I’m a digital reader. So are you. But even though I’ve been reading texts on — off? — screens since the distant days of Ceefax and the ZX81, until this past summer I’d never actually read a book on a Kindle.
I should clarify. I have had books downloaded on a Kindle app on my iPad for a few years now — mostly digital copies of texts I teach as that makes it easier to search and to copy-and-paste — and I did once use my iPad Kindle app to read most of a book about business finance. (It is, and was, a long story.) But that wasn’t really reading. What I mean is the kind of reading you reserve for stories: the reading you do curled up on the sofa on a wet Saturday afternoon or sprawled on a foreign beach; the reading that draws you in, that takes you away, that let’s you lose yourself; the reading where you just don’t want the story to end. It’s probably the kind of reading with which we are most familiar (even if we do a lot of other kinds of reading), and it’s definitely the kind of reading that we idealise as a culture.
It was precisely this kind of reading that I had never done with a Kindle, until a summer holiday with too little luggage space. So I decided to read three novels I’d not read before, all by Bath Spa colleagues.
However, before I began, I did something that is just simply impossible with a printed book: I made sure I’d get lost.
As any of you who have used Kindles will know, the Kindle’s pages aren’t really pages. Yes, they are rectangular spaces full of words but because readers can change the size, layout, and style of typeface, the text undulates between them. Pages do not stay the same from one reader — or indeed from one reading — to the next. Instead, the Kindle provides “location” information through a number and, crucially, a percentage to indicate how far you’ve progressed. The Kindle can even assess a likely completion time, based on your reading speed. Not quite as romantic as Austen’s “tell-tale compression of the pages” to signal “that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity,” but nonetheless it gave you a sense — a quite exact sense — of where you are in a book.
I switched off the Kindle’s location display. In other words, I would have no idea of how long each novel was or, consequently, when they might end.
The effect was, literally, disorienting. Each turn of the page took on increasing portent. I found myself scouring the text for narrative landmarks, and paying much closer attention to the story’s rhythms: what was still left to be said, who was still left to speak? And I discovered that there is a profound difference between a surprise ending — when the reader doesn’t expect the story to end that way — and an ending that is a surprise, because the reader has no idea when it might come.
This sense of uncertainty was heightened by the way that the Kindle itself handles page-turns. Most digital text prefers the scroll to the page, relying on the drag of the reader’s finger to control the movement of the text. The Kindle, though, retains the concept of the page and awaits only the gentle tap of a finger to move forward or back. It eschews the skeuomorphic (toe)curling-page-turn that you can still find in some digital apps; instead, a momentary digital shadow flickers across the screen to reveal a new page.
The physical page-turn is something we have to learn when we first start to read: it is a delicate manoeuvre requiring considerable finesse, which is one reason that the first books we encounter as children have such heavy, rigid leaves. We learn to feel for the thickness of the paper, to sense when we might have turned over two pages at once. We learn, though, not just how to turn the pages of a book, but also to trust the page-turn: to know that the words of the next page will follow the words from the previous one.
The problem with the Kindle was that time and time again I would worry that I’d turned over two pages at once, that the screen had flickered twice, that I’d somehow double-tapped. Each time, the only remedy was to page — tap — back to check. I don’t know if it was an oversensitive Kindle or an inexpert hand-grip but I felt like a toddler who’d been given a paperback too soon.
So there I was, truly and hopelessly lost in a book: not knowing where I was, often stumbling forward and backwards, and never quite sure if the end was really nigh.
The thing is that while we allow ourselves to get lost in a story, we have learned not to get lost in a book. The act of reading is always much more than a looking with the eyes and we come to trust the story’s relationship to its physical form. Familiarity with the the codex means that we expect to know where we are and where we are about to go, even when we don’t know what the story will do next. Ambient literature, though, presents a new kind of orientational challenge. It depends, in a fundamental sense, on the orientation of the reader but it also embraces textual forms — digital, audio, video — that don’t necessarily come with the orientation cues we associate with the codex. The risk then is that although the text always know where we are, we might not know where we are in the text.
Which is why I was so impressed by Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark By Then, the first work of ambient literature supported by this project. Speakman’s work played with disorientation through its subject-matter — disappearing places — and, crucially, its form: a digital map without landmarks, a codex with crumbling text, sounds that took you somewhere else. Its achievement was as much generic as literary: that ambient literature can allow us to get lost in the world, without losing us in a book.
— Ian Gadd