In Search of the Long Wow

What happened to the e-reading revolution that would shape the way we think about text?

If it’s possible to draw my life onto a timeline then every major event would be accompanied by a book. Although, despite what my shelves might tell you, I certainly don’t hoard them. It’s the books that are infatuated with me.

In hope of spending a weekend by my side, or even just a moment in my bag, books will call out from the shops in airport terminals and reveal themselves along riverbank market stalls. Likewise, I’ve found so many books waiting for me on the midnight trains that slowly criss-cross their way along the English towns near my home that I’ve begun to imagine a conspiracy of books at work; they’ve heard reports of my forbidden touch, or the color of my eyes, or my prolonged contact with the naked bodies of their friends. And so, hidden in jackets and sheathed in purses, the books plan their approach as they hope to try their luck with me instead.

I find them everywhere, at all times, and they respond to my body like a magnet; jumping into my bag, clinging onto me for dear life. What is it about these books, these inky sponges, I wonder, that make them act so desperately?

That’s not to say that the relationship is all one-way however; over the past year or so the buildings and faces around me have swirled into an incomprehensible blur and it’s only when I think about these books that the events lost in that swirl begin to make a little sense. I vividly remember the the final scenes as I turn these books over in my hands; they reveal a collage of where I was, and who I was, when I read them.

Yet in the foreseeable future my library can no longer be brought along for the ride, and I can no longer continue my affairs with the strange books that whisper my name in the dark. This year I’ll be attempting to avoid those flirting temptations by reading everything on the new Kindle Paperwhite.

I’ve always been fascinated by e-reading devices but I’ve been continuously frustrated by my expectations of them. Several years ago I owned a Kindle with physical buttons and a keyboard, and I remember how the experience was much like trying to read a novel from an Etch-a-Sketch.

During that time I tried to ignore how the designers appeared oblivious to centuries of typographic discipline, yet the hardware itself was unavoidably primitive and frustrating in every regard. No matter how many reviews I watched or how many friends recommended them I couldn’t understand where this wellspring of sentiment came from. Ultimately I felt that ebooks, and e-readers, showed so much promise but it was a promise that couldn’t be kept, which is why I was so very hesitant when I thought of returning to the Kindle again.

Yet I didn’t know anything about the latest models at all. I hadn’t picked apart the reviews or carefully watched an unboxing video, and my bookish friends appeared oblivious to the developments in the ebook world, too.

I believe this is for two reasons: one, no-one appears to believe anymore that ebooks will annihilate the print world any time soon, and two, the Kindle Paperwhite is remarkably boring.

And that’s the first thing you discover when you open the box and setup your account — it dawns on you just how truly boring the Kindle now is. So much so that whenever I’ve tried to bring up a conversation about my latest reading adventures I watch as faces droop and eyes roll, it’s impossible not to yawn in reply. Where are the Watch apps and the VR simulations that will let me read Moby Dick whilst sitting on the Moon or tumbling down a roller coaster, I hear you ask.

Back in 2007, when the Kindle debuted, there was so much hope for a literary and technological revolution of some kind. But eight years later, surely we ought to have replaced this antiquated ebook technology by now.

If this is the future that we’ve been promised from the very start, then where is the revolution? Where are the new forms of reading?

And where is the Kindle?

Source: Amazon Devices and Digital Content

After opening the Kindle Paperwhite for the first time my impression was that I had somehow been tricked — I discovered that time had slipped forward by an hour in what felt like a second. Hmmm…, I thought. Shortly afterwards, I visited my Kindle library and found that it had automatically downloaded everything from my previous device. Hmm…, I thought again. Next, I tried to buy a book and found just how cheap the Kindle versions are, easily saving 50% of the cost of a physical book. This encouraged me to double the size of my library in a matter of minutes. Subsequently they appeared onto the device silently, without any procession, just like magic.

Hmmm… I continued to think.

It slowly dawned on me that the Kindle is such an interesting device today precisely because it is so very boring. It looks and feels like a machine that’s finally reached maturity; it’s part of a greater ecosystem that cannot sustain itself by flashy gimmicks or tropes. Instead, it just quietly, expertly, does a very simple job, and does it extraordinarily well.

A string of Hmmm’s and Oooh’s occur with each passing moment spent with the Kindle, and this reminded me of an old post about design by Craig Mod. Somewhere deep in his vast archive of book design is a note about two experiences: the Long Wow vs. the Small Wow. Yet I can’t seem to retrieve the quote from search terms or keyword strings, and this leads me to think that I am garbling the original idea in some horrible manner. Perhaps it wasn’t on Craig’s website that I first heard of this idea at all.

But here’s how I remember it.

The Long Wow vs. the Small Wow

The Long Wow is the sort of action that continues to impress, long after someone’s first experienced it. But the Long Wow is never really an individual sound, image, graphic element or feature of a product that we can point to. Instead, it’s a collection of features and experiences: it’s how they snap together, and how the seams between these features are then hidden away from view. It’s made up of lots of tiny moments, and identifiable features, but it’s difficult to point to a Long Wow with any certainty.

For instance, the first time we saw magazines on the iPad — all those animations and diagrams and Minority Report-like features! — these could each be described as a Small Wow. But the gimmicks fade quickly and then you’re left wondering how the blasted thing works. (Is this the app where I have to swipe right and then down into the article, or is the one where I have to pinch-zoom out to get to the contents page etc etc.)

However, both types of Wow are possible outside the realm of the e-reader, too. I remember a physical book that was surely capable of both. After years of looking at it, I still gawp at its shape and texture. I think about the custom typeface, about the quality of the paper, about the delicate woodcut illustrations, each a Small Wow in their own right, and each leading to a more satisfying reading experience overall.

In other words, there are Small Wows that contribute to better experiences, and then there are Small Wows that prevent them. This is why designing a reading device is so frustratingly difficult. But in order to understand the Long Wow of the Kindle, we have to break it up into each of its component parts, the tiny features that continue to impress and surprise:

  • The prices of ebooks are astoundingly cheap.
  • You can throw the Paperwhite into a bag and not worry for a second whether or not it could be damaged in the process; its plastic body feels durable rather than cheap.
  • The screen has a coarseness to it that resembles another material entirely. On the iPad you swipe your finger along a slippery plane of ever-present, fragile glass but on the Paperwhite your finger tracks along a groove that resembles thick card.
  • The network connection always feels predictable: you know when you’re offline and which features you can access. A notification doesn’t pop up when you walk away from your WiFi hotspot. Bonus points: you rarely need to be online anyway.
  • The battery life appears to be nigh-on infinite.
  • The screen/format/process is perfect for text-only works: novels, short stories, collections of talks, etc.
  • The common design of most Kindle books has now overtaken their physical counterparts.
  • Typographically speaking, the Kindle has reached an a-ok position for me. Every book I’ve read is still poorly justified but somehow I forgive them. Although, it should go without saying that the text of every ebook should be left aligned, ragged right.
  • The custom-made Bookerly typeface, made by Dalton Maag, is a solid foundation for future typographic experiments on the Kindle platform.
  • The refresh rate is very responsive: in the previous model that I owned whenever you turned a page or selected an option the screen would judder very slowly. But now, the way that the whole screen refreshes when you tap to reveal the menu or turn to swipe a page leaves a pleasant, old-school computer feeling in its wake, one that isn’t annoying in the slightest.
  • The lack of physical buttons is a very good thing. I’d heard terrible moans about previous models having touch screens but this one seems to be immediately responsive and fast.
  • Tiny gestures, like highlighting the text or calling the main menu by touching the top of the screen, are elegant, consistent and memorable. There are effectively three “buttons”: tap the top part of the screen for the menu or tap left/right to turn the pages.

These features aren’t thrilling, and they can’t easily be made into an advert that sparkles or grabs the reader’s attention; it’s difficult to imagine Zooey Deschanel or Samuel Jackson sitting in a brightly lit room and talking into a camera whilst they Oooh and Aaah about the highlighting gesture or the battery life of a Kindle.

Yet amidst that constant push for faster processors and better cameras, sharper screens and flatter interfaces, the Kindle rises up above these concerns somehow. This might sound ridiculous, but I can imagine owning this device in twenty years time and still being perfectly content with it. It’s traded gimmicks and features in search of a more loftier goal: that of the Long Wow.

So where was our literary and technological revolution? Where was the future book, you might ask.

And where was the Kindle in all this?

It was right here all along; boring and wondrous.