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Welcome to the second installment of “How We Will Read,” a series exploring the future of reading from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. This week, we talked to Laura Miller and Maud Newton, founders of The Chimerist, a new blog dedicated to exploring the imaginative potential of the iPad.
Laura Miller is a writer and critic. She was a co-founder of Salon and is currently a staff-writer there. Maud Newton is a writer, editor and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, Narrative, the Los Angeles Times, the Paris Review Daily, Granta, The Awl,and many other publications.
In addition to ruminating on the experience of using the iPad, Maud and Laura discussed the future of narrative forms, interactive storytelling, and their hopes for the evolution of publishing. What resulted was two poetic and nuanced views of what digital reading means to people who love books. Their work at The Chimerist had already distinguished Laura and Maud as thoughtful writers at the intersection of media and technology. It was incredible to hear what else they were thinking about as they navigate this new and rapidly changing space. Check out their interview below, and be sure to check out The Chimerist, too.
Tell me how you guys got together and founded the Chimerist.
Maud Newton: Well, this is the first time Laura and I have spoken over the phone.
Laura Miller: We did actually have lunch in person to talk about it.
MN: And we got drinks once. But those were the only in-person meetings we had about it. I was writing a little diary for the Paris Review about using my iPad, and I was having a back-and-forth with Laura about how annoying the app store is to navigate. I was going to quote her in the interview, so I asked her if that was okay, and we started talking about how great it would be to do a site about the iPad. That was May or June of 2010.
What about the iPad appeals to you as readers and consumers?
LM: I actually had this argument with a friend last night — he was advancing the Cory Doctorow thesis that it’s this horrible, oppressive device because it forces you to be a consumer rather than a creator. And I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that it is more a device for consumption of culture than production of culture. But I already have a laptop, so it’s not like it’s supplanting my laptop when I want to create something. Most the stuff I create for The Chimerist I create on my laptop, not my iPad.
There’s some sort of disgrace to being a reader, or a viewer, or just absorbing some work of culture — it’s this lesser activity, by that rationale. I really disagree with that. I feel like reading and looking at art and all of these things are creative acts in their own way. The experience of a piece of culture being appreciated takes two people. A poor reader cannot have a great reading experience with a great author.
With the iPad I can be more relaxed and receptive. In the industry lingo, it’s called the “lean back” rather than the “sit forward” mode. That is a buzzword, but I kind of agree — I lean back with my iPad, in a calm mood. I’m not responding to email, I’m not checking Twitter, I’m not feeling like I should be writing something, I’m just there for whatever somebody has created. I’m there to witness it, and appreciate it, and absorb it.
MN: Unlike Laura, I’m not really interested in engaging with people who don’t like the iPad, which is one of the things that appeals to me about The Chimerist. I have a lot of friends who are really skeptical of its use and its value, and that’s fine, I’m not trying to convert anyone. I don’t care. In my opinion they’re missing out, but that’s their choice (laughs).
I like the idea of having a site that is a place to think about what the potential of the iPad is — the narrative potential of the tablet and the potential of the tablet to create venues for new art and new kinds of fun that blur the boundaries of these things. It’s a really exciting time to me. When I first heard about the iPhone, even though I had the most bottom-of-the-barrel phone — that I was always losing — I said, “Ooh, I want that!” And the iPad is just vastly superior to the iPhone, as far as the user’s ability to experience art and to try new things that aren’t just games.
I think I use my iPad for a greater variety of things than Laura does. I do use it a little bit for work. And I do a lot of reading for my non-day job on it, and that basically includes everything I’m known for. When an e-galley is available, I tend to read that, because then I can read it at home, on my iPad, and then take my iPad with me on the subway, or just sync it to my iPhone and read that way.
But it is a special kind of canvas. It is a device that enables you to focus on one thing at a time, and I know some people have a real issue with that, that you can’t open another window inside what you’re doing, but I actually find that really refreshing. Even as someone who loves the internet. When I turn to my iPad, I’m looking for a different kind of distraction-free experience, for whatever I’m working on at the time.
That’s interesting. I thought that perhaps because the iPad is a screen, and you have the option to not just read other things, but watch things and play games, that it might be distracting as a medium.
MN: My feeling is that most e-books are just functionally the equivalent of a book. I’m a pretty utilitarian reader, in the sense that I love a beautiful book, but once I’m reading the book, it doesn’t enhance the experience for me. An e-reader for me, most of the time, is just another way to read things I’m interested in. I think Laura and I are both really interested in and a little bit skeptical about the narrative potential of the iPad — What does it do when you start bringing other media into this space? Maybe ultimately it does result in some new stories that are amazing. Laura has written some really interesting things about the pleasure of storytelling versus the pleasure of interactivity, which I’ll let her speak to. But we’re both really interested in trying different things and seeing what happens. We have a real insatiable curiosity about it.
LM: Everything that Maud said. I wrote a piece about enhanced fiction e-books for Salon a couple of weeks ago, and I have one on nonfiction coming up any day now. I have been thinking about the whole narrative issue. I think there is a huge difference between fiction and nonfiction.
MN: That’s true.
LM: Literary people, when they talk about books, tend to think of fiction first. But most people, when they think about books, are thinking about nonfiction, which lends itself amazingly well to some kind of enhanced e-book experience. As a piece of that, I’m skeptical of enhancing fiction e-books. The essence of narrative is this sense of causality and meaning, and when you introduce a lot of arbitrary or random branching things into it, it actually loses it’s core pleasure. It’s a tricky issue.
MN: The pleasure of surrender, in fiction, is the exact opposite of interactivity. It’s this sinking in to the pleasure of the story.
LM: I wrote a piece years before the iPad ever existed, actually, on hypertext fiction for the New York Times Book Review. I might have even in that piece made the joke: If you’re supposed to design the story yourself, do hypertext novels cost less — in the same way that groceries that you have to bag yourself cost less? Why do you have to do that work? That’s part of the what the author does for you — they carry your bag. They make the story for you. So that you can you relax into it and be receptive to it. There’s this weird, almost phallic notion of what your relationship to culture should be — you always should be inserting your own seed into it! Instead of just feeling everything that it can make you feel.
A lot of what I get excited about on the iPad tends to be of a nonfictional nature. The potential for nonfiction is really huge because it’s about the real world, and there’s so much material that can be brought in. And partly because people are trying to learn things from it, which is different from fiction, which is an experience. But that doesn’t mean I’m not really curious about what people might try to do with fiction, how people might try different kinds of storytelling — and how it’s different on the iPad than different forms of technology that have come before.
It’s interesting to compare this to another form of media that has been evolving rapidly — video games. It would be interesting to see narrative media and interactive, game-like media merge further.
LM: I feel like video games are a completely different genre. It’s like a haunted house. You go into it and you wander around, and it’s an environment where certain events are triggered, but it’s not a story. The difference between a game and a story is that you can’t win a story. And with a game, most people who are gamers feel like there’s no point to it if they can’t win it. That’s the whole point of a game — to test yourself against it, and to see if you succeed or fail. It’s a completely different relationship.
MN: I am really interested, like Laura, in the nonfiction storytelling potential of the iPad. Most of the really good stuff I’ve found, or even the stuff that’s partly good and a little bit disappointing, is historical material. I have an iPad book about Rome that I’m reading and enjoying, and I have the History Channel’s Civil War app, which is frustrating in some ways, but really interesting in others, because it enables you to see what’s happening on each day of the war.
How is it frustrating?
MN: It’s frustrating in the sense that there’s a lot of new material. They don’t distinguish very well between what is archival material and what is new. And it’s not incredibly not well-written, frankly. It’s an interesting idea, and I think that sort of thing has a lot of potential for the future, but the writing is not at the level of a great book on the Civil War, or Fredrick Douglass’ speeches, or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. It’s not incredibly great writing. But it is really interesting historically, and I do like seeing contemporaneous papers.
There’s an app called Once Magazine that’s mostly photograph-based. It is an iPad-specific magazine that reports on various happenings around the world. It’s a very interesting product, and I’ve been really impressed with all the issues so far. So I think that there’s a really great potential out there for that sort of thing, and I’m interested to see how that develops.
What other narrative experiences have you had on the iPad specifically that were interesting?
MN: I’ve been playing around this app called Meanwhile, which is based on a graphic novel by Jason Shiga produced in 2009 as a really complicated choose-your-own-adventure book, evidently. I became aware of it through my friend Chris Baker, who’s an editor at WIRED. I’ve been playing around with that and enjoying it. The cartoonist is also a mathematician, so there are a lot of complex and frustrating story loops that you can get caught in. I’m really enjoying it as a way to pass the time when waiting in the doctor’s office. My husband was laughing at me over the weekend because I kept getting frustrated, trying to solve this one part of it.
I do think this speaks to what Laura was saying about the tension between trying to solve something and trying to experience it. And I guess what you were actually saying, Laura, is that a game is about winning, and there is a component of that in this, in the sense that I want to win by figuring out exactly what’s going on, but it also has some of the pleasures of a suspenseful story — in the sense that I’m like, “Okay, well, I understand this and I understand that, but what is this little component I haven’t filled in yet?” So I’m having fun with it. It’s definitely the best iPad-specific story I’ve encountered, even as it’s not a graphic novel that you would expect from someone like Allison Bechdel or Charles Burns or Art Spiegelman. There’s not a lot of emotional nuance to it.
LM: Most of the stuff I totally love tends to be not necessarily a story. But something that I looked at recently that I was kind of impressed with is this interactive book Chopsticks, which was just released by Penguin. It was a kind of YA thing about a star-crossed romance. Often the form is so challenging, the stories themselves tend to be really rudimentary. If someone were to actually write a book about it you would be totally bored. But Chopsticks has no actual narration. It’s a series of images. There are some transcripts of text-message exchanges, but there are documents, and photographs, and things where you have to figure out what’s going on with these two teenagers and their romance. And in a way, again, it’s like you’ve solved it. Your reward for the effort you’ve put into it as a reader is to find out exactly what the story is (laughs). Meanwhile, when you sit down with The Fault in Our Stars, which is this great new John Green YA novel, the story is right there, and the reward is the emotional catharsis you have as you become really involved with these characters.
So it sounds like there may be some gameification of the form here.
LM: Yeah. I don’t know that I have a really powerful sense of what either of these characters are like, the way that I would with a novel, but the fun of it is to try to figure out. I mean, you’re always so conscious of the form. With a novel, you just slip into it, and suddenly you’re immersed into this reality that’s created by a collaboration in your imagination between the writer and yourself. Whereas with this I’m always really aware that somebody has created this, and that these are clues to narration that I need to figure out.
Is the iPad less immersive in general?
LM: I don’t think it’s the iPad necessarily — I think it’s the whole concept of these new storytelling forms. A lot of what we get when we read is the the result of being really familiar with reading. When you first learn how to do it, it’s confusing. And, the thing about Chopsticks is that some of it is inherent to the iPad’s touchscreen technology, but it could have been a website or something. A lot of things you see on the iPad are different kinds of web art that’s been ported into this new format. And you absorb it in a different way because you’re holding it in your hand, and you’re touching it.
MN: It’s so interesting what a psychological difference that makes, for me at least, and for Laura, and for other people who spend a lot of time with these devices. I have some friends who use their iPads in a really utilitarian way. But for people who read on it and who play around on it, I think that experience of carrying it around, of holding it in your hands, is really interesting. And the effect of that is this psychological difference between the even foot-and-a-half distance between you and a monitor that’s sitting right in front of you.
I was a typical reader, in the sense that I read a lot on the Internet, but I could never imagine reading a novel on the Internet and enjoying it. As a consequence I was skeptical of e-books. I wasn’t opposed to them, but I didn’t see how there would be a way to translate a novel to a device. And then accidentally one day I started reading a friend’s manuscript on the iPhone. I had printed out a bunch of pages and went through all of them on the subway train, so I downloaded the rest onto my iPhone and started reading. And I realized that it didn’t really change the experience for me personally that much, because I was engrossed in the story. And then I became really interested in the size of some of these devices. Somebody in the London Review of Books made the observation that the old cuneiform tablets that the Babylonians and other ancient cultures used were actually about the same size as the iPhone. [Peter Campbell, “At the British Museum.”] So I’m interested in this different way of experiencing story and technology.
I had a similar experience in which I refused to start reading novels on the iPhone, but found myself using it in dire straits — and really enjoying it.
MN: I think actually a lot of really excessive readers would have that experience if they had the device and really had to get their hands on something. What it comes down to is that first moment when you really want to find out what’s going to happen, or you really need to read this book immediately. And it’s available for download immediately.
How do you most of your reading these days?
LM: For me, it’s still mostly in print because I’m a book reviewer. I get sent a ton of books, still mostly in print. Advance galleys, in particular. So most of my reading of books is still in print. And of course, my other reading, which is the web and email, is on my laptop or on my iPad.
MN: My situation is pretty similar to Laura’s. I read a lot of galleys in print. The reason I bought my iPad was so I could read galleys electronically, but a lot of publishers really aren’t equipped for that. So I still have a flood of books coming to my house all the time. Whenever I go to a bookstore, invariably I buy one to seven books that I bring home (laughs) so I’m doing a lot of reading in print. I guess my favorite form still, for a novel, is the paperback. But I don’t mind using the iPad. And I really hate hardcovers.
If you could move one feature of paper books to digital reading, what would that be?
LM: I would like to be able to do marginalia by hand. I know that there are keyboard and touch approximations of that. But one of the things about the books I’m reviewing is that I like to write on them. In the same way the iPad is more hands-on than the laptop, writing in the actual print book isreally engaging with it — saying “I have to remember this!” or “This is ridiculous!” “Remember this quote!” For some reason, writing that by hand feels much more satisfying and effective.
MN: For the past several months I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s traditionally three-volume autobiography on my iPad, and one thing that I’ve found a little frustrating about it is that it was published with a lot of letters to and from Russell at the end of each chapter. And some of those letters are fascinating, and some of them I would like to skip. But for some reason psychologically it’s more difficult to skip them on an iPad than it would be in a physical book. With a book I’d say, “Well, I’m skipping these for now, because I’m so engrossed, but I can come back and read them.” On the iPad I feel more pressure, for some reason, to diligently go through. I think that part of its speaks to this hands-on, I don’t know, “communion” is a sort of dramatic word, but interaction with the individual pages. I can’t really gauge exactly what I’m skipping in a tactile way, and for some reason that makes me feel more neurotic about skipping around than I would be if I was actually reading a print book.
LM: There is that feeling that anything you are looking at on a screen and that is not on a screen anymore is just gone. It might as well not exist. It’s like you’re consigning that stuff to oblivion, and it can never come back.
MN: That’s exactly right. I have this psychological sense that if I skip over this, I’m never finding it again. It’s lost for all time. Whereas if I read it in print, even if, as Laura as said, it’s an imperfect way of taking notes, and bookmarking, and whatnot — I can actually take notes or highlight something or whatever and come back to it. I would feel pretty comfortable flipping through and saying, “Eh, I don’t really like this particular correspondence of 17 letters.”
Can you recall the moment you first fell in love with reading?
LM: (laughing) I wrote a whole book about that!
MN: She did! Which is a great book.
I have a very vivid memory of learning to read. My mother was very concerned that I be taught how to read correctly, so I didn’t learn to read until she found someone who could teach me phonetically. I think I was about four, but by that time I had memorized all of my favorite story books and knew when to turn the pages. I was so desperate to learn how to read. And I have another really vivid memory — I was just seven, and I was really sick. I was often really sick as a kid, and I was often “sick” as a kid. So I spent a lot of time in bed going through like seven library books in two days and making my mom go back and get more from the library. I remember reading — this is embarrassing, but it was a Bobbsey Twins book — but it was the first book I read with no pictures. It was just a book with words in it. I can remember this sense of the world opening up. And then I basically spent the rest of my childhood reading.
Has reading become more social for you two?
MN: No. Yes, in the sense that I started a website almost ten years ago because I wanted to have a place to talk about books, and most of my friends were interested in the same books I liked, or interested in them in the same way that I was. That was how I started blogging. So there is a little bit of the social element in that I like to talk about books. But I’m not really the type of person who wants to get into an app and exchange notes with people about a scene. That may change if I get completely obsessed with something. But for me reading is a very private experience, so it’s not a social activity. Though talking about books is, if sitting in your house, in your pajamas, talking on a computer is social. (laughs)
LM: You know, I’ve been trying to get my friend Liz to join Subtext with me. This is an app where you can share annotations. She lives in this little town in Maine and I don’t see her very often, but I really like her. I kind of want to try this — as you’re reading through the book, you see the responses, thoughts, annotations of someone who’s actually a good friend.
I know there are a lot of experiments with social reading going on — where the reading is actually social, and opposed to swapped in reviews and recommendations. I can’t think of that many situations in which that would make sense, but I think that’s because I have such an unusual reading life because I’m a professional reader. When I was doing a piece on George R.R. Martin, I encountered several really serious Martin fans— these guys whose wives totally didn’t understand why they were geeking out about this fantasy thing. When they were going to get the long-awaited fifth volume, there were several instances of a pair of friends, or three friends, deciding to go to a motel and read this book together over the weekend. To be with someone who was really into it, and they could talk about it. Some books have a fandom. And then there was this writer, who was listening to that audiobook, and I was the only other person she knew who had read them, and she kept emailing me saying, “I have no one else to talk to about this!”
There could be something like that, but I don’t usually read that way. I’m curious to see what it would be like, if I could get this friend of mine, Liz, who I ordinarily don’t get together with to talk about books, to read something with me so we could have this more intimate sort of sharing with it. But so far I haven’t been able to interest her. (laughs)
MN: Yeah, you’re talking to two people who started a website together and yet have been in each other’s presence four times. We tend to spend a lot of time alone. Obviously we both have friends, but we’re both pretty comfortable holing up in our own worlds and only communicating about things when we’ve assembled our opinions. But if you do do that, Laura, I’d be very interested to see how it goes.
How do you see reading evolving?
LM: I certainly would be willing to do a lot more reading digitally. I have a small apartment, and like Maud, dealing with the actual physical books is a huge task in my day. Right now I’m about to go out of town. I have to implore my neighbor to go to Mailboxes Etc. and pick up my mail because otherwise those poor people will not be able to get into their mailroom. And most of these are not even things I want. That just seems like a bad situation to me.
I would be happy to read a lot more stuff in e-galley form. Except publishers have all these problems with that. They’re afraid of piracy. It’s also expensive. So it hasn’t really been implemented. But it happens every once in a while. Someone wanted me to interview an author, and I said, well yes, but I’m going to be traveling, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to read the book before then, and he said, I’ll give you the PDF, you just have to promise to not show it to anyone. But it’s too one-on-one that way. I would hope there would be some sort of solution that would enable e-galleys.
MN: I really agree. I think Laura and I are in this very specialized situation in which this thing that we love the most has become a plague. Because most of the books I get are books that I would never, never read, not even if I were stuck on a desert island and it were the only book. I would not read it. And then there are wonderful books, too, and many I just don’t have time to get to. But the physicality of that is really a problem when you live in a small apartment in a crowded city. Most people can’t relate to this problem at all. I would love it if more publishers would offer electronic galleys, and I promise, I will never, ever, ever show them to anyone else.
If I weren’t a reviewer, I’m not even sure I would have gone down this path in the first place. Part of the reason I ended up getting interested in e-books at the point that I did was really a question of necessity, and the hope that I would be able to read more things that way and not have to deal with the packages at my doorstep.
LM: I think I might be a little unusual in that I’m an anti-packrat. I’m obsessed with not having too many things. I think I would have been really into e-books because I’d be able to read a book and then not have to figure out what to do with it. Also, I don’t like carrying things around. So the compactness, and the fact that you can have it without having to find physical space for it, and my general love for technology — it’s a lot like the magic in the books I loved as a kid. The idea you would have your little tiny iPhone with the entire great books library tucked inside it — I love that.
MN: It is amazing, that phenomenon.
It’s interesting to hear book reviewers and writers so enthusiastic about e-books. You tend to hear the reverse.
LM: There are certainly issues of preservation and compatibility and control and all of these things with e-books. But I like pretty books the way I like crockery. I don’t feel I have to have all the pretty crockery I see. I care more about the contents of the book than the presentation of it. And it doesn’t ruin it for me that it’s not printed on paper. I don’t really understand that. And you know the thing I most don’t understand is the whole smell thing. I have a lot of print books. They don’t smell like anything!
MN: Right! Maybe old libraries, that’s a nice smell, but my printed books don’t smell like that. And I’ll agree with Laura. We’re both a little odd in that we don’t necessarily fetishize the object. I read so voraciously and indiscriminately as a child that my mother was constantly buying books at yard sales and the goodwill, and whatever. And a lot of times they were falling apart — literally. I would just hope the spine wouldn’t completely come off by the end of it. So I have a somewhat utilitarian approach to the object itself, even though I appreciate a beautiful book — and I can of course be swayed to pick up a book because of the way it looks. But I don’t really care what it looks like, once I’m reading it, if I like it.