A novel is a sequence of words, one after the other — how do you improve on that?

I watched the video of Steve Jobs’ keynote speech demonstrating the new iPad when it came out and felt a bit underwhelmed. My main interest in the iPad was in the area of ebook readers — could the iPad do for books what the iPod did for music? By the looks of it, and despite the media buzz, I’d say the answer is no. But I wasn’t expecting that it would.

I’ve kept half an eye on ebook readers as the technology has developed, and have even a couple of times found myself on the verge of buying one. The main thing that stopped me each time is the fact that I just love books as physical objects too much. There are, nevertheless, things I like about the idea of having an ebook reader. The main one is that it would free me from having to have a physical copy of every book I read. I’d be quite happy to have most non-fiction books that I’ve read in digital form, for instance, so that, once I’ve read them, I can refer back to them, without their having to take up my rather limited shelf-space.

But the real issue for me is novels. Would I ever want to read a novel on an ebook reader? There are a few advantages I could see in it, but from Steve Jobs’ demo of the iPad, I can’t see that those advantages have been addressed. Jobs was obviously excited about the new iPad, and in particular about the ebook store aspect of it. But when it came to showing the results of buying an ebook, and addressing what you actually do with it once you’ve bought it, he seemed to hit something of blank, which was quickly passed over with a happy return to the ebook store, with its potential to sell oodles of a whole new form of digital product.

What about the most important thing (from the consumer’s, not the producer’s, point of view) — the reading experience? Books, for most people, are fundamentally different from music. The whole point about the iPod is that it lets you take your music with you and listen to it while you’re doing other stuff. Even audiobooks, Apple’s main brush with the literary world so far, are mainly of advantage in that you can listen to them while doing something else, like walking the dog, or doing the housework. Reading, however, is something you do as an entire activity all of itself. And I think there’s really very little in terms of bells & whistles you can add to it.

Then, today, I came across this video of Penguin’s ideas of how they’re going to transform their stock of books for use on the iPad. It all looks great, but the trouble is, these aren’t the sort of books I’m interested in. Yes, the iPad is great for reference books, because it can turn them into hyperlinked multimedia applications. But we know computers can do that, because they’re already doing it. On websites, and before that, on CD-ROMs. So there’s nothing really new there.

I have a few ideas — a set of minimum demands I’d like to be met before I’d buy an ebook reader.

First, and this I think is already in place anyway, is an ability to change the size and style of the text. But I’d also like to change the amount of whitespace, so you can have lines double-spaced, or line-and-a-half spaced (my favourite), and set your own margins, which makes things a lot easier to read. And you’d have to be able to save those as a style sheet and apply it to the text of any book you read. Perhaps have one for horror novels and one for classics, and so on.

Next, bookmarks. You’d have to have a bookmark for where you’re reading, obviously, but you’d also want to be able to place quick-flick bookmarks for places you want to refer back to. And I’m not just talking about reference books, here. If you’re reading something like War and Peace, with its vast cast of characters, you might want to create an index page of names, bookmark-linked to the places they first appear, just so you can keep track of who’s who (along with all their Russian diminutives). Also — and this is mostly for reference books — I’d want to be able to view the book split-screen, so I can have two sections open at once. For instance, to keep a diagram from one page up whilst it is being discussed, and so on.

Next, as an expansion of bookmarks, I’d want comments and annotations. I know things like the Kindle allow you to make comments, though I’ve never checked to see how easy that is. But what I like the sound of is opening up comments and annotations so they can be shared. So, you’d be able to put your own private annotations on the page (or as hidden pop-ups); but you should also be able to share your comments & annotations, for instance with other members of your book-club; and, you should be able to subscribe to (even pay for) annotations from third-parties — for instance, in the case of scholarly annotations to a classic book. So, you could buy S T Joshi’s annotations to Lovecraft, as an example. Or, you could (if you really wanted to go in-depth), buy both the Penguin and the Oxford Classics annotations for some classic novel you’re reading, and have them both appear linked to the one text. (I have to say here that I love annotations to books. I can’t resist a book with annotations.)

The thing is, though, when it comes down to it, the experience of reading a book is irreplaceable by any activity other than reading the book — following it on, word by word, and creating that thing in your head which is the result of having read a novel. The whole point of that experience is just how unadorned it is. A nice edition, a nice typeface, some informative annotations, perhaps some illustrations, are all essential, but when it comes down to it, the reading of a book is something that happens deep within your head. And I can’t think of anything that any technology could do to improve on, or even alter, that. It’s brainware, not software, not hardware — brainware alone.

And this may the point — reading is a creative act, with the book as the script and you, the reader, as the performer. What you do with the book as you read it is personal, perhaps a bit experimental, and probably incommunicable. And it may be the luddite-Romantic in me — though I love technology and what it can do well, just like I love my iMac — but I think it’s one the few areas no technology will ever improve. It’s a human thing, a truly human thing, like dreaming, like hoping, like wishing, and all those other (mostly useless) things we humans do which will never be digitised.

So, while I’d love for Apple to have success after success, there’s a part of me sort of hoping it won’t happen in this case, just so the march of digital progress might finally find the point where old-style entertainment digs in its trenches and holds the front-line. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to be in the most low-tech, do-it-yourself area. And I think that area may be reading novels.