When Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks, he typed it on one long scroll of paper so he wouldn’t have to slow the writing process. He probably never suspected that someday we’d read our books the same way.
But turning pages, as it turns out, is a very 20th century (and 19th and 18th, come to think of it) behavior. It gets in the way of our reading just as much as it did with Kerouac’s typing. In the tablet and smartphone world, scrolling makes more sense. Magazine apps discovered that a long time ago. Why not e-books?
Apple has changed that with iBooks 3, which it announced at the iPad Mini launch Tuesday and dropped into the App Store early Wednesday morning. I’ve been reading with it for a couple of hours, and am falling head over heels for the continuous scrolling feature. It changes the game for book-reading, completely.
It’s so good, in fact — so natural and smooth — that if Amazon doesn’t introduce a similar scrolling feature for its Kindle apps and readers, I fear the company may have lost a battle in the e-reader wars.
Now for those of you freaking out about the notion of an e-book without the anchor of page numbers, don’t worry. Page-based reading is still the default option. In continuous scrolling mode on the iPad, the page numbers appear off to the side. On both the iPad and iPhone versions, there’s a big black line between chapters.
But reading iBooks in prior versions — of which I’ve done a great deal over the last couple of years — I always found the page numbers very distracting. They mean less than they do in a real-world book, since they change every time you adjust the font size.
Looking at the page I was on next to the total number of pages was often depressing, and led me to see the book more like a game. I’d often give a little internal cheer when I reached the halfway point (1,500 pages out of 3,000! Read the same again and I’m done!)
Scrolling removes that distraction, leaving you alone with the author’s words. There’s no pause in the middle of the action while you drag a greasy finger across the screen or tentatively tap at the edge. Just thumb up at your leisure and the text smoothly sails up the screen (an act which, unfortunately, will be impossible on that greatest of e-ink readers, the Kindle Paperwhite).
When I read with scrolling, I found, time flew like never before. I was utterly lost in a good book, not at all daunted by how much of the text lay ahead.
What else does iBooks 3 offer? The ability for authors and publishers to update their books, much the way app makers do. This is primarily meant for textbooks, but it could in theory be used by anyone.
This is a 21st century feature of e-reading that I’m less excited about. It can be hard enough to pry manuscripts out of some writers’ hands (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin) without giving them the option to tinker with the finished product, George Lucas-style.
Regardless, I confidently predict that continuous scrolling will create a lot more readers, and calm the doubts of anyone who worries that technology leads to illiteracy. Somewhere, perhaps, the ghost of Kerouac is smiling.
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