Books on the iPad: Will the Words Still Touch?

In “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod makes a very good case for why the death of the book (or, rather, the death of certain books) is not such a bad thing after all. He writes, “We’re losing the dregs of the publishing world: disposable books.” He also makes a good argument for why publishers of works on the iPad should reimagine how they conceive of the page as an aesthetic constraint for their content.

Mod writes, “Put very simply, Formless Content is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas. Formless content is usually only text. Definite content usually has some visual elements along with text.” I find Mod’s points here (and elsewhere in the piece) inspired; still, I’m concerned with the phrase “Formless Content,” because it seems to me that content is never formless. However, when Mod says “Formless Content,” he means that the content of the work is only arbitrarily (not integrally) linked to its form. While the meaning of Formless Content is influenced by the form it takes, the meaning of Definite Content depends on its form.

So, books with Formless Content can be easily (and losslessly) translated to digital media devices like computers and Kindles, because the shape of the page, the font used, and the size of the text is irrelevant. (I’m not sure I entirely buy this, given how many books I’ve stopped reading when I found the physical character of the text unwieldy.) However, he argues that the iPad will make it possible for us to (losslessly) read/view even Definite Content on a digital device.

Mod writes, “The seemingly insignificant fact that we touch the text actually plays a very key role in furthering the intimacy of the experience [of reading on the iPad].” This seems crucial to the success of something like the iPad as a replacement for printed books. Part of the problem I have with reading on a computer screen is that the text loses a good portion of its physical character. Words on a standard computer screen might still have texture (a shape they take in our mouths or brains), but they have no weight. Words (and images) on an iPad or Kindle, on the other hand, do seem to have both texture and weight.

For the rest of this post, I will consider the iPad as a device for reading/viewing textual media, specifically conceptual poetry.

Craig Dworkin writes in “The Imaginary Solution,” “Following Lev Manovich’s insight that certain artistic forms predate the media that best accommodate them (Language 248), I will argue that [conceptual] poems are proleptic: their striking forms anticipate the computerized new media that would seem to be their ideal vehicle” (30). While I have difficulty following Dworkin’s proofs for this claim, it does seem exactly right.

A device like the iPad might just be the perfect container for conceptual poetry. Here’s why: I’ve previously argued that “everything on the internet is metonymic.” The iPad makes this fact all the more tangible. Everything on the iPad is next to everything else, because digital texts are (hyper)linked in a way that printed texts are not. To get from page 1 to page 5 in a printed book, we have to turn 4 pages. To get from page 1 to page 5 in a digital text, we might press (or click) only one button. So, in a digital text, pages 2, 3, and 4 are not between pages 1 and 5. The fact that we use our finger to control the iPad suggests (at least figuratively) that pages 1 and 5 are not only next to one another but are in direct physical contact.

While Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman argue brilliantly in “Notes on Conceptualism” that “conceptual writing is allegorical writing,” I would argue that conceptual writing is also metonymic writing. When Kenneth Goldsmith writes in Fidget, “Facial muscles relax. Swallow. Tongue moistens upper lip” (15), he seems keenly aware of the way words in a sequence press up against one another in an explicitly tactile way. When Gertrude Stein writes in Tender Buttons, “The kindly way to feel separating is to have a space between. This shows a likeness” (23), she seems interested in how two words in a sequence can bridge the gap between their letters. And, I think, it isn’t just that the words “kindly” and “way” are next to one another for Stein, but that every word in Tender Buttons is next to every other word. Thus, the book defies linearity, compelling the reader/viewer to use her finger to flip randomly from one page to another. Goldsmith’s Fidget does the same. Thus, the iPad, where all content is (hyper)linked and manipulated through direct physical content, seems a perfect container for poets like Goldsmith and Stein.

June 29, 2011 Update:
Over a year after the appearance of the iPad, e-book publishing has not changed considerably. The potentials Mod describes in his work have not yet been fully (or even barely) realized. There have been a number of e-books that have rethought the page/screen as a container for content:

Al Gore’s Our Choice

Still, these sorts of experiments with the e-book format are few and far between. There have been, instead, more dulling valiant attempts to mold the format of e-readers to fit existing content, attempts to make screens look and turn like book pages, attempts to make e-readers resemble books in size, weight, shape, etc.

Some questions: What potentials does digital reading present? Why do those potentials remain (mostly) unrealized? Why is so much content produced for e-readers static and linear? Why are e-readers shaped like book pages? Why are readers amazed (and not bored) by the fact that e-readers are capable of making content “look like a real book”? Will books eventually be radically reshaped by technology like the iPad? Should they be?

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel is faculty at University of Denver and founder of Hybrid Pedagogy. He teaches pedagogy, digital studies, and composition. He spends most of his time with his badass daughter, Hazel.

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