I'm reading IQ84, Haruki Murakami's long-awaited new book. In hardback, it's 944 pages and heavy. I am a pasty blogger with weak arms and soft hands, so the Kindle version seemed like a no-brainer.
Except the Kindle version is hobbled. Extensively hobbled, in fact. It lops off two of Amazon's best features, public highlights and, far worse, the ability to read on all my devices. WHAT?!
One of the best things about the Kindle ecosystem is that you can read your books anywhere. Start reading on a Kindle at night, pick it up on your Nexus on your way into work, polish off the chapter over your lunchbreak in your Web browser, browse a little bit during the three o'clock food coma on the Kindle app, and then dive in on your iPad during the commute home. No matter which device you fire up, the content stays synced, letting you jump into the book exactly where you last left off.
Amazon has worked really, really hard on this ability to let a book follow you everywhere. That was smart. It's one of Kindle's best features. It was what helped Kindle break out when previous e-book formats and readers had not. It's a promise by Amazon that this won't be a DRM nightmare that locks you into one device. Yes, there will be copy protection, but it's going to be reasonable and readable. Except when it's not.
When I tried to share a highlighted passage on Amazon's new social sharing service, Kindle.Amazon.com, I realised that I couldn't. Which was not a huge deal, but was certainly annoying. And then I tried to read IQ84 on my iPhone. That's when I got an error message that told me if I had exceeded my number of permitted devices for IQ84.
Apparently, the number of permitted devices is one.
No note sharing was annoying. And it seemed bone-headed—if anything driving a discussion about a book online seems like it would help sell copies while stifling it just means people won't find out about it. But that's not nearly as bad as not being able to read it on multiple devices.
Now, I get it. This was mostly likely a publisher restriction. Amazon has been working so hard to push features into the Kindle, it would be foolish to kill that added value. But shame on you, Amazon, for going along with this. And double super secret shame on you for not better warning me that you were quashing my ability to easily read this book on multiple devices when I bought it. Look, Amazon, if some idiot at Knopf (and make no mistake: this is idiotic) wants to crap on your customers, you have a duty to tell us there is a turd on the way.
The thing is, authors and publishers should be excited about electronic books. Not just as a revenue stream, but as an entirely new way to think about pushing the boundaries of publishing. That's especially true of an author like Murakami, whose books often have unique narrative structures and bleed with external references.
Contrast this with, what I think has been the most successful example of a Kindle formatted book yet: Jay-Z's Decoded. Jay-Z talks about Basquait's art, and then there's a colour image of it in the next frame. He discusses a song, and an embedded video of it plays as you read the lyrics, which have linked footnotes that you can click on to get additional expository context. Instead of crippling the book, Jay-Z gives us more. And so here I am, recommending it to you.
Jay-Z extended the book in a way that made sense. But there's so much more you could do. Especially if you wanted to really push the boundaries of narrative. I can imagine literary titles going much further.
Imagine a book forcing you to pause after reading a passage. Or playing a song at an extemely low volume just as you encounter it in the text. Or cutting up the narrative flow and restructuring it at random—like some sort of AI William S. Burroughs. All those things and more are possible with ebooks, which will redefine the flow of a narrative just as surely as it was redefined when we moved from scroll to codex. And yet the internal restructuring is just the beginning.
Over on Rdio, I've been building a collaborative playlist of all the music that appears in IQ84 in the order that it appears. It was only after I started doing this that I learned about Small Demons, which basically scrapes the objects from books—places, music, characters. You can then appreciate them across multiple titles. Not only does it help you understand the context in which they are used, but it can even clue you into homages of earlier works. Meanwhile Steven Johnson's new collaborative community, Findings, lets readers share their favourite passages from various books (which was precisely how I discovered that IQ84 doesn't support public notes)
As ebooks mature, they are going to increasingly jump the boundaries and escape the confines of the original publication. Books will be remixed, just as film and music has (for example, I've encountered several people who have read George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books on a character by character basis, rather than in the order they appear. Imagine if readers could completely restructure the order of an ebook.)
Smart publishers will not just allow, but encourage this. They will want readers to participate with the book. They will try to open the gates, rather than wall them off.
But limiting our experience of the book, especially taking away those things that we've already grown accustomed to, is just plain dumb. It's a sub-par IQ.