Underworld is a novel by Don DeLillo that is 827 pages long. I have a very nice remaindered first edition that I purchased several years ago. On a whim last winter, I decided to read it. I felt — this will probably tell you more about me than I want you to know — that I was finally “ready” to read Underworld, that I had read enough other DeLillo to be able to absorb it. And so I dove in, but I quickly decided to download an electronic copy so that I wouldn’t have to tote around the two-hander hardback. I downloaded a Kindle version, which conveniently appeared on my phone and on my Kindle. I thought being able to have the novel with me at all times would increase my odds of finishing it. And then, out of a fit of perversity more than anything, I decided to see if I could read the entire beast just on my phone.
And I did it, though I should immediately confess that I cheated a little. I read most of the first novella-length chapter and a couple of bits in the middle third from the hardback. And I read the last 20 percent of the book on the Kindle, as I was on a trip and didn’t want to use up my phone’s battery, about whose level of fullness I am in a constant state of anxiety. So, 827 “pages,” three versions, three sets of marginalia — a half-adventuresome, half-grumpy sack-race into the future.
After reading several hundred thumb-flips on my iPhone, the palatial spread of the actual hard copy was resplendent. The book made more sense as a structured object when I read the hardback. I also had a better sense of where I was in the book and how much terrain I still had left to cover. Perhaps this point is obvious. I am normally highly concerned with the amount of pages left when I read a story or a novel. I am not sure how to account for this anxiety. One almost begins to question whether or not I like reading at all if I’m always concerned with how much of it I have left. But this anxiety was amplified by reading the novel on my phone, and it’s not because the phone doesn’t tell you where you are in the text. In fact, it has multiple, frequent, and nefarious expressions of your progress, which might explain my disposition.
When you first open your book on the iPhone, stuck still somewhere in the middle, the information that appears at the bottom of the screen for a brief moment is the 697 of 827 pages left, or sometimes, the percentage read, as well as the “position,” which reads something like “Loc 2729 of 12607.” This position is important but confusing, the non-page-number-like page number that the Kindle software uses to determine location in the absence of real page numbers. As we move inexorably toward more e-books, or e-books as the first step in publishing book-length bodies of text, it becomes increasingly important to have some other locator aside from page number. It all depends on what edition comes first and if there is some concrete analog referent out there in the world.1 In fact, as formats proliferate, one could see the need for some standard type of locator data. I realize that you can search words within the book, but it would be nice to be able to pinpoint the — well — position you’re at.
Also, the phone displays a progress bar that shows where you are in the book. But after this brief blip of locative information, the only remaining pieces of logistical info are the page number information on the bottom left and the percentage info on the bottom right. At some point in the many moons it took me to finish Underworld, that bit of page number info changed into time info.2 For instance, “9 hrs and 8 mins left in book,” which on the one hand is nice info to have, I can almost plan my weekend around it, but the problem I soon found was that it seemed to be terribly inaccurate, and no matter how fast or slow I read, I couldn’t seem to affect my personal reading-speed prediction. Occasionally it would chip away at the time, but I couldn’t tell if it was improving because I had a particularly successful reading lunch hour or because I hadn’t touched the book in a week. And also, it just made me more self-conscious about how slow I read, and I kept trying to impress the little machine with an improved flip-rate. As is perhaps obvious, this is a ridiculously stupid way to go about reading a book.
This same “time left in book” trope appeared on my Kindle when I began reading the final section on the airplane. But being as I was trapped aboard a modern aircraft and was relieved of the constant pressure to read email, send email, read tweets, read articles that are found within tweets, destructively compare my daily activities to my “friends” on Facebook, or otherwise look up stupid crap, I read on the Kindle with increasing pleasure. I read on a second generation Kindle Paperwhite. This is my second Kindle, and what I like about reading on these devices is just how incredibly stupid they are. All you can do is read, and if you drop it, 9 times out of 10, the device is fine, and on that 10th time, you can replace it cheaply and all of your stuff appears back on it.3 I have to say I prefer my old button-keyboarded Kindle to the newer, fancier touch screens, mainly because highlighting and note taking are now more difficult. As I have read more on the Kindle, I have slowly given up typing notes unless I am extremely provoked. It is just too clumsy. Likewise the highlighting feature is such crap that I often just highlight the general area of interest rather than the exact words I want. I would lament this more, but these note-taking gestures are really just ways to commemorate my own enthusiasm more than anything else. Though I do, I must narcissistically admit, enjoy going back to old paper books and seeing what I was provoked to highlight. I haven’t used the Kindle enough to see if I will ever go back to enjoy my digital traces.
Strangely, as a pure reading/highlighting/note taking experience, the Kindle app on the iPhone is much better. Perhaps I am just more used to typing with my thumbs on this device. Of course, after a while one grows tired of constantly flicking to a new page on the phone. The screen is just too small, the paragraphs too scrunched. One begins to daydream of the palatial white beaches of your everyday trade paperback. (I realize I could solve this problem by buying one of Apple’s new little kneeboards, but I have my own personal planned obsolescence geared around when I drop my phone, and I’m still waiting for that to happen again.)
Whenever emphatically pro–e-book people crow about carrying around a library in their pocket, I think about Tom Petty, who owns some unknown multitude of beautiful vintage guitars. He was showing off his glory room in some television segment, and he said, self-mockingly, “Of course, you can only play one of them at a time.” You can carry around a library in your device, but why would you? I mean, after about 10 or so titles, what’s the point? A book is not a mixed tape. And if you want to read lightly curated brief sections of text, why wouldn’t you just go online, where that is the default mode?
All of my middle-aged griping aside, it was awfully nice to be able to switch devices as mood or circumstance arose. And I surprised myself by not really having any trouble switching between the three versions. The syncing to the “last place read” between the electronic devices worked well, and except for that evil little timer I could easily jump ahead to a given page number if I’d snuck off for some old-fashioned hard copy action.
But didn’t the meaning of the book change? This is the question I’ve been chewing over. What I comprehended and didn’t comprehend reading Underworld is mostly not tied to which device I read it on. At least, I don’t think so. My misunderstandings are for the most part due to the slowness and fracturedness of my reading — infrequent sections split over months. I did have trouble remembering some characters’ names, and whereas if I was only reading it on paper, I would just flip to an earlier section of the book to check myself, here I just plowed ahead and eventually figured it out. This doesn’t really make sense, because you can jump easily between sections or just search for a name, but this slight speed bump, this just barely foreign process, kept me from doing it. I would have understood more if I hadn’t been so lazy, but this goes for more than simply reading a fat novel on a thin computer. Turns out I need to practice reading on an electronic device.
But all these devices did confirm just how nice it is to read a paper book. Perhaps this is the part of the post where I will just become old fashioned and sentimental. Aside from the nice physical properties, a book’s self-sustaining independence is comforting in and of itself, and marches in opposition to the networked world. Heck, a good book marches in opposition to the physical world, too. Do not disturb is the caption under every person absorbed with a book. (I supposed the caption for person absorbed with their device would be, Hold, please.) Despite the appearance of some real life historical figures, the world of Underworld is its own phantasm. It’s an analogous existence. And the virtual reality of any fictional world is complemented by the disconnected nature of the physical book. The physical restriction blossoms into an epistemological freedom. You can’t look up the definitions of the words in the online dictionary, not because the physical book is disconnected from the network, but because the book is its own network; any good work of fiction provides its own definitions. To go outside of it, you necessarily break the spell. Just by opening the cover of a book, you shut the door on so much else.
And here’s the part of the post where I grow increasingly prescriptive: If the novel is to remain relevant, or to function as its own distinct narrative species in our new networked reading life, it has to become the island, blissful in its own self-sustaining ecosystem, within the rising sea-level of text.
1. And does anyone think that we’re not moving inexorably in this direction? When our short texts have moved toward HTML and the web, it surely well feels like it’s just a matter of time before our longer chunks of text, the organization of text formerly known as books, move toward an e-form of distribution. This doesn’t mean that some books won’t always be print books first or more themselves as print books, and this doesn’t mean that some books won’t evolve into print books. Print still seems the natural and certainly the most stable archival mechanism. And even that’s getting easier: I’m now capable of designing and printing a paper book that will last 1,000 years (if I put it on a shelf and don’t eat lunch over it), and I can barely design a business card. But in saying this (that e-books might become the primary distribution mechanism for books), I don’t think the Kindle is the end-all of electronic book distribution. It is simply the first instance of mass success. I think — and here I am predicting, which I am horrible at doing — that the e-reader, as a distinct device (can we please come up with a more elegant name for this?), will continue only as a niche product, and our main reading devices will be some small portable computer formerly known as your cell phone, and I think that other platforms will develop to distribute e-books, be they free or charged, or some combination thereof. Some books will strive for the prestige of print because that particular audience (poetry, for example) craves print and feels that print and print alone substantiates its existence. But it seems that the human population as a mass moves toward lower fidelity and increased efficiency, and it seems foolish to ignore the gigantic convenience of e-books. This all might be screamingly obvious, but I find it useful to write it down, if just for myself.
2. My guess is this was a software update. I have previously written about the “minutes to read” phenomenon here.
3. I’ll save addressing Amazon as the publishing world’s chief innovator/bully for a future post.