Culture

iPad: When Will An eBook Let You Write In the Margins?

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If you've got the iPad but you're still reading Ted Kennedy's book, have you really won?

On the principle that overhyped techological events are in most cases still more important than overhyped political events, let's note that the Apple iPad has been unveiled just to whet your appetite for the State of the Union address.

I have never been quite clear on what the new "tablet" is supposed to be and had assumed iPad was positioned as a competitor to Amazon's Kindle and other book-reading devices.

This didn't sound like a very interesting idea. The Kindle's faithful reproduction of a book-like page takes the chaff of literacy -- the paper filled with words -- while leaving out the wheat, hops and barley of post-literacy -- clickability and the freedom to mix two-dimenional media. And there are already online publishers trying to make paper-like pages that reproduce well on smart phones, for example this zine started by some people from my hometown. Within a short time, I believe the invention of a new class of devices to reproduce the book experience will be widely seen as an interesting dead end.

So, good news that the iPad seems to be more of an evolutionary step toward merging the phone and the laptop. Apple users (I cannot join you, but I wish you well) may enjoy the motion sensitivity of the screen. I still prefer not to feel like a puppeteer when I'm trying to do stuff. But we can all agree that there's demand for portable devices that give you more access to the totality of the interwebs than you currently get from a phone, and if Steve Jobs has taken another step in that direction, huzzah for him.

Now ponder the future of the book. Nicholas Carr regrets the passing of the bound volume in his response to a Tim Bray post about the glory of getting rid of all your books and other printed clutter:

Whatever its charms, the online world is a world of clutter. It's designed to be a world of clutter - of distractions and interruptions, of attention doled out by the thimbleful, of little loosely connected bits whirling in and out of consciousness. The irony in Bray's vision of a bookless monastic cell is that it was the printed book itself that brought the ethic of the monastery - the ethic of deep attentiveness, of contemplativeness, of singlemindedness - to the general public. When the printed book began arriving in people's homes in the late fifteenth century, it brought with it, as Elizabeth Eisenstein describes in her magisterial history The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, "the same silence, solitude, and contemplative attitudes associated formerly with pure spiritual devotion."

When Tim Bray throws out his books, he may well have a neater, less dusty home. But he will not have reduced the clutter in his life, at least not in the life of his mind. He will have simply exchanged the physical clutter of books for the mental clutter of the web. He may discover, when he's carried that last armload of books to the dumpster, that he's emptied more than his walls.

You probably shouldn't trust anybody who goes on about the virtues of a monastic life, but Carr gets at a truth that may give the paper book a few more decades of relevance. Unlike telegraphs, celluloid, vinyl records, typewriters and the many other charming media that have been displaced in living memory, books come with thousands of years of reverence behind them. I have neighbors who have to call the Rabbi for help if they accidentally let the Torah touch the floor. The United States endured a major diplomatic crisis when Newsweek wrongly reported that a copy of the Quran had been put in a toilet. Every yard sale features vast boxes of paperbacks that don't stand a chance of being bought, all because there's something exquisitely depressing about just throwing away a book.