Thursday, December 18, 2008

Turning the Page on Turning the Page

Given that I make my living as an academic, I have a rather strange, even embarrassing, quirk. It's possibly something I shouldn't even admit, but here it is: I don't like books. Well, that's overstating things. I love words, I love reading, I love writing, I love many, many books - I'm just not a big fan of the book as technology. I've tolerated the old "bound sheets of paper" format for a long time, but count me as one of the most enthusiastic about the long promised paperless future...even if it's not here yet.

My two biggest complaints about books have to do with the eye-strain I get from reading pages and a general tactile disaffection for paper. When I was growing up, it was well-known in my large family that I hated setting the table because touching paper napkins gave me "chills." There's a lot of confounding evidence as to how true this was, because I also simply hated setting the table, taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and other chore-like activities. Still, it's fair to say that my fingers don't really like paper, but the eye-strain thing is probably the bigger issue. And, yes, I'm now at that age when I'm wearing progressive lenses, but they still haven't made the experience of reading something completely comfortable. In fact, that may be the best summary of the whole problem - I just don't find it completely comfortable to read a book, so I'm always shifting around, looking for just the right position.

The odd thing is that, since the dawn of the computer age, I've found myself ever more at ease sitting and reading exactly as I am now - staring at a glowing computer monitor. Among other things, I never get sleepy reading at the computer (this is not always a good thing), but I also don't experience the kind of eye strain one always hears about. It's comfortable, I don't find myself constantly looking for a new position, and I don't have to touch icky paper. I realize this puts me in a very small minority, but there it is.

So it is that I decided to jump in and be an early-ish adopter of e-reading technologies. I had some birthday money to spend and decided to buy a Sony Reader (kind of like the Amazon Kindle). It's quite appropriate to call this an early adoption stage, because the technology/market isn't really there yet. For one thing, the so-called e-Ink screen is smaller than ideal and the contrast isn't as good as it could be. (I'm sure there's a reason that the background is more gray than white, but I don't like that.) It's true that one can select three different font sizes, and the largest is very easy to read, but that size allows not much more than a paragraph per page. I like to see a bit further ahead and behind than that.

Still, it's pretty impressive, and I much prefer sitting and reading this to most books. There's none of that annoying "holding the book open" (see above descriptions of childhood laziness) and no paper touching issues. Curiously, one problem for me is that, perhaps because the screen doesn't glow at all, I find myself getting just as sleepy reading the Reader as I would a book. (It's too much like a book!) I'm not sure I wouldn't be happier with the look of an LCD screen, and that would have the advantage of working in the dark, but I realize this device isn't designed with me in mind, especially given what an alien I seem to be when it comes to books. (Even next-generation undergraduates look at me like I'm crazy when I profess my preference for e-reading.)

Of course, the fact that the reader can easily hold hundreds of books is amazing and highly appealing to my techy side. On the other hand, it's a shame that this early adoption phase means we're dealing with proprietary formats, so I'm stuck with Sony's eBook store and it's somewhat limited selection. (I don't think the Kindle's is all that much better, putting aside some of the Kindle's wireless tricks that don't really interest me. I don't need a new way to read blogs.) The prices are often ridiculously high as well, and creating one's own documents isn't as easy as it should be, although I think the Sony beats Kindle in that regard.

My biggest disappointment is that my Sony Reader (PRS-505) doesn't provide a way to search for text from the unit itself. It turns out that the next generation touch-screen reader, which is almost twice as expensive, does make searching possible, but I was astounded that this wouldn't be a basic feature of any e-reader. To my hyperlinked mind, I always assumed this was a sine qua non advantage of this technology. I can search the versions of the book stored on my computer, but that's no fun. When I'm reading, my mind will often drift back to a half-remembered phrase, and I'd always assumed an eBook would make it easy to hunt the words down quickly. Oh well.

So, as you can tell, I'm not 100% thrilled with the technology as it now stands, but I knew that going in. I've been greatly enjoying reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia on the reader, and I've also bought an e-copy of the indispensable The Rest is Noise, partly because I've had a class reading the book and I thought it would be handy to have a "copy" at hand all the time. Aside from the absurd pricing (e-Noise costs $11.99, while now available in paperback for $12.24), one other odd quirk which professors may have to start facing is that there's no standard page numbers to reference in an e-Book. (The page numbers change according to font size.) This will become a citation issue that needs to be solved in the years ahead.

In other paperless news, I'm so ready to try the tablet PC approach to sheet music. (That's right. Although I don't mind the feel of music scores, I'm just not that sentimental about the piles of scores I own. Please don't hate me.) The ever intrepid Hugh Sung is now offering his own little Airturn device that makes it easy to "turn" virtual pages with a wireless pedal. Unfortunately, I don't have the money lying around to buy a Tablet PC, but I may start scouring eBay for deals. I can't wait to put that kind of page-turning behind me.

I also only just realized that the monumental Google Books project includes lots of musical scores, although they are maddeningly difficult to search, at least as far as I can tell. I learned this yesterday when I was searching for a PDF score of Strauss's Zueignung for purposes of this post. Surprisingly, the song is not yet available at the astounding, but having been alerted by Alex Ross to the existence of scores on Google, I went fishing. It took quite a while before I came across this scan of a volume from the old "Musician's Library" series put out by Oliver Ditson. (I've had many students who'd been handed down volumes of these aged, hardbound collections. Talk about pages that give my fingers the creeps...)

Anyway, I'm happy that wherever you are, you're probably reading this on a brightly glowing screen, gently scrolling through my interminable prose without having to turn a single page. And remember, books are still useful for propping up a piano lid when the short stick isn't quite short enough. (Of course, I believe pianos should be open with the full stick all the time, but that's a topic for another day.)

1 comment:

Hugh Sung said...

Hi Michael! Thanks so much for mentioning me and my new AirTurn wireless page turner - by the way, did you know that you DON'T need a Tablet PC to use the AirTurn? It's compatible with any Windows XP/Vista or Mac OS X computer with a USB port - in fact, one of the best things about using a 'regular' laptop is the ability to zoom the pages in landscape mode. We've just partnered with MusicReader, a terrific program that allows for half-page zooms and clean scrolling page turns that are really great on the eyes! If you get a chance, please see my 3 minute video review of MusicReader here (the final minute contains the half-page turning example on a standard laptop with my AirTurn):

I'm actually starting to switch from tablet pc's to laptops in performance, simply because of the easier views for my eyes. Hope this helps! Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year!