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Two years ago I posted about reading Pride and Prejudice on my BlackBerry.  At that time, I was receiving free installments of the book, sent to me daily via email from DailyLit.

Well, I’ve moved on since then.  I’m using an iPhone now, and with the application Stanza, I get access to several online catalogues with over 100,000 selections of classics and contemporary titles and periodicals.  I must add though while the Stanza app is free, some of the eBooks in these catalogues, especially the contemporary ones, are not.

But I’m just interested in the free ones, and there are more than enough to choose from… mainly through Project Gutenberg’s catalogue of 30,000 eBooks in the public domain, classics of over 20 languages.  Not that I’ll be reading one in Icelandic, or Portuguese, or even Esperanto, but it’s good to know that they are there in case you might need them.  All the titles are free to download due to the expiry of their copyrights.  I’ll just stick with the 22,000 English selections for now, from Austen to Zola, from anarchism to zoology… yes, they allow you to search by authors, titles, languages, genres, topics.

Regarding the concept of ‘free’, the Project Gutenberg Website has this important information: ‘Free’ here means both free of charge and freedom to use the titles in whatever way a reader chooses, teaching, adapting, distributing…

So, what has been my experience of reading The Great Gatsby on my iPhone?

First off,  unlike the Kindle, which is the size of a paperback, or larger, the iPhone screen is just 3.5 inch diagonal.  While you can adjust the font size to suit your visual comfort, it just means the inconvenience of turning the pages more often the larger the font.  Reading it horizontally, my setting is about 10 words per line, 14 lines on each page.  I can choose my own style of font and the backlit format.

Compare with reading a hard copy, the iPhone has its convenience, that being smaller, easier to carry. You have your whole library at your fingertip, literally.  But the major advantage over a hard copy, I feel, is the lighted screen.  In other words, you don’t need to turn your bedside table light on to read. In a way, it brings back that childhood experience of reading under a covered blanket with a flashlight.  Ready accessibility, even in the dark.  What a fantastic treat for insomniacs.

Now to something totally different, the affective element of the reading experience.  Strangely enough, reading on the iPhone makes Roland Barthes’ theory a step closer to reality.  Just a recap, I’ve written a post on Barthe’s ‘The Death of the Author’ idea.  The text is the thing, he argues. Let it speak without any reference to its author.  Reading digitally transported me onto that path, whether intentionally or not.

When you’re reading a book, you’re holding the physical object called a ‘book’, with all its cultural meaning and significance, the reality of print on paper, the design and aesthetics of the object itself.  More importantly, from the outset, before you dig in, you’re looking at its cover art, jacket info on the author and the work, with the sometimes additional excerpts of reviews, author bio, introduction to the work… etc. In other words, you cannot avoid knowing who wrote those words you’re reading, his or her background, literary achievement and perspective.

But reading digitally, you’re only seeing the text, unless of course you change the screen to check info about the author or the work.  If you just stay with that screen, you’re only seeing the words per se, unmoved by any of the author’s background, literary style, devoid of any context. And because of the small screen, you’re only reading a few lines at a time. Instead of a complete whole that you can hold in your hands, you are confronted with the fragments, the digitalized, desensitized, deconstructed units of a literary work.

I have read The Great Gatsby before, in hard copy format, and now in the digital mode.  Reading it on the iPhone, I sense that my imagination is more reined in.  I encounter more ‘text’ than ‘images’, and feeling less for the characters.  Interestingly, some details of the plot are clearer this time, but the emotional impact is attenuated.  Of course, one could argue it’s because this is the second time around I read the story… but then again, it has been some years between the two readings.

There’s no perfect solution for everything.  You have the convenience, but the desensitizing of the reading experience.  Nevertheless, the free downloads of world classics at your fingertip is just too good to pass.

My next read from my iPhone library?  Well, there are quite a few choices.  I’m thinking of Proust’s Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time Vol. 1. Reading Proust on the iPhone… how much more postmodern can you get? Roland Barthes would have been pleased.

But it might be too daunting a task to attempt, imagine reading 400 plus pages on a 3.5 inch screen, 14 lines at a time.

And for now… let me just head out to the bookstore.  Nothing can compare to the sensation of being surrounded by books, and actually feeling them in your hands, cover, spine, and all.

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Photo Source:  The Great Gatsby book cover at artistquirk.com

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