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Reading War and Peace on an iPhone

Posted on Jul 12 2015 in Snippets

I used to own first a Kindle, then an iPad Mini. I sold both devices several years ago because I simply didn’t use them enough. Nowadays, whenever I feel like reading some long-form stuff on the go, I do it on my iPhone 6. The experience is certainly incomparable to reading longer pieces in paper form. I really struggle to focus. I find my hands cramping up and my neck going stiff. I once tried reading a book on my iPhone (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, through the Kindle app) and I only got to around page 50 before abandoning the idea.

Clive Thompson must have seen it as a challenge. He committed to reading – purely on his mobile phone – one of the longest and hardest books out there: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which in its paperback form has no less than 1296 pages. He summarised his experience in this lengthy and insightful article that contains some really interesting observations around physical vs. digital books.

On distractions

I certainly wrestled with social distractions. Your phone is, as I’ve often joked, not really so much a “phone” as a “portal through which five or six gigantic multinational firms fight for your attention so they can sell you advertising.” For services like Facebook and Twitter, distraction is central to the business model.

To focus on Tolstoy, I had to be much more “mindful.” I had to start paying attention to my attention, to notice my own urges to peek at Twitter or email, so that I could decide to actively ignore them, instead of responding with a Pavolovian lunge for the app.

On the design/usability of real books

Bookmakers have spent hundreds of years patiently tweaking their design for maximum usability and loveliness. In the early years following the Gutenberg explosion, books were, by modern standards, surprisingly weird and unusable. They often had no paragraph breaks, no page numbers, no indexes — none of the features we typically use to navigate and orient ourselves in a book. It took a long time to arrive at their elegant modern design.(...)

Today’s digital books do not give you the nearly-sensual, visual sense of “where” something is in a book. We remember bits of a book not just by the words, but how they looked on the page — where they were located, how our hands lay next to them.

On the seriousness of real books

Some new research into the nature of reading suggests an intriguing reason we remember more from print books than digital ones: It’s because we expect print to be intellectually engaging. We approach it with an orientation that “this is serious business,” in a way that we don’t when we read on a screen.

To be fair, he’s also highlighting some interesting benefits of reading the book in digital, so his review is not just an anthem for the good old paper format. To find out what he prefers, you should read the article.