Like Russell Davies I’ve begun reading books on my iPhone using Stanza and I’m enjoying it more than I expected. I never read much on PDAs I’ve owned in the past but the iPhone’s screen is good enough, and Stanza is configurable enough, that it’s surprisingly easy on the eyes. It’s also even easier than a real book: easy to hold with one hand, easy to turn pages with one finger, and I always have it with me.
Of course, I still love real books. One of the things missing from eBooks is a sense of each book’s physical size. I bet most of us approach a book differently if it’s 600 pages long rather than a skimpy 150. But it’s hard to tell what you’re getting into on the iPhone.
Classics, another iPhone ebook application, tries to make its books more physical by displaying them on a bookshelf:
And reading books involves a simulacrum of a page turning, complete with sound:
Very swish, although fake bookshelves and “real” pages feel like computer interfaces modelled a bit too closely around real world desks — kind of fun but a bit annoying after a while and no practical use. (Although I must admit I haven’t tried Classics.) And even with all the fancy graphics there’s no sense of the heft of the book.
Stanza, which has a larger collection of books, doesn’t attempt much in the way of physicalisation. The closest it comes is the Mac-like Coverflow view of book covers:
Which tells us little and, personally, I find as useless an interface for choosing a book as I do for browsing music in iTunes. Stanza’s text view doesn’t even attempt to mimic paper and allows you to adjust the font, its size, and text and background colours. Here’s how it currently looks for me:
It’s a bit of a wrench to break from the traditional view of a book after so many years but it’s quite pleasantly readable. Although so far I’ve only read science fiction on it and wonder how I’ll feel reading a one hundred year-old book in white on black Verdana.
With so much abstraction away from the physical object in Stanza I feel even more need for further cues as to the book’s nature. Stanza doesn’t even supply a page count, probably as this would be meaningless within the application — if one alters the font size then the number of pages changes because more or less text will fit on one screen (or page).
As someone who habitually looks at the number of pages in a book when I start to read it I want to know what I’m getting into. It takes me a disappointingly long time to finish most books, and I always finish what books I’ve started, so I want to know what kind of commitment I’m making.
The best solution I’ve thought of so far is for Stanza (or Classics or whoever) to create a fake 3D image of a book. Take some careful photographs of books of different thicknesses and then superimpose the existing cover images on top of the appropriate photo for the length of the book. Maybe a bit more cleverness to mock up a spine using the book’s title and author and you’d get something like this:
Which is obviously going to take longer to get through than this:
There will be extra points awarded for showing wear and tear on the virtual book after it’s been read.
I don’t think this falls into the trap of painstakingly recreating reality for no real function, like Classics’ bookshelf and page turning. The 3D image has no function as such — we don’t have some fake 3D hands that pick it up and open it where you left off (please, don’t). Instead it’s providing information rather than functionality, information that we can understand at a glance.
And it would help me work out whether I’ll be spending weeks or months reading the next on my list.