• September 1, 2015

My iPad Day

The Future of E-Readers 1

Roger Chouinard for The Chronicle Review

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Roger Chouinard for The Chronicle Review

I gave up my iPad last week. Not cheerfully, I might add, but with the maternal motivation that the iPad, loaded with the final season of Lost, might add a little something to my daughter's recovery from surgery.

It wasn't easy. My iPad was less than two months old but already a constant companion. Why so attached, so quickly? Living without it taught me how well the little techno-critter fit into my life as a college dean and writer.

iPad deprivation also gave new meaning to "going off the grid," which previously meant a period of time without e-mail or Web access. Now it included exile from e-reading, because I had seen the future—and it was beautiful. It also gave me a window on the future of e-readers. I've previously used a Kindle and iPhone for reading, but the iPad's brilliant three C's—consumption, collaboration, and creativity—open up new possibilities. (In the Middle Ages of media, when I was in cable and satellite television, we used to opine about content, community, and choice. I have no idea why C became the default tag for newfangled things, but I'll sing along.)

Let me take you through my day and show you why. You may have heard that the iPad is just another device for passive content consumption. Now there's a damning condemnation! Really, if that's all the iPad did, it would still be better than anything you've ever used before. That's because its combination of features are revolutionary not just individually, but in combination: tablet, touch screen, picture quality, battery life, the wonderful world of apps, and—how low-tech can you get?—the versatile Apple case.

An iPad day starts early. Like many New York City apartment dwellers, my brain is still half asleep until the newspapers arrive. If I'm ready for coffee before then, I fill the time by reading e-mail or a magazine, but I remain on alert for the satisfying "thunk" of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal hitting the door. I love that sound, but it's headed for the audio graveyard to join the hiss of a tape cassette rewinding.

Within three days, I was taking the iPad to breakfast. Then the unthinkable happened: The thunk had come and gone and I had not noticed.

The iPad reminds me how much I have always enjoyed combining reading and food. I grew up eating dinner alone (don't feel sorry for me, I loved it) and used a handy little metal stand to keep my library book away from the lamb chops. iPad updates that concept with the help of the Apple case, a 21st-century triumph of microfiber, homely but light and sturdy. The case folds into a triangle to lift the iPad into a great working position and voilà! It is parked at the perfect angle of repose for reading or writing. It's all in the tilt.

Perhaps you are lucky enough not to attend a lot of meetings. The rest of us are too often captives or captors. Some meetings are good enough to justify notes for later action or reflection, and some are bad enough to make you long for distraction or escape. If you open a laptop, you barricade yourself behind a screen, which practically screams disassociation. The iPad, staying out of the line of sight, proclaims no such aggression.

Paying attention? You can use your finger to write notes (I like an app called Penultimate), or type them on a Word-compatible program, then e-mail or file them later. The peek-a-boo virtual keyboard is decent for slow touch-typing.

Seeking distraction? If you are too responsible to check e-mail or skim blogs or play Scrabble during the meeting, I bet you can convince yourself that you just need a minute to find out more about the subject at hand. I was just at a meeting that mentioned the artist Chris Burden and his "Urban Light" installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Huh? A quick and discreet trip to the museum's Web site, and then I turned to my equally clueless neighbor to share my discoveries.

That took us from consumption to collaboration.

"Here, look!"

Imagine saying that 10 times a day, handing over an effective illustration of your point: an image, a bit of text, a graph, calendar, or newspaper. Of course, you can do that with e-mail or FTP transfer. But there are advantages to spontaneous, physical, face-to-face sharing that are constrained by the way the laptop requires someone to peer over your shoulder to stare at a common screen.

Try sharing an iPad. It connects you to your physical and intellectual surroundings, rather than alienating you. Assuming your collaborator returns the iPad, you have executed a very different kind of exchange, one that seems oddly democratic and intimate, the same way you might share an album of family photographs. Only now imagine a doctor and patient sharing an MRI, an accountant and client reviewing a balance sheet, a choreographer and dancer discussing a dance notation.

For more scholarly pursuits, I have found the iPad a great companion for visits to historical archives and research libraries, especially in combination with an iPhone camera. In a trip to Arizona, I did not have enough time to finish taking notes on the letters of Josephine Earp, third wife of Wyatt and the subject of my current research. I used my iPhone to capture some images for later study (with permission, of course). As a doctor's wife, I thought I was great at reading illegible handwriting, but sometimes I am stymied by Josephine's scrawl and her evident dislike of punctuation. I've tried scrutinizing large computer screens as well as hard copy, but the iPad's pinch-to-zoom technique is particularly suited to deciphering original documents.

Just so you don't think I'm on Apple's payroll, here are some things that the iPad does badly. Apparently, Steve Jobs loathes styluses. OK, Steve, I'm getting used to writing with my finger, but could you please compromise and show me a great transcription program, so that my cute little handwritten notebooks could be converted to searchable text. Please?

I do carry a laptop from time to time. In fact, I came very late to Apple worship. My first Mac is only a few years old. Even after I bought an iPhone, I carried a BlackBerry for months afterward, convinced that I could never give up its more reliable e-mail and accurate keyboard. But I was won over by the iPhone's other talents, from its great way with audiobooks to the functional feast of the App store. I still find PC's far easier for presentations. Keynote on the iPad is an unreliable replacement for PowerPoint, and Macs are cranky with unfamiliar projectors, so for an important presentation, I pull out my good old ThinkPad, circa 2002. Also, if I need to type for any extended time, I prefer a laptop. The Apple faithful will rush to point out that I could use a wireless keyboard and a dock to hold the iPad upright, but at that point, surely it's just easier to bring in a real computer—oops, I mean a laptop.

It is a mixed blessing that the iPad doesn't multitask. If I want to check Ancestry.com to see where Josephine Earp shows up in the 1880 census (she's in San Francisco), and then send the image of the census page to Evernote, my favorite note-taking software, I can't easily shift back and forth, or shrink the windows, as I would on any computer. Still, it is not always a disadvantage to have to do one thing at a time, especially if you're someone like me who clutters up the screen with ten open programs.

The iPad does have some groundbreaking techniques for integrating and manipulating images and text together in documents using Pages and Keynote, and any casual doodler will be inspired by SketchBook Pro. There are some remarkable apps for performing music, used most memorably by Lang Lang, who played an iPad piano encore with the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, in San Francisco.

My day always begins with the newspaper, and my day always ends with a book. If you're wondering about the iPad as an e-reader, the short answer is: Kindle Shmindle. Aside from occasional vertigo when the iPad screen adjusts to a new position, I love reading at night with the vivid screen. And I rejoice in Amazon's agnostic support of the iPad, allowing me to read any Kindle book on my device. That's important because, at this early stage in its life, Apple's iBook application has a pathetic selection of books. iBook has all the same adjustable fonts and annotation tools as the Kindle app, and some of the same faults—you still miss the sense of where you are in the physical book. But iBook offers some consolation prizes. Page turning requires only an elegant swipe of the finger (no need to lick that finger, either!), not the disruptive click and momentary blackout of the Kindle. An unobtrusive slide rule on the bottom of the page enables you to move back and forth. A standout feature for scholarly readers is the ability to search the complete text by word, name, or phrase: instant concordance!

If you want to see the shape of books to come, take a look at the special iPad versions of Alice in Wonderland or Miss Spider's Tea Party. Even better, give one of those to a child and watch her explore its beautiful pages, turning it instinctively to make things move and speak.

Won't something new and improved come along soon? It always does. E-reading on the iPad has stimulated my imagination about new frontiers for all kinds of publishing, including textbooks and scholarly books. My wish list? Better annotation tools and integration of multimedia—images, maps, audio, video, links to related reading. The ability to deconstruct books and then reassemble them as digital course packs easily and legally, either by selling through an authorized distributor or on electronic library reserve. Tags, so that readers can identify relevant other books, not simply by title but down to the atomic level of each page. WorldCat, which connects you to the collections and services of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide, and Amazon already help to capture many of those connections, but they stop at the front door of the book.

Those are relatively mechanical improvements. More adventuresome, and undoubtedly horrifying to some, would be spicing up the solitary reading experience with optional collaborative opportunities. An e-book could have a guest list, kind of like an old-fashioned library book that still has the signatures and dates written by people who read it. Does anyone not look at those cards? I bought a second-hand copy of The Earp Papers, by Donald Chaput, discarded from the Flowing Wells High School library in Tucson—no wonder they discarded it, when it had only two readers in nearly 20 years. Provenance is a charming dimension of reading history, but e-books can help us overcome some of the challenges of diminishing storage space and vanishing book budgets. A digital format could create a "guest list" and also an affinity group that shares recommendations and annotations set according to your personal preferences. Say, show me recommendations from anyone who has read and loved Middlemarch, The Diamond Age, and Angle of Repose.

Reading networks—which could be groups of students or informal book groups of friends or online assemblies of strangers—could be created around a given book that is being read simultaneously. We might even add a layer of social networking in real time: Among my friends, who's reading what I'm reading?

As an author whose agent is always reminding me that e-publishing is not my friend, I hope that the future pricing of e-books balances the needs of the student and consumer with the creator, publisher, and distributor. When the retail pie is so small to begin with, those slices are going to send us all to bed mighty hungry. As long as I am gazing into a crystal ball, what about variable pricing to give the reader the option to buy one copy, or 10 copies to share? A Web-enabled market where the recommender has incentive to sell multiple copies? Or take a leaf from the music business, which is experimenting with new models that allow for legal reselling that protects copyright owners as well as content distributors. You "buy" digital music, and while an authorized distributor manages the electronic distribution, you can promote it, market it, review it, and get a commission every time you sell a copy. Book marketing has always been a word-of-mouth activity, and readers would represent books they have loved.

This just in: an e-mail from Federal Express that my daughter's iPad is about to arrive. Not a minute too soon, as I have really missed mine, and she's feeling fine. Size matters: The iPad is not too big, not too small, but just right for high-quality content consumption of text, video, and images. By connecting rather than alienating in a public setting, it is a great catalyst for collaboration.

As for whether the iPad hits the third high C?

Look, it's only a device. You bring the creativity.

Ann Kirschner is university dean of William E. Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York and author of Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story (Free Press, 2006), which is available on iBook and Kindle.


1. recurver - June 14, 2010 at 10:02 am


2. sbstillman - June 14, 2010 at 10:04 am

Great visceral and multilayered post! From the thunk of the NYT in the morning to Tucson's Flowing Wells HS, from reading joy to presentation potential, from digital tags and doctors' offices to breakfast companion and collaborative networks, I appreciated your descriptive and comfortable feeling reflections. I do however need an iPad app (Pages or whatever) to track changes ( a la Word) so I can provide feedback on my graduate student papers.--- Native New Yorker and Apple worshipper since 1982, Marana, AZ.

3. miller14 - June 14, 2010 at 10:51 am

First of all I'd like to point out that an ibook, ebook, kindlefile, whatever you want to call it has no character as an object, no concrete expression of the history behind it. For example, I recently bought a used copy of the Grove edition of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party" and "The Room." In addition to these two plays the book contains photographs from the original London productions. The book was published within a few years of the orginal productions, thus in its design and feel we get a sense of the period during which these plays were produced.

Beyond the convenience and cleverness of the ipad design, it would be interesting to know how many of the components were manufactured in one of the "suicide" factories of China.

I would also like to know how you plan to dispose of the toxic physical contents of your current ipad, once it dies or a better one comes along.

Oh, I know, what a killjoy. I found this article nauseating in its fetishism.

4. sahara - June 14, 2010 at 11:05 am

Thank you, Ann, for your well balanced evaluation of the iPad!

5. niolonra - June 14, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I agree that the iPad has no historical piece that a physical book does, and since Ive starting making them by hand as a hobby, I appreciate the design of a book, the weight and bulk of it in your hand as you read, and the notes scribbled in the margin even, far more than I ever did before.

However, the ipad (and devices like the ipad) also make available books I could never hold. Short-stories (and whole books) that were once published but are now out of print, and even videos of master therapists demonstrating their techniques are now available with laptops and ipads and kindles and so on.

There are some books I have bought, given as gifts with a personal note about why I loved them, and bought for myself again (often used because I find the previous owners writings in the margin interesting sometimes). Not every book is like that to me though, and so for those special ones, paper is still good, but for the rest, I love my iPad (and Im a PC by the way).

6. winonaww - June 14, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Technology of this sort is a tool, not a fetish. Telephones did not replace face-to-face conversation, and although smart telegraph messages may have been a forerunner to micro fiction, they changed the speed, not the meaning of information. E-readers do not replace literal page-turning. E-books cannot trace decades of marginalia or allow a writer to inscribe her work. Text messages will never replace real love notes. Neither Apple nor any other manufacturer expect or want that.

But information at one's fingertips (literally) does make a person smarter and less likely to simply assume information into being (" . . . as Kant wrote . . .") or form unreliable opinions (if the Government requires healthcare, we will no longer be responsible for our own bodies."). Immediately available information allows us to communicate not only faster but also more knowledgeably. In short, devices of this kind bring the uninformed up short and have a kind of democratizing effect on decision-makers.

We worship speed and efficiency--that part of American culture has been with us since the Puritans. Smart phones and tablets are a expectable product of that discourse. This might not be good all the way around, but we can't blame Misters Jobs or Gates for it These gadgets are peculiarly American, and like our political experiments, they level playing fields, here and there, when anyone sitting in a corporate meeting can check the data and find balancing points of view.

In the wake of the rise of word-processors, we have seen a resurgence in the sales of fountain pens and laid paper; even though we meet our friends on Facebook more often than we do for dinner, etiquette classes are on the upswing. We seem to know intuitively what technology (the fountain pen is a kind of technology too) can and cannot do. Social networks will not replace town or university libraries where patrons are busy researching, reading, and writing as a community, even if they are finding information online rather than in card catalogues.

Which brings me to this response to Miller14: Stop and think of the paper and ink that are not tossed into landfill, thanks to iPads and other smart tablets. Consider the gas that is not burned on your way across town--or across the state--to get to information you could retrieve right in your office or home. The device, itself, is a drop in the environmental bucket compared to the resources it protects.

7. 12101395 - June 14, 2010 at 01:04 pm

I guess there might be good reasons to drink the Kool-aid. While I hate to nit pick, I will. I have connected my MacBook to literally hundreds of unfamiliar projectors in the past three years and have never had a connection issue. Can't say that for the Toshiba laptop I carried before. But overall a nice piece on the place and possible future of the Pad. And glad your daughter is better.

8. hollisb - June 14, 2010 at 03:14 pm

Hey Dean Kirschner

I've got a cure for your vertigo. The toggle switch above the volume keys on the side of the iPad locks the screen in the current orientation- perfect for reading in bed.


9. mbelvadi - June 14, 2010 at 03:34 pm

I loved this article. Makes me want to run out and buy one.

One little nitpick: absolutely NO library should be letting (or should ever have let) you see those old-fashioned cards that allow you to see who else checked out that book. That's a clear violation of those other patron's rights under the Librarians' Code of Ethics. Different countries will have slightly different versions, but here's the American Library Association's: http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm
and item #3: "We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted."
Now, a voluntary system like you describe would be a nice thing. In fact, it might be a LibraryThing:

10. esheets - June 14, 2010 at 04:40 pm

What a great article; it resonated amazingly well with my experiences. I've only had my iPad a bit more than a month, as I waited for the 3G version. My wife had hers since the beginning of April. You have captured the essence of the device as a tool. As a university administrator, my life revolves around meetings. The iPad is an indispensible device. Like the author, I use Penultimate, Evernote (emailing Penultimate notes to Evernote is a great way to manage information), Pages, and Keynote. Another essential app is Goodreader.

For those who want a stylus to ease writing on the iPad, try the Pogo Stylus (http://tenonedesign.com/stylus.php), which works perfectly and makes taking notes in Penultimate so much easier.

11. chemmilt - June 14, 2010 at 06:30 pm

I was dubious when I first saw the thing. I then used a friend's for about 3 minutes (with her looking over my shoulder..). It was love at first sight. I waited for the 3G version and have become a total convert. An awesome tool and my experiences echo those of this very good review 100%.

12. miller14 - June 14, 2010 at 11:17 pm

To Winonaww-

I agree with much of what you say and with the person who mentioned the beauty of gaining access to hard-to-find texts--I'm not a luddite. However, I must take issue with this:

"Stop and think of the paper and ink that are not tossed into landfill, thanks to iPads and other smart tablets. Consider the gas that is not burned on your way across town--or across the state--to get to information you could retrieve right in your office or home. The device, itself, is a drop in the environmental bucket compared to the resources it protects."

This is the argument used by hundreds of corporations who, in the name of "going green," wish to eliminate the costs of producing printed bills. No doubt using a robot is more green than hiring a person, but I digress...

The real point is that the notion of electronic devices protecting the environment is one of the biggest con-jobs of our age. Paper comes from a renewable resource and can be recycled relatively easily. Your argument about saving gas is not an pro-ipad argument, but a pro computer argument and that's fine, but the toxic content of mountains of old computers and related equipment is a very real threat to the environment, it's simply one that you don't see as you sit there in awe before your gleaming machine. You don't see it, but it is a huge problem. The plastics, batteries and other components leach heavy metals and various carcinogenic chemicals into drinking water.

Furthermore, the insatiable energy needs created by the growing numbers of computers and the ever-growing number of hours they are switched on hastens the destruction of our environment. Not only has the need for electricity increased greatly in order to maintain these devices, but the manufacture of them promises to further strip-mine the earth's resources (wait and see what happen in Afghanistan now that we know about the huge lithium deposits there). Look at China.

And we are ust beginning to understand the effects of eltromagnetism on living organisms. Oh, yeah, we can use less paper now! That's fantastic!

13. elgato1204 - June 17, 2010 at 05:58 am

This is an excellent post. It does seem that the iPad is terrific. But I have a question about it as an e-reader: is the selection as limited as, for example, the Kindle's? I returned my Kindle a year ago after trying it for two weeks, mainly for this reason. At the time nothing by any of these writers was available on the Kindle:
Raymond Carver
Joseph Heller
James Baldwin
Studs Terkel
Boris Pasternak
John O'Hara
Katherine Anne Porter
Flannery O'Connor
Eudora Welty
Albert Camus
Tennessee Williams
James Michener
Thomas Pynchon
... and almost nothing by
Philip Roth
John Updike
John Dos Passos
John Irving
Truman Capote
Leon Uris
V S Naipaul

There were other problems with the Kindle as well, ones I think the iPad may *not* share, but this was pretty much a killer for me.

14. gahnett - June 17, 2010 at 11:59 am

You had me until,"Macs are cranky with unfamiliar projectors, so for an important presentation, I pull out my good old ThinkPad, circa 2002"...

say what? Where are you giving your presentations?

15. vkzoe - June 18, 2010 at 02:16 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

16. mhowell - June 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I want to give my iPad to my son and daughter. They are both in middle school and carry a 50 lbs. back pack each day. Would it be better to carry an iPad than a back pack full of old, unupdated, texts? I want this technolog to be a game changer. the problems that they bring are much out weighed by the problems they solve.

17. mswoolley - June 23, 2010 at 02:10 pm


Chill. Tonight turn on a lamp by your bed and read a few of your cherished books. As for me...my IPAD needs no lighting...I am surprised you used a computer to blog. I thought perhaps a penned letter to the editor would be more appropriate. After all you don't want to use one of those nasty computers that consumes much more electricity than an IPAD or a manual typewriter.

Sent by My IPAD. :-)

18. slick111 - July 04, 2010 at 09:38 am

In comparing book-fetishism with iPad fetishism, Dr. Kirschner is fond of touting the "beauty" of the iPad. She does it in this article as well as in her interveiw for NPR's On The Media. (http://www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2010/07/02/segments/156629)

In so doing, Dr. Kirschner implies that an iPad is beautiful in the same way that a book is beautiful. An iPad might be a beautifully designed and wonderfully useful electronic device; but that's not the same thing as being a beautiful book. Whereas a bound volume of War and Peace looks different from a bound volume of The Great Gatsby, iPads all look the same. That beautifully bound volume that she mentions becomes just another identical, nondescript iPad among millions of interchangeable iPads. Should I exchange my illustrated, illuminated, medievalesque volume of Le Morte D'Arthur for an iPad? Dr. Kirshner seems to think there is no aesthetic difference.

Moreover, this confusion exemplifies the worship of homogeneity that is dumbing down the tastes and qualitative judgments of society in general. Consider current conceptions of human physical beauty. There is a very specific culturally conditioned ideal dictating what an attractive human physique looks like, and those who can afford it are rushing out to have their bodies altered to conform to the standard. If your nose is crooked, get it straightened. If your chin recedes, get a chin implant. Lips too thin? Bust too small? There are procedures to fix these "imperfections." Soon genetic engineering will ensure that children are born with perfect features. And not long after that, everyone will look essentially the same. The mindset that sees an iPad as aesthetically beautiful is the same misguided mindset that sees human physical beauty only in the homogenous stereotype.

As for me, I intend to keep my beautiful big nose thrust into my beautiful bound books, even (especially!) if it means being ostracized from the society of dull conformity.

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