THE BLOG

Tolstoy and the iPhone

12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just came into possession of an iPod Touch, which is more or less the iPhone without the phone part (my friend Matt got an iPhone, so I inherited his Touch). I got the little gadget the night before a trip to San Francisco, and I loaded it up with audiobooks from LibriVox, podcasts from earideas, TEDTalks videos, and a host of public domain texts from Gutenberg to keep me busy during the plane ride.

It's a beautiful little machine, which we expect from Apple. As an iPod it's as good as you'd like -- with the nice addition, for me, of video. But the biggest shock for me was how pleasing it was to read novels on the thing. I was surprised by how much I liked the elegant ereader application, Stanza. I read Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and I started reading - and continue to read - Tolstoy's War & Peace. I even chose a number of times to read on my iPod in bed, instead of the paperback non-fiction & hardback fiction books I had brought along. War & Peace is, actually, a dream to read on the iPod. (Who would have thought?).

Reading digital text on a small handheld device is nothing like reading text on a computer (desktop or laptop). A mobile device is much more comfortable, for plenty of reasons. You can lounge and arrange yourself as you like; you can whip the device out while standing in line of passport control, and in the most cramped of subways (always annoying trying to hold a paperback open in a sardine-crowd). There's an almost unlimited number of books you can pack into it. And the chunk of text displayed seems about exactly right for my own internet-frayed attention span, with the pleasant effect that I am propelled forward from page to page.

I tried an experiment too, listening to the LibriVox version of War and Peace while reading along, which was a relaxing immersive experience on the plane (though after a while, the slow speed of the audio compared with my reading became too distracting). But this could be a wonderful tool for those learning to read, language students, those with learning disabilities, and auditory learners reading dense, difficult texts, Kant for instance.

The iPhone and nifty apps like Stanza have convinced me that there is a real future in ebooks, one that I've always thought was more theoretical than actual. I'm a book person, paper and print. I love the smell, feel, texture and experience of reading a book. I always will, and I don't think that ereaders will ever replace books for me. Ebooks have too many drawbacks.

The also have plenty of advantages, and now that I know I actually enjoy reading on an iPod, I'm pretty sure that ebooks on handheld mobile devices will continue to be one part of my reading habits.

Teleread reports that Apple is cutting iPhone production, and that will have negative impacts on the uptake of ebooks. They're probably right, but for me -- a former skeptic -- the compelling case for ebooks has been made. I like 'em.

Whether it's the iPhone in the next year or so, or something else in five years, I'm sold.