Friday, September 30, 2011

It's Not a book, it's a Nook

What do you get if you contract the word “Not” and the word “book?” Nook.

We got a Nook as a gift. It wants us to think of it as a new kind of book, but after my first 24 hours with it, it’s more not a book than bookish.

The first thing I miss is sound. If you had asked me to write 10,000 words about reading books, I don’t think I would have ever mentioned hearing the sound of a page turning as one of the essential qualities of reading a book. But with it missing, it trumpets its loss. Reading is such a quiet endeaver, but like libraries, it is not the silence, but the whisper of sound which brings the sacred feel. If I am lost in some ancient past or imagined future, it is never more than two pages before the whisk of a page turning brings me for just a moment back into the only time there really is: now.

The second thing I miss is touch. We hold so much plastic already. Computer mice, keyboards, phones, even our steering wheels. Plastic has an oily lack of presence, and I think it has been important, at least once a day, to hold a book. To wipe the dinosauric smudges from our fingers like napkins at a KFC. To feel the heft of something that used to be a tree, and still loves us. To feel the heft of the words some poor author sweat and strained at. To thumb through pages to find your place. To have to find some little thing to mark where you left off. To have a book be a thing that takes up space on your shelves, in your life, on your bed table. Something to pile high to show you that you think, that you stop working and relax, that you and the real world interact.

It’s sweet that the Nook allows you (in such a limited way!) to change the font. But it does it so sloppily! Firstly, it doesn’t actually ever even see the book itself! It downloads only text. So it comes makes no effort at all at formatting, and certainly pays no attention to design! Its inventors must have grown up in Levittown where “house” is not a different word from “box” and there must be no difference for them between “weed” and “flower” save function. So when you change the font or size to suit yourself, the “book” reformats by throwing the words at the screen like darts: as long as it lands anywhere on the page it scores. It carries a philosophy that space or shape have nothing to say. Basically, all that is allowed are tabs, line feeds and single spaces between the words. Even page feeds are lost in this tumble of letters.

The Nook has a machine’s sensibilities when it comes to literature. “I got all the words, didn’t I?”

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