Just about every book I’ve read over the past few years I’ve read in electronic form, either on my iPhone or on my iPad. But for a recent weekend getaway, I bought a paperback copy of George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” on a whim, so that I’d have something to read on the beach. It’s nice to not have to worry about a book overheating in the sun or electrically shorting from water.
“A Game of Thrones” is a long book. A really, really long book. I’m still reading it, which means I’m toting it around with me on my commute. It’s a supermarket-style paperback, small and compact enough to fit just barely into my jacket pocket, but it sticks out just enough for people to see.
One thing I had completely forgotten about is how communal popular books can be. A few people have spotted “A Game of Thrones” in my pocket or saw me reading it on the subway and then started friendly conversations with me about it, something that never would have happened if I were reading it on my phone, where every book is effectively invisible to everyone but me. I remember reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone just after it came out, at a time when lots and lots of people were reading it too, but I realize now that I was reading it in a kind of isolation, where people around me were unaware of the concurrency.
I’m not sure that this communal feeling is enough to outweigh the benefits of reading books electronically, but I know I’ve enjoyed it while reading this novel. I’m not a sword and sorcery fan, really, and I find “A Game of Thrones” to be frustrating and somewhat ridiculous even as I admit it’s extremely well-crafted and probably more entertaining than it is tedious. It’s been fun debating this ambivalence with both friends and strangers, most of whom I never would have guessed were fans of the series.
It would be nice if there was a way to replicate that part of the reading experience electronically too, that kind of real world happenstance that doesn’t require signing up or signing in to anything, just carrying around whatever book you’re reading and being open enough in your body language to welcome small talk from perfect strangers. It just goes to show you that the electronic reading experience has a long way to go, and all the time and effort we’ve been putting into crafting perfect layouts might be better used fleshing out some of the things that really make reading a rewarding experience.