Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what types of literary works are best read on an e-reader.
From past experience, I’ve found that poetry doesn’t look so great on a kindle: most poetry books are formatted incorrectly, and it just feels like something is missing. I suppose poets need to do more to challenge the e-book form before poetry reading on a kindle becomes a rewarding experience. (I’m not the only one who has had a bad experience reading poetry on the kindle. Marketplace covered a story on this issue, and this Huffington Post article covers the same topic).
Most fiction reading is great. Regular novels, and short stories (collections and single stories), work best with the device. Non-fiction works as well. I find that having footnotes hyperlinked makes it easier to switch back and forth when looking up information in non-fiction books. At the same time, the kindle doesn’t work as well for heavy research, but that might be a preference of mine.
However, today I’m interested in a particular type of novel, what I call the long-form novel. I’ve written about the growing popularity of long-form novels previously, and I think it’s fair to say that reading these novels on an e-reader allows the “heft” of the novel to disappear. So on a basic level, reading a long-form novel on an e-reader lets you forget you’re reading a long-form novel. It allows you to get lost in the text.
The novel I’d like to mention today is Moby Dick. It seems like an appropriate novel to begin a discussion about this topic since it is the quintessential long-form American classic. It is also an important novel because Melville tackles the issue of contemporary technology and the changes it brings. Recently, over at the ARCADE blog, Christopher Warley puts Melville’s use of whaling technology in this way: “The intricate descriptions of whaling procedures make clear that Melville’s conception of epic is intimately wrapped up in what might be called globalization and the commodification of everything.” Through the dissection of the whale, Melville also dissects the movement towards a global economy. And his experimentation with the novel’s form critiques the commodification of ficton, which certainly happened in the midst of 19th Century technological changes.
So does reading Moby Dick on a kindle really make a difference? I think it does. I’ve read this novel twice: once in paperback, and once on my kindle. The kindle experience was probably better because I finished it quicker and I marked it up w/ various notes and thoughts that I have saved and returned to many times.
Ultimately, it’s possible to re-conceptualize old works of literature on new reading devices. I think of Moby Dick differently now that I’ve read it in a digital format, and when you consider the context of its publication and subsequent rediscovery later in the 20th Century, it’s important to give this novel (and other classics) new life with new reading experiences.