Wednesday, 25 August 2010

What I Want From an Ebook

I've tried three different types of ebook now: plain and simple on a sony eReader, an Enhanced Edition on an iPhone, and a standard ebook on the iPad.

I liked them all. Like many, I discovered that a Sony eReader isn't quite as perfect for holidays as you might hope: sunlight and screens don't mix, and you don't really want to leave it by the pool. But in general it's handy and doesn't get in the way of the reading experience. I read David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on an eReader (on holiday), and it blew my mind.

Mind you, if I compare the experience of reading the Mitchell with that of the equally extraordinary Wolf Hall, there is just a tiny bit of extra satisfaction I gained from owning a physical copy of the latter. I liked the fact that it sat there waiting temptingly on the shelf in between reads. And I like that the object changed as I read the text within it. I now have a warped, creased and generally softened up paperback, containing a wad of paper - my bookmark - covered in notes and tucked inside. It remains on the shelf, unmistakably my cherished, pored-over book.

The Enhanced Edition of Bunny Munroe for the iPhone is terrific. Not so much for the extras, but for the basics. I didn't feel any need to watch the video of the author reading his book (very well produced, but just too reminiscent of Jim Morrison poetry scenes in the Doors movie), though I did think the synchronised audio was well done. What was most impressive was just how well the book read on a small screen, due to proper care and attention being paid to the formatting of the text.

When I came to read a book on the iPad, I spent a bit more time exploring the intuitive way you can highlight a bit of text, or just a word, and tag it with a typed note. Barely more effort than my scribbles on a bookmark, and probably more durable.

What I really want (to arrive, at last, at my point) is to be able to share such notes.

The main purpose of scribbling down stuff about Wolf Hall was to highlight things for discussion in my book club. I love my book club. We almost always have good discussions, but sometimes a tiny detail of prose style seems too small to raise in the discussion, or awkward, if it would require people to check back to a page reference. Or sometimes I just forget to mention things. What I want from an ebook is the ability to invite all twelve of my book group members, and a selection of friends and family whose opinions I find interesting, to see my annotations, and for me to be able to see theirs.

I think this would affect the reading experience quite profoundly, and almost certainly positively. It would be a genuinely social, collaborative experience, but one you control yourself. You can always ignore friends' notes, or read them later.

Two examples encourage me to think it would work. Firstly Apt's Golden Notebooks experiment; a close reading exercise where, theoretically, anyone could annotate the online text (in practice the academics leading it were too damn clever, and put normal people off). Apt is Peter Collingridge, the same chap who makes Enhanced Editions, so it's equally elegant.

Secondly, reading a draft of Chris Cleave's new book with his editor's comments in the margin (annotated in the Word doc) was fascinating. Partly because, as unfinished work, it gave an insight into the editorial conversation, but mostly because it was just fascinating to see where I agreed or disagreed with Chris' editor simply as a fellow reader.

Anyway, it all seems very doable from a technological point of view, unless I've missed the point massively. is anyone doing it?