Books on the iPad, pt. 2

I want to resurrect some ideas from a previous blog entry.  In March of 2010, I wrote:

In “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod makes a very good case for why the death of the book (or, rather, the death of certain books) is not such a bad thing after all.  He writes, “We’re losing the dregs of the publishing world: disposable books.”  He also makes a good argument for why publishers of works on the iPad should reimagine how they conceive of the page as an aesthetic constraint for their content.

Mod writes, “Put very simply, Formless Content is unaware of the container.  Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas.  Formless content is usually only text.  Definite content usually has some visual elements along with text.”  I find Mod’s points here (and elsewhere in the piece) inspired; still, I’m concerned with the phrase “Formless Content,” because it seems to me that content is never formless.  However, when Mod says “Formless Content,” he means that the content of the work is only arbitrarily (not integrally) linked to its form.  While the meaning of Formless Content is influenced by the form it takes, the meaning of Definite Content depends on its form.

So, books with Formless Content can be easily (and losslessly) translated to digital media devices like computers and Kindles, because the shape of the page, the font used, and the size of the text is irrelevant.  (I’m not sure I entirely buy this, given how many books I’ve stopped reading when I found the physical character of the text unwieldy.)  However, he argues that the iPad will make it possible for us to (losslessly) read/view even Definite Content on a digital device.

Mod writes, “The seemingly insignificant fact that we touch the text actually plays a very key role in furthering the intimacy of the experience [of reading on the iPad].”  This seems crucial to the success of something like the iPad as a replacement for printed books.  Part of the problem I have with reading on a computer screen is that the text loses a good portion of its physical character.  Words on a standard computer screen might still have texture (a shape they take in our mouths or brains), but they have no weight.  Words (and images) on an iPad or Kindle, on the other hand, do seem to have both texture and weight.

Over a year after the appearance of the iPad, e-book publishing has not changed considerably.  The potentials Mod describes in his work have not yet been fully (or even barely) realized.  There have been a number of e-books that have rethought the page/screen as a container for content:

Al Gore’s Our Choice
Alice for the iPad

Still, these sorts of experiments with the e-book format are few and far between.  There have been, instead, more dulling valiant attempts to mold the format of e-readers to fit existing content, attempts to make screens look and turn like book pages, attempts to make e-readers resemble books in size, weight, shape, etc.

Some questions:  What potentials does digital reading present?  Why do those potentials remain (mostly) unrealized?  Why is so much content produced for e-readers static and linear?  Why are e-readers shaped like book pages?  Why are readers amazed (and not bored) by the fact that e-readers are capable of making content “look like a real book”?  Will books eventually be radically reshaped by technology like the iPad? Should they be?

Check out some related ideas in this entry from the interactive interfaces blog.


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