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May 21, 2007

Why Read?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There I was not so long ago, flying Business class on American. (Thank you, Frequent Flyer miles.) Cruising altitude had been attained. I was leaning back, about to settle into the book I'd brought along, when a steward-person held out one of these to me:


It took me a few seconds to make sense of what was was being proposed. My steward-person was wheeling a cart laden with a number of these devices, each one zipped into its own little gizmo-bag. The machines had hard drives loaded with movies, TV shows, and music. In other words: We ritzy biz-class types were being offered the chance to use a snazzy media device for the duration of our flight.

Looking around warily -- surely there was a catch -- I accepted the gizmo and plugged it in.


The device proved friendly enough; dimwitted me was able to find my bearings quickly. Wariness now allayed, I set my book aside and started surfing programs, music, and movies.

I found watching a movie on the device to be a surprisingly satisfying experience. I'm film snob enough that I never, ever watch a movie on an airplane. I find the watery, dim, poorly-aimed video image that front-of-the-cabin airplane screens offer an affront.

On this little gizmo, though ... Well, its six-ish inch screen was bright and clear, and the sound was luscious. There was no hope of being ravished by the kind of dreamy hugeness and engulfing hyperreality that actual movies offer, of course. Still, the film's moods came across, the framing was razor-sharp, and the performances were more-than-adequately conveyed.

And the suit-yourself intimacy of the device was its own major plus. I loved being able to surf, start, stop, pause, and rewind as I saw fit. No passengers walked between me and the gizmo's screen. The gizmo was as convenient to use and as eager to please as the book that I'd stowed away and forgotten about.

One final factor made the device seem plausible: It felt semi-important to me that the gizmo wasn't a mere DVD player, but that it instead contained a library of various media offerings. There was no need to exit the device's thought-space in order to fumble around with something physical, like a disc. Being able to select from among a bunch of already-in-there media options made me want to get to know the device a lot better.


As you might be able to tell from my lousy photos, the device is about the same size as a modest hardcover book. Even so, handling it isn't quite the unself-conscious thing that handling a book is. The device is considerably heavier than a book, for one thing. For another, despite its ironclad chunkiness it still feels breakable. Maybe that's partly a function of having a screen; maybe it's also partly a function of me knowing that there's a spinning hard drive inside. (You can feel the battery heat up and the hard drive whirr as you hold the device in your hands.) This isn't something you'd be tempted to just toss into your backpack without a second thought. You'd want to place it there with some care.

Still: a promising gizmo. Give it to Apple to perfect and it'd be a humdinger. Or maybe that's exactly what an Apple laptop full of downloads from the iTunes store and programs and movies ripped from DVDs already is.

As for the gizmo's similarity to a book ... Well, I tend to laugh a bit at the idea of ebook readers. Although they've been dreamed about for a decade, they've never caught on. I don't think they ever will catch on. One reason: digital-rights-management issues. Another: Why fetishize bookishness when we're already comfy doing a ton of electronic reading-and-writing on the web?

And here's another, very practical reason: If you have a digital device that's book-size, that's electronic, that has internal storage and a screen ... Well, why stop at playing and displaying black-on-white text? Why would anyone owning such a device deny himself color, movement, sound, and interactivity?

The Archos gizmo that I experienced was just such a machine. Its screen was plenty crisp and big enough to do serious reading on -- and imagine how many gazillion books you might store on its 80 GB hard drive. But -- c'mon -- how often would most people use this thing for book-reading when they might just as easily watch movies on it instead?

As we started our descent, I switched the gizmo off and packed it away. I looked around and noticed that many other Biz-class passengers were doing likewise. They'd spent the flight with the media-player too. I also noticed that many of them had done what I'd done with the reading material I'd brought on board intending to read -- like me, they'd stuffed all that print into the pocket of the seat ahead. We'd all put our reading aside in order to amuse ourselves with a media device.

Scary times for book authors!



posted by Michael at May 21, 2007


I have run across these things a few times on long flights. A couple years ago, I watched The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on one in both directions of a transcontinental flight. I'm not sure whether its surreality was entirely inherent in the film or part of the whole watching a movie in an airplane experience. Good sound or not, my brain just refuses to grasp things quite as firmly in the air.

As far as reading goes, it will always offer pleasures and advantages video can't: access to mental interiors, easy shifting of perspective and narrative distance, ease of exposition and speed of intake of abstract info, to name a few.

And I wonder if paper doesn't still have an awfully long life ahead of it. I read much more on the web now than anywhere else, but a book or magazine is still a more pleasant aesthetic experience. The screens we use today are a huge step up from cathode-rays, but I can't see paper actually disappearing unless the technology moves beyond its current eyeball-searing, backlit, staring at a lampshade mode.

Incidentally, and this is gonna sound kind of gay, but you've got very sympathetic-looking hands.

Posted by: robert on May 21, 2007 4:46 AM

If that means that you were not distracted or made uncomfortable by a movie on a largish screen, it's pure gain.

Posted by: dearieme on May 21, 2007 7:23 AM


Very good post. I often find this happening to me in my spare time. I plan to catch up for an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon with my reading, but first I'll spend a few minutes on my video archiving project (converting my VHS tapes to DVD) - but only a few minutes. One hour later, I find my free time gone, great progress in my archiving project, and my book unread.

What is it about moving images that makes it so easy for them to distract us from the printed word?

Posted by: Mitchell on May 21, 2007 10:53 AM

As I try to fly only Southwest Airlines unless there's no alternative, it's a fair bet that I won't be encountering any of those devices anytime soon.

Posted by: Peter on May 21, 2007 11:03 AM


I never see mentioned the number one advantage of interactive, flashy video things over books -- sleep prevention! Most times, I do prefer to read. But, after a long day I know that I might only get 30 minutes of reading in before falling asleep.

Wheras, a flashy thing can keep me up to 3am. This is why my reading took a big hit last year. I was playing an on-line MMORG and found that I could get a couple extra hours of conscious life into my day by doing that activity rather than reading. So, the trade-off is either .5 hrs reading vs 2.5 hrs playing games/movie watching.


p.s. I'm only 3% gay, so I can't really say for sure, but you do have great hands.

Posted by: Holzbachian on May 21, 2007 11:18 AM

Those hands! So manly and sensitive. I'm in love. ;^)

Posted by: ricpic on May 21, 2007 12:31 PM

Expect changes in the near future. First, flash memory is dropping fast, as capacity increases. Which means the upcoming elimination of harddrives in devices such as this. That in turn means longer battery life since the servo that turns the disc eats up a lot of the energy used. Then you have the decrease in weight with the removal of the harddrive motor and spindle and stuff like that.

Epaper is a few years away, and that means a further drop in weight and energy use. At first it will mean plain black text on a white background. But the potential for a full media experience is there, just needs a bit of development.

BTW, do you remember how makes the thing. Sounds to me like you were part of a study to see how people take to the device.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 25, 2007 7:00 AM

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