I didn’t buy my iPad to read books—I bought it as a developer, to develop games. But I’m a user as well as a designer, and I certainly expected to read books on it. That seems to be a lot of what people do.
But I can’t read books on my iPad. I have about twenty queued up, most of which were free but one or two of which I paid for. I haven’t read a one.
Why not? What is it about the iPad—and, I suspect, Kindle and Nook—that makes them a poor venue for readers like me?
The problem, I’ve decided, is that there are simply too many other fun things to do on an iPad. I lie down at night, cosying up in my usual reading position, and open iBooks to something I’ve been yearning to explore—The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for example, which is available free, or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, also perfectly free. I prepare myself for the pre-good-book shiver, the nestling down, the opening the cover, the first sip of the opening paragraph. I get a bit of that from the iPad—it’s about the right shape and weight, and the page-turning effect at least reminds me of the joy of a physical book, if not exactly giving me that joy. As for the first paragraph—well it’s text before my eyes, and I read it, and I often enjoy it. So I read more, and by all appearances I’m off to a rousing romp through a great book.
But it usually happens at around page three or four that a particular word catches my attention. “Carbuncle”—what does that mean exactly? Well the iPad—ever handy—has a facility for answering such questions in a flash. And so I indulge my curiosity and look up the word.
And what do you know! It turns out that a carbuncle may be either a skin boil or a gemstone. Quite a contrast. Makes you wonder which meaning came first. Like, is a carbuncle gemstone called that because it looks like a boil, or was the boil named after the gemstone? I bet Wikipedia would know!
Turns out, carbuncle as a gemstone shows up in some other interesting places. Shakespeare has it in Hamlet (“With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus…”). Ezekiel has one in the Garden of Eden, right between the emerald and gold. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The Great Carbuncle.” For such an ugly word, carbuncle has gone far.
“The Great Carbuncle,” eh? I hadn’t heard of that one. I wonder if I can find it free on iBooks?
And then I remember, like the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…, that I have departed far from my original plan. I had intended to read Sherlock Holmes. This was a good plan, and Sherlock is worthy of the attention. I’m convinced I’ll have a good time if I just stick to reading. Yet I have, somehow, become distracted.
Sometimes it happens in other ways. A book mentions a historical event—the Battle of Hastings, say—so I go in search of a crash course. A particular character reminds me of a friend I haven’t heard from in a while, so I go look up the friend on Facebook. The story mentions unicorns, and this makes me think about Ridley Scott’s underrated 1985 film Legend—amply annotated on IMDb—and the next thing I know I’m playing Robot Unicorn Attack. (They released an iOS version a few weeks ago. You should go look it up right now!)
Distraction. Ah, there’s the rub.
The iPad (like the Kindle Fire and other outspewings of hell) is a marvelous device. It is the information appliance par excellence. It brings to your fingertips every form of knowledge, spectacle, and entertainment in 100 billion varieties. Endless movies, endless articles, endless games, endless banter—all, for the most part, absolutely free. It is a trampoline of neurological delight, a springboard from one curiosity to the next.
My brain adores it. Does yours?
And indeed, despite the jab about hell back there, these devices do a lot of good in the world. They help to connect us, to entertain us, and—at times—to inform us.
But I cannot read a book on my iPad.
Reading a book takes focus. It takes sticking to the page, page after page, for many long pages, without distraction.
Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Yet it’s books—not tweets or videos or games—that have guided me to the deepest insights—the moments when I’ve finally seen what I’ve been missing, when my life has most changed for the better. It’s also books that have entertained me most powerfully and deeply. I like the Harry Potter films, for example, but without the books they’d be icing without the cake, leaves without a tree, a Stratocaster without an amp, a sweating can without the Coke.
The trouble with the iPad is that it makes distractions too available. It’s like writing a love letter during a rock festival. Or imagine an Olympian strolling out into the opening ceremony with Moby Dick open under his nose. The iPad is beautiful and exciting and fun, but it’s no place for concentrated thought.
The irony is that those old, archaic, dusty, paper-and-cloth-and-leather-if-you’re-lucky physical books offer a better user interface for reading than the most refined of modern devices. Apple are the best at putting together interfaces, and Kindle and Nook seem competent enough. But when it comes to reading, a book beats them all. For some of us, at least, it provides the simple, focused venue that we need for deeply devouring text.
As for the rest of us—well, I’m not convinced there are many humans left who read, or think, that deeply anymore. All right then, prove me wrong.