put out some boxes of “books” that were in the garage and that needed to be disposed of with a sign that said “free.”  There were a couple of things that did actually get taken, a twelve year old copy of What to Expect When You are Expecting, for example.  But most of these books were textbooks, anthologies, writing handbooks, and instructor manuals, and those books, even free, were not taken.  And as I tell my students all the time, computers have eliminated all kinds of things that we used to think of as “books,” things like research databases and indexes, the MLA bibliography, dictionaries, and soon (more or less now), the phone book.  No one seems particularly broken up or wistful that these “books” are no longer.

Anyway, while I would like my iPad books to have more of a look and feel of a “book,” I have a feeling that Carr et al’s anxieties about these new electronic books will fade sooner than later.  And then we can all lament the loss and feel if the iPad book for something new that comes along.

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