I wrote recently about my disappointment with the iPad, and indicated my reluctant intention to try out reading a book thereon. I didn't. I gave the device to one of my kids (who reports enjoying it) before I got around to it.
I did, however, buy the Free Books app for my iPhone4, drawn by the substantial number of free books on offer. Improved screen resolution notwithstanding, the notion of reading books on such a device seems implausible except under otherwise constrained circumstances. It is.
The thing is, there are lots of constrained circumstances where reading a few pages of a book fits nicely into the idiom of what I think of as interstitial computing on a mobile device: waiting for the bus (or on it), on a plane, or, my personal favorite, in the sleepless hours of the night when you don't want to get up or turn on a light. And there is your library at hand. Emmissive media are intrinsically inferior to reflective media for reading, and I am not optimistic that this will change in my lifetime, but its not bad for a few pages at a time.
My first try was Jack London's Call of the Wild. Short, no graphics, engaging. Buck and the lessons of the Klondike gold rush (Marguerite and I recently discovered the Klondike National Park annex in downtown Seattle, so it seemed a good time to revisit the era). There are conversion mistakes in the free-books collection, but one easily reads past them, and the interface is sparsely useful, if not exactly elegant.
I went on to Erskine Childer's Secrets of the Sand, an early 1900's espionage mystery set in the Frisian Islands on the North Sea, and involving sailing boats only just larger than my own. I even learned something about tidal sailing and currents. I came to know of this book some years ago, my mother having recommended it enthusiastically. It is worthy reading for those with an inclination for messing about in boats.
Staying in the sailing theme, I went on to Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum's memoir of the first solo circumnavigation of the world. I also had the paper version, lent to me by my friend Joe Kerchen. The paper edition has sketches in it that are teasingly called out in the electronic text, but missing, and those drawings add significantly to the feel and charm of the book. Foregoing them would be an unhappy side effect, especially the Spray's lines and layouts in the appendix. But I found myself reading the electronic version rather than the paper, owing to convenience.
I think I'm hooked, and the price and convenience are hard to resist (Free Books boasts 28,000 items, mostly published before 1923). Still, not having the book-in-hand leaves one somewhat disconnected from the work, and without the decorative benefit of books on the shelf. And too, the loss of the diffusion coefficient of book-lending will likely inhibit worthy reading, and some of the social benefits accruing to shared reading will be lost. How many times have you been glad to read a book that you would otherwise have passed up, but that it was lent by a reader you respect? The intangibles are often important casualties in the march of commoditizing technology.
On the other hand, one needn't buy them back from a moving company at $20 or so per cubic foot every time you move.
image: My lonesome bookshelf. Books for sale... inquire within.