With the start of a new school year nearly upon us, I have been putting up some student work that I really should have posted last year at the Netlab Web Site. Teaching at Columbia is a real treat and the work my students have done is so frequently superlative. I’ll post a little of it here and there prior to the start of the next semester.
Take, for example, Sang Hoon Youm’s fantastic prototype book interface. Unlike, say, Apple’s Cover Flow artwork, this proposal wouldn’t just use graphics as icons, it would allow you to browse in a way that is both familiar and entirely new. Think a book meets a browser meets hypercard meets … something else.
The infrastructure for selling .pdf e-books is already in iTunes. All Apple has to do is make .pdf downloads available to the iPhone. I can only imagine that they are working on a better .pdf reader prior to doing that.
Last year, longtime readers of this blog will note, I did some work with the Institute for the Future of the Book. One of the things that we were always talking about was the failure of all previous dedicated electronic book readers.
Well, that may have come to an end on Friday.
It is remarkably comfortable to read text on the iPhone. The screen is small, but it is 160 dpi, roughly double what a conventional screen has and about 1/2 the dpi of a printed page. At 320 x 480, the screen is quite a bit smaller than than, say the Sony Reader 's 600 x 400, but instead of the latter's 4 level grayscale screen, it is capable of displaying thousands, if not millions of colors under its optical quality glass. The iPhone's zooming and navigation features work remarkably well for browsing texts, even multi-column texts and pulling out the iPhone to read on the subway is easier than reading the paper, let alone reading text from one's laptop. Of course if the iPhone were double or triple the size, say the size of a Moleskine notebook, it would be perfect for this. But then it wouldn't be a phone.
Perversely however, the iPhone lacks the ability to download text or PDF documents to it so I am condemned to posting them to a private web site and downloading them via Safari in order to read them. But if e-book readers have always failed—partly because they were too limited in their functions, the iPhone's stealthy approach to the e-book may be precisely what was needed.
Yesterday, my colleague Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book posted an excerpt from an interview with Gore Vidal in which the author suggested that the age of the novel was coming to an end. A debate on the site about Vidal's position ensued. I enter in with my argument reproduced below, but read more in the original context.
Vidal isn't the only advocate of the novel to make such an observation (John Barth famously did some time ago). Nor is he off base. Take the transformation of the New Yorker, for instance. It was once known primarily for its fiction. Shirley Jackson's the Lottery drew more mail than any story in the magazine's history and writers like Philip Roth and John Updike graced the pages. Who writes the stories for the New Yorker today? I routinely skip over the fiction and don't know anybody who reads it. Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, and Seymour Hersch are the names I follow. In a world of insanely rapid change and daily threats to our existence (read: the Bush administration), reality is more compelling than fiction.
What surprised me is the simplicity of Vidal's argument: novelists aren't famous anymore because they don't command media attention. This is something of a tautology. We have to ask why novelists aren't famous anymore, why novels aren't such a focal point for society anymore.
Fiction is a form of virtual reality, a way of getting into someone else's head. We have new ways of doing that now. But more than that, the novel is losing its central role in society as the subject is becoming thoroughly fragmented. As Ian Watt pointed out in his Rise of the Novel, modern fiction is an 18th century product, the purest art form of the bourgeoisie, the place in which the bourgeois subject is constituted. Already 40 years ago, Roland Barthes was suggesting that the death of the author was nigh, the result of the birth of the reader. Our age of participatory media is a fulfillment of his prophecies. If we increasingly understand ourselves as nodes in a network (or multiple networks) rather than as Jeffersonian individuals, then a medium constituted by the latter model of subjectivity is obsolete. This is not to say that there won't be any great novels in the future, but remember that there was a time when poetry was a popular form. I know that some of you will consider me a philistine for saying so, but who reads poetry anymore? Fiction will slowly move in the same direction.