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The eBook has come of age and promises to change reading as we have known it — for the good.
The shift is not a minor one. For a number of reasons, the reading of both fiction and non-fiction will be enhanced dramatically by the interactive nature of the eBook — especially those created with software like Apple's new iBooks Author.
As the availability of iPad type devices and iBooks increases in the world outside of schools, more and more reading will take place on screens, and school reading programs must shift to take advantage of the features offered.
The New Book
The New Reading
The New Reader
Some people will read the new eBooks the same way they have always read a paper book. They will transfer old habits to the new technology and miss out on a richer, more intense form of reading that these books make possible. They will mainly see the eBooks as offering convenience and portability. They can bring a dozen books on a trip without lugging around extra baggage, and they can buy a book within minutes of thinking about it. No need to hop in the car and drive to a bookstore.
But eBooks offer much more than convenience. They offer a kind of reading that is richer and more interactive than was possible with paper books.
1. Reading as a dialogue
As has been explained in previous FNO articles, the note-taking capabilities of the eBook can support a kind of intense conversation between the reader and the author or the story, itself. While it was possible to do some of this with a paper book, writing in the margins, the eBook takes this function to a higher level, as one can easily scan the notes and the highlighted sections later.
Reading Dostoyevsky's The Gambler earlier this year using the Kindle software on my iPad, I practiced this type of dialogue, highlighting many sections, commenting on various events and noticing stylistic strokes Dostoyevsky used to create certain effects. At one point, the grandmother appears on the scene — the woman they have all been hoping will die so they can inherit her money — and they are horrified to see she is in good health. I wrote at that time the note you see below — that her arrival was greeted with the same dismay that hits a roulette table when the zero appears. Dostoyevsky proceeds to mention the zero over and over throughout the book, using it as a prime metaphor, but I am not sure I would have appreciated its importance as much if I had not stopped to compare the grandmother's arrival with the zero.
While this kind of dialogue and note-taking can certainly take place with printed books, the eBook takes marginalia to a new level, in part because it is easy to retrieve the notes and highlighting later. Imagine the work involved trying to find every page where Dostoyevsky used the word "zero" as shown above.
While promising, the software needs to improve. While I could browse back over my notes and highlights from The Gambler, there was no way to export the notes into a word processor or make use of them further. This Kindle software is presently just a way of noting and collecting rather than processing. There is also no easy way to clear out the notes and highlights for the next reader — a serious problem for those who intend to circulate the books over time or have a number of different students read the same book over several years. This was also a problem with paper books, it should be noted, but an eBook should offer a "clean wipe" to make the way for the next reader.
2. Reading as an exploration
The other dramatic improvement offered by eBooks is their interactivity. There are many times when you might be reading a paper book and come across an important figure or a painting that is mentioned but not shown. It was quite a bother to get up and find the image.
When this happens with an iBook, you merely highlight the person's name or the painting's title and a menu appears that gives you the choice of highlighting, adding a note or searching on Wikipedia or the Web.
In reading the biography of Django Reinhardt, an important jazz musician in Paris during the 1930s I was curious about the dancer Josephine Baker the book mentioned as a huge and popular figure at that time but the book included no photograph, so with little trouble I found plenty of information, photographs and even a YouTube version of her famous banana dance!
This interactivity greatly enhances the reading of fiction as well as nonfiction, as the settings for Henry James novels play an important role in creating the mood.
"Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine." —Henry James
If the reader has no visual images of Florence to enrich his or her understanding of The Portrait of a Lady, this void can be swiftly filled with an online visit.
Another function worth noting is the dictionary that will pop up whenever the reader comes across a word that is unfamiliar. In reading about Josephine Baker, for example, I came across the word apotheosis — not a word I could correctly define. But in moments I had the dictionary clarifying its meaning. Perhaps students will pay more attention to vocabulary while reading now that the dictionary is so cooperative!
As writers and publishers explore the added firepower of Apple's iBooks Author software, the interactivity and enrichment made possible with eBooks will improve dramatically over the first generation eBooks.
As sample pages from my new book, The Next Best Thing, illustrate below, the books will offer much more than images and text. In the case of non-fiction, the eBook will be the platform for an extended kind of exploration and reading. The book offers videos, many illustrations and dozens of links to related outside resources.
As the reading technologies shift in the world outside of schools, planners should be asking whether these shifts are superficial or significant. With the percentage of families owning iPads and Kindles skyrocketing, it seems reasonable to expect that the reading instruction given to students would relate to the devices they are using to read at home as well as those available in schools. It makes little sense to remain fixed in a 1950s definition of reading while the rest of the world outside of school is racing along to taste the advantages of eBooks.
If eBooks support a deeper level of engagement with the ideas of books, make vocabulary acquisition both easy and fun, and enrich the reading experience, then how could a school defend ignoring these possibilities?
Even though these possibilities are quite new and the full potential of eBooks as textbooks and learning materials is yet to be realized, this is a good time for teachers and school planners to start by exploring this new reading in their own lives, testing out the comprehension strategies and exploration strategies mentioned in this article to see whether or not the new books deserve a formal place in the curriculum.
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