Ok, I’m finally getting back to talk about Book Glutton, and I’m probably not being fair to them since I actually finished Treasure Island more than three weeks ago. I’ve probably been delaying because it’s always easier to review or talk about something that you love or hate. Easier to get exercised and visceral when you want to damn things to perdition, or when you think we’ve arrived at A-MOMENT-OF-WORLD-HISTORICAL-REVOLUTION. Perhaps unfortunately for Book Glutton, it strikes me as neither world-historical or revolutionary. It is–in that damnably tepid turn of phrase–“OK.” Or as I sometimes say on my student’s papers: “Not Too Bad.” No wonder they hate me.
First what is Book Glutton? On the one hand it is just another of many online sites where one can get full-text versions of literary classics and not-so-classics, though they also promise to be a publishing venture for contemporary writers. The books are loaded into a reader in your computer browser. The reader is the approximate size of a typical paperback, and through several nifty features the reader gives human readers a lot of options that aren’t available either through other e-book services and readers or via traditional board and paper books. For one thing, I can join an online club reading the book I choose, and we can leave each other notes filled with our readerly wisdom. We can also communicate in real time via a chat window attached right to the reader window itself. Thus I can talk and read at the same time, something my children and my students seem to find unexceptional but which I still find somewhat like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time.
I’ve been on record as having my doubts about e-books, so let me go on record first with what I liked or found interesting about the whole experience. The first thing to say is that reading the book itself was, well, surprising like reading anything else, at least insofar as the story itself was concerned. I liked the yellowish-white cast of reader’s pages since it looked a little bit like a slowly aging paperback, and it reduced eyestrain to boot. I also liked the page-like feel of the presentation itself. One problem with many online texts is something we might otherwise think would make them convenient, the scrolling itself. I’m not alone in finding the long lines and the unending page of text in a lot of online e-texts completely maddening. There is something comforting and rhythmic about completing 30-40 medium size lines of text and turning a page, the sense of completion somehow necessary to the process of going on. A little bit like breathing in a swimming stroke.
Book Glutton accomplishes this in much the same way as dedicated ebook readers, recreating the approximate page size of a normal books such that I can attend to the text, complete it and move on. And for the most part, the story was still the story that I could read and absorb and be absorbed by just as I might any other novel. As I suggested in my last post on Treasure Island, I found the book great fun. As an academic, I found it thought provoking in ways no one else would probably care to find thought provoking. In other words, its being an e-book by itself didn’t do too much to alter my reading experience as such.
I think I would go so far as to say that there are a couple of features of Book Glutton’s presentation that I even liked better than traditional books. The scroll bar at the bottom of the page told me how much further I had to go in a particular chapter. Thus the reader has both the best features of a traditional book–page length chunks of prose–while also overcoming one of the few annoying features of traditional books. When I get bored with a book I’m reading, I’m given to flipping through pages to see just how many pages I have to the end of the chapter. It can be vaguely exasperating to flip and not find what I’m looking for, whereas Book Glutton let’s me know exactly how far I have to go, and I can determine whether it’s worth my time to just plow on through or give up for the day until I can get more interested.
I also have to say I liked the fact that at the click of a button I could enlarge the text so that my aging eyes could read just a little more easily. The text automatically reorients while still retaining page length chunks of prose, just less prose per page.
Some features of Book Glutton hold a lot of promise, but didn’t work too well for me. I created a book club, but no one came. I invited the entire faculty of my college to join me. I think three people said they would, but I don’t think anyone actually read it. I had three anonymous online folks say they wanted to be part of the group, and I signed them up, but they were never on when I was reading, and I couldn’t find that they left me any nifty notes with pearls of wisdom.
Clearly Book Glutton requires a more hands on and somewhat fascist book group leader than I am. Someone who demand more participation. Maybe someone who would get everyone on board to be reading at the same time. Theoretically I can see an interesting place for this kind of thing. Studies show that people who read with groups or who at least are around other people who read are more likely to keep reading through their adult lives. This, in general, is a great service the web provides, connecting readers from around the world. Book Glutton is another take on this general principle, enabling real time participation in common reading. I could see this kind of thing as being really useful for secondary and even college classrooms, and especially for the task of getting kids interested in reading. In this age driven by buzz, it’s not the thing itself that is inherently cool, it’s the fact that everyone around you is in to it. So Book Glutton or similar services could be a route toward making books “the bomb” so to speak. But it just didn’t work out for me.
There were some negatives. I found lugging my computer around, booting it up, connecting to Book Glutton all just a little bit tiresome and inefficient. Why can’t I just open my books and start reading, I wondered. I also had the problem of connecting. I brought my laptop several places and tried to get connections while I was waiting around for something else to happen–a common time to spend reading. Problem is that Wifi isn’t everywhere, no matter what the TV commercials tell me.
The heating pad effect of my laptop lying on my capacious belly was also a bit unnerving. I’m not used to getting belly sweat from a novel.
As I suggested above, most of the reading experiences themselves were not terribly different from a regular novel, but I did find the lure of the internet a bit astonishing even for an incipient codger such as myself. In the normal course of reading a section of a book that started to bore me, I’d skim through until my interest picked up again. With BookGlutton, however, the ready availability of email or other texts was all but irresistable. Rather than skimming through the book, a way of sticking with it, I would abandon the book and go read my email for a half hour. At the end of which I couldn’t quite pick up the thread of the reading again.
Similarly, the chat mechanism is promising, but I also found it insidiously distracting. I actually had a conversation online with one of the poohbah’s an BookGlutton. A really nice and helpful guy who was very receptive to some of my suggestions. Sorry, I can’t remember his name. It was the only chat time I got during the whole experience, and I found after thirty seconds or so that i was more interested in chatting than in reading. This is, of course, a common feature of book groups. They don’t actually talk about books, if they even read them. However, it is a peculiar thing to have this happening while you’re reading. It’s almost as if you’re in a library but people you don’t know come up and start talking to you about the book you’re reading. Many of the people who do this in library, of course, are either homeless or otherwise imbalanced, so what does this say about denizens of Book Glutton. No, just kidding. However, I did actually end up disciplining myself to not open the chat feature while I read a chapter, only opening it at the end of chapters. The temptation to keep seeing if anyone else was around was compelling, a feature of the internet that interferes with the kind of absorption typically associated with literary reading.
This distraction is an important consequence of reading online I think, something that digital utopians champion as a “new literacy.”
I tend to think that describing the frantic skimming that goes with reading on the web as “new literacy” is a little bit like me saying my belly fat is a form of stored energy. It is, but does that really tell me anything or make me feel any better. No, but it does give me a convenient reason for not working out. Call it conservation.
In a similar fashion I think all the discussion of new literacy is a somewhat fancy name for the inability to attend.
Still, overall this is not too many negatives associated with BookGlutton. So why only two thumbs sideways?
I guess I feel like e-books need to demonstrate a clear superiority to board and paper books, a reason that this technology is clearly superior to the technology I already have in hand. At this stage they don’t present themselves to me as such. While there’s some nifty things associated with Book Glutton, I’m not sure most committed readers are really interested in being nifty persons. Book Glutton is kind of neat, but not neat enough to make me spend my time on Book Glutton instead of in a book store.
It’s a little like a decent three star summer movie. Kind of glad I went to see it, and might go see another one, but I don’t feel like my life will miss much if I had missed it.
Or even more, it’s almost as if we’ve got a good television show that a movie theater decides to show on a big screen. It might be kind of neat to watch “Lost” on the big screen, but at some point will you really start watching all your television shows down at the theater. I kind of doubt it.