Monday, April 22, 2013

The reader

In the future – that is to say, the present – if you’re reading a book and you pause too long to reflect on a passage, the book will time out, and the page will be replaced by a picture. Perhaps this one.

The book has changed aspect. It has been reorganised. You may of course wake up your device and access it again in short order. But something has happened in the meantime. The device has reminded you of the need (its need) to save energy, and the need (your need) to read faster. The latest ebook devices can log information about this. Record how many pages of written materials you have read, and allow you to share this information on social media. Or measure your average reading speed, and use it to estimate how long it might take you to read your next book. As if all words weighed the same. As if every passage of similar length could (should) be consumed in the same amount of time.

I’m sure it has been said by many people, otherwise let me be the first: why do we call these machines readers? They are not the ones doing the reading. (Okay, some of them have a text-to-speech function, but it’s a minority and they’re all called readers regardless.) Perhaps what the reader reads is the user. Measure their reading speed. Record their reading history and apply sophisticated algorithms to their annotations. If you’re with Amazon, there may already be quite a lot of information against your profile, pertaining to all your searches and purchases on the site. Now they can add this information as well. Build a better, more accurate you. Other companies may not know as much about you to begin with, but the mechanism and the aims will be broadly similar.

If you live in some countries (not New Zealand, at present) and haven’t paid a premium to have the option disabled, your Kindle may come with ‘special offers’, which is a fancy way of saying: advertising. And so those idle screensavers that pop up when you put the reader down or take too long to turn to the next page will be ads for other books. I haven’t experienced this so I don’t know how disruptive it is. But the screensavers themselves intrigue me. I bought my first device last October, second-hand. It broke down in six months. It was the keyboard model, and its screensavers included an eclectic range of literary figures – mostly English and American authors, all of them dead – as well as a random Bibliodyssey-style collection of old book illustrations, including a page from an illuminated manuscript. I’ve collected the complete set here.

When my Kindle Keyboard broke down, I bought the new basic model. I’m getting a lot of use out of this thing, but it’s different from what I expected. Not new books from Italy, as I planned to – in no small part because the exasperating system of regional protections means I have no access to them through Amazon –– but much older ones in the public domain and blog posts and articles sent from my computer. Amazon is very good at this last thing. There’s a free Send to Kindle browser add-on that formats a webpage and sends it remotely to the machine. It’s quite possible that Amazon will help itself to the contents along the way to improve my reader profile – I haven’t read the fine print – but the feature is so convenient that I don’t really care either way.

Extracting texts from the web may seem like an odd thing to do but I was already doing it before I had a Kindle. Typically I’d create Word files to read on my laptop, more comfortably and without the ready distractions of a web browser. The Kindle’s much better at this however. Now when I set something aside to read later, I find that I actually do it. (Instapaper was my rubbish bin.) And it’s a less flashy text. No animations. No hyperlinks, especially if I’m out of the house. No embedded videos. It’s a less rich, less hyper- text, and not always in desirable ways. But I feel as if I had found a way to turn down the internet a bit. Set my own rhythm to it.

Conversely, whenever the screensaver pops up while I’m reading, I feel like it’s the Kindle that is trying to regulate my behaviour. And then there are the pictures themselves. This new set is more polished, more stylistically consistent. Gone is the gallery of classic authors, who might judge us if we happen to be reading trash, or porn. Gone are the uniform light grey backgrounds, perfect for showing the ghosting from the last page of text. Gone are the illustrations from old and ancient books. But not the incongruous nostalgia.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin coined a word, remediation, that they applied to things like the overt vestigial print-book features in early electronic text readers. The screensavers on the basic Kindle are all about the aesthetic of remediation. They luxuriate in the technologies that have been displaced. Fountain pens. Pencils. Old Remington typewriters. Grainy artisanal paper. Blocks of type. It is a gallery of hollow, banal, tacky melancholy. Here is the complete set in the original rotation sequence, save for the picture I used near the top of the post.

I keep telling myself I must get rid of these pictures. There are ways of doing this, although they are complex and may even invalidate the product warranty (blame the ad-supported version for this – Amazon needs to be able to control what you see). But why do they bother me much? Partly it’s that I like regular book covers. I wish the Kindle just used the cover of whatever you’re reading as the screensaver, if it happens to have one. But no. New Kindle ebooks in fact always open on page one, making you go back to page zero to even see what a cover looks like. It’s as if they wanted that art to be lost as quickly as possible. Which takes me to the other reason. I dislike those pictures so intensely because they reduce older technologies to objects of casual, dismissive contemplation. Weren’t blocks of types, wasn’t calligraphy cool? Well, they’re gone now. You may go back to selecting the size of your single universal font. It’s available in a choice of greys.