Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does the Delivery System Impact My Reading Experience?

As I thought about the latest book I want to review, Nic Sebastian's Dark and Like a Web, I realized I had an opportunity that I don't often have.  So far, Nic has committed to offering her books in the widest variety of formats possible.  If you go here, you can order a chapbook in traditional book form, download a PDF, download in a format that your portable device will deliver to you, download a sound file, and/or order a CD.  Wow.  And I'm humbled to think that Nic mastered all this technology herself; she gives an overview here, with links to the more technical information.

A brief aside, before we get to my reading experiment.  If you're fascinated by the nanopress experiment that Nic describes here, but the technology scares you, Nic has a special offer here, where she offers to do the tech part for a worthy project.

Another aside:  yes, I realize that my experiment has limitations, because I'm not brand new to the text after the first time.  I'm not sure what to do about that.  But my experiment, simply put, was to try the different formats to see if my reading experience changed.  I could only go so far because I don't have a portable device that can deliver text like that.  I've taken to calling my cell phone "my stupid phone."  I mean that in more ways than one.  But I digress.

My print copy of the chapbook came on Monday night, and I devoured it right away.  I fell in love with the cover:  so apocalyptic, as if Turner, the British Romantic artist, decided to paint the end of the world.  I loved the readability of the print.  At first, the glossiness of the paper felt strange to my fingers, but I quickly got used to it.

I read the book the way I always do:  I skipped around first, seeing which lines caught my eyes, which titles appealed, which poems pulled me in the first time my eyes saw them.  I looked for themes, which I saw immediately:  prayer beads make their way through several poems, and I saw lots of colors, especially silvers and reds.

It was late, and I was tired after a hard workout (an hour of yoga, followed by an hour of circuit training), so I put the book aside.  To be truthful, it wasn't until the next day that I had my "aha!" moment and developed my plan.

I have long loved Nic Sebastian's voice, and I've said before that I'd listen to her read the phone book.  So, the opportunity to hear her read the book was too good to resist.  But first I wanted to read it silently, from the beginning to the end.  I did.  I loved it; I'll write a proper review tomorrow.

Then, I downloaded the PDF file.  Unlike some PDF files, I found it easy to navigate.  I could move through the pages without that annoying slowdown that PDF files at work seem to have.  When I read a PDF file at work, sometimes I feel like there are hooks behind my monitor and the text gets caught on them, only to be released and go tumbling by too fast (I have that same experience with Facebook, which is why I'm not on Facebook as often as some people).  Happily, I didn't have that problem with Nic's book as PDF file.

I didn't notice a different reading experience with the PDF file.  Next, it was on to the audio file, which I listened to with the print version open.  That experience was my favorite.  For the most part, hearing Nic read enriched my reading.  In some spots, her reading made me view the poem differently.

Let's take the last three lines of "the girl and the hours" as the best example:

the girl watches deeply
under constant sun, never feels
she is alone

Read those lines several times.  How do you interpret them?  I didn't even realize that several interpretations existed until I listened to Nic read.  Then I went back to the lines and said, "Hmm.  Look at what she's done there."  In case you want to replicate my experiment, I'll refrain from saying more until my review tomorrow.  I had a similar experience with the end of "containing prayer beads and Villa de Leyva."

For my final listening experience/experiment, I listened to Nic read without following along.  By now, I had read each poem at least 3 times.  Honestly, I didn't expect to hear anything new.

Yet I did.  The poem "containing prayer beads and Bangkok" ends this way:

a year later in deep Seattle
winter I pull the japa mala
from my prayer bag
and cannot speak

I was listening, and I said, "Wait.  There's a prayer bag?  Not just a purse of some kind?"  Sure enough, a plum detail I had missed.

I'm guessing that reading on a portable device would have yielded similar results, unless there were hyperlinks, and then all bets would be off.  I try not to click on links until I'm done with a reading, but I suspect most readers aren't that disciplined.

Lately, whenever I'm in the company of serious readers, the talk seems to turn to various e-readers and the future of print.  One friend, who was trained as a computer scientist decades ago, rejects all e-readers because she doesn't trust batteries and electric sources.  I'm sympathetic to that view, especially after hearing about the experience of another computer specialist friend who took his brand new Kindle on a cruise, only to have it crash the first hour of the first day, leaving him without his specially selected books during the whole cruise and at the mercy of the ship's library.  My English high school teacher friend adores her Kindle and can't imagine life without it.  The rest of us are somewhat dispassionate.

If someone gave me a Kindle or an iPad, I'd use it.  But plunk down my hard-earned money?  Not yet.  If I had a stint of travel that involved several weeks, I'd be tempted.  Those books do constitute the weight of my luggage.  Books and shoes--my travelling conundrum.

I tend to read individual poems online, and if I like them well enough, I yearn to buy the book, and I want a physical book, not a PDF file.  I want some pennies to go back to the poet.  It's even more thrilling when I've watched a collection emerge.  I remember when Nic started writing these poems, which began as "prayers and charms" that she took on as her National Poetry Month writing project.  I remember reading one of them, but I don't remember which one, and thinking, wow, she is diving deep.

I had a similar experience with Mary Biddinger's Saint Monica poems.  As long ago as 2008, she was working on these poems and blogging about them (for example, this post, where she contemplates how to organize them into a book).  And now, finally, the book arrived yesterday.

Happily, I didn't have to wait that long for Nic's collection, although it's a collection worth the wait.  Tomorrow, I'll post a review.  In the meantime, if you want to read it first, you have many different ways to access the work here.  That instant access is something that paper books haven't mastered.


Beth said...

Kristin, thank you SO MUCH for doing this -- for the close readings in multiple formats, and the feedback. As I read your remarks about the endings of those poems, I thought about the questions they had given me, as editor, and immediately wondered, 'What if I had been able to hear Nic read the poems aloud BEFORE I made my comments! Maybe it would have all become clear!"

So few of us spend much time reading aloud anymore, but it totally changes your relationship with a text. I think those of us who are involved in liturgy and perform/hear readings of scripture regularly are attuned to the skill and nuance it takes, but I wish more people kept alive the tradition of reading aloud that some of us grew up with, just because it is so revealing and so much fun.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Your review and Beth's comments are really interesting....reading and being read to are very different experiences. There is some shift in the power dynamic that is very thought-provoking....

Nic Sebastian said...

Kristin - warmly echoing Beth's thanks. I'm totally thrilled you took the time to look at all the different formats and the process itself and love your comments throughout. Thank you!! Nic

Kristin said...

Thanks for reading and for your supportive comments. It seemed important, at this time in the life of our publishing industry, to try these different possibilities.

In a way, it's a shame I couldn't be more scientific, but it was a fun experiment.