On Apple’s iPad and The Experience of Reading

The description of iBooks on Apple.com got me thinking:

“Reading on iPad is just like reading a book. You hold your iPad like a book. You flip the pages like a book. And you do it all with your hands — just like a book … reading is so natural on iPad, the technology seems to disappear.”

Isn’t Apple’s language here interesting? That, by the act of tracing your fingers across a glass surface, the claim is that the technology naturalizes what would seem to be a fundamentally unnatural act of reading a book on a screen.*

This inspired a bit of researching on my part. Let’s see what others have said so far about the experience of reading on the iPad.

Slate.com’s Farhad Manjoo has been an enthusiastic supporter of the iPad from the get-go (can’t forget this memorable line: “to put it another way, there is no better machine to use on the couch, the bed, or in the bathroom.” Bathroom? Um … ew?) Interestingly, Farhad opines that “the iPad’s killer app is reading.” Seems like an unexpected way to look at it, because generally speaking, most people think of the iPad as a device with which you can do many things, of which reading has to be one of them (Alex Golub’s description of the iPad as an “anything box” about sums it up).

Wired.com’s enticingly titled article — “Will the iPad Make You Smarter?” — focuses on the user interface for the iPad. While it cites studies that don’t exactly correlate with iPad usage, it’s a not-uninteresting question to be asking. The conclusions are more inferred than anything else (so, will the iPad make you smarter? The answer appears to be: “kind of, maybe”). Apple’s design philosophy of reducing distraction by streamlining the user experience, focusing upon single-screen interaction of content, and of course the tactile experience of interacting with and navigating among content, could in theory be possible ways of enhancing the reading experience. Probably more accurate to say that the iPad could enable behavior (paying better attention to the tasks at hand) that in turn could make you smarter.

Salon.com’s Laura Miller (“The iPad is for readers”) similarly sung the praises of the iPad’s user interface. The iPad is conducive to distraction-free reading; the lack of ease with which to have various forms of email/Facebook/Twitter/etc. communication competing for one’s attention (a source of complaint for many when it comes to multitasking) are all inarguably good things when it comes to the act of reading. Miller’s take on the virtues of reading on an iPad screen rather than on a computer screen came down to what seems to be a psychological distinction, between work and leisure:

“while even before it went on sale Saturday the iPad was disparaged as a mere ‘media consumption’ device, that description is exactly what piqued my interest. I know that my laptop can do just about everything the iPad can, but it’s not designed to be curled up with at the end of long day; it’s the long day’s main battleground. I find it hard to entirely relax with it, to enter a more receptive state of mind. Your desk at work can hold up a plate as effectively as the sidewalk table at your neighborhood cafe, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll feel as happy eating lunch there.”

There is undeniably a physical aspect of the experience of reading. There’s only so much a degree of comfort one can have while sitting in front of a desktop or laptop. The portability that the Kindle and iPad offers is certainly no small part of that new type of reading experience (on the Amazon Kindle page, notice the prominent image of the woman at the beach leisurely reading on her Kindle). Seems like the postures of reading would make for a possible future topic. Hmm.

And of course one of the major points of differentiation is between the experience of reading on an iPad’s sharp and bright LCD screen vs. E Ink-based reading devices. E Ink screens are easier on the eyes (that’s certainly been my experience for long periods of time), but the iPad’s screen has a clear advantage in terms of pure aesthetics.

For those of us that appreciate things like typography and the craft that goes into the art of creating books, this is something to consider. But how big of a deal is it? Len Edgerly, Kindle podcaster, had a countervailing opinion in this bit from Wired’s Gadget Lab: “‘When I am reading, I don’t want to be too distracted … It’s about the words, and when I read the Kindle, it seems to bring me closer to the author’s words. That’s essence of reading to me.’” One could view this as an extension of Apple’s logic (“the technology seems to disappear”), but in this case, perhaps when we’re deeply engaged in the act of reading, we care less about the technologies of reading (typography, typesetting, bookbinding are, after all, also technologies of the book — just much older forms of technology) precisely because we care most about the words on the page, however those words appear to us.


And on a related note, The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg gives a pretty good run-down of three of the most popular iPad reading apps (iBooks, Kindle for iPad, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook).

* And to be fair, Amazon’s description of the Kindle is not dissimilar from Apple’s:

The most elegant feature of a physical book is that it disappears while you’re reading. Immersed in the author’s world and ideas, you don’t notice a book’s glue, the stitching, or ink. Our top design objective is to make Kindle disappear — just like a physical book — so you can get lost in your reading, not the technology.

** And by the way, did you know there was an Infinite Jest app? Seems appropriate.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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