iPad, therefore iKludge



Don DeLillo’s Players, as marked up by David Foster Wallace.
Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

I just sat down to air a complaint about reading on the iPad when I discovered that Sue Halpern had done much of my work for me:

For all its supposed interactivity, the iPad is a surprisingly static machine, especially for reading. … One of the guilty pleasures of an actual, ink-on-paper book is the possibility of marking it up—underlining salient passages, making notes in the margins, dog-earing a page. While it’s true that some electronic book platforms for the iPad allow highlighting (it even looks like you’ve used a fat neon yellow or blue or orange marker), and a few—most notably Kindle and Barnes and Noble but not iBooks—allow you to type notes, they barely take advantage of being digital. It is not possible to “capture” your notes and highlights, to organize, compile, arrange, or to print them out. Until there is a seamless way to do this, marginalia will remain sequestered in the margins, and the promise of electronic books will be unrealized.

This plaint struck me a few weeks ago when — eating pasta in Palo Alto, as it happens — I was reading The Selfish Gene. I was enjoying both meal and book immensely, and, thinking fondly of my faithful readers here, wanted to share some of it with you, and to harvest salient passages for my own research as well. So I was pleased, exploring this new device, to find that the iPad’s Kindle program offers a highlighting feature.

Later, however, when I wanted to share these passages, I found what Halpern complains about: My highlighted passages appeared to be as locked up in the book as they would be if I’d highlighted a print copy.

Halpern describes a workaround, and I discovered one myself,* so this is hardly an intractable problem. Yet  these “solutions” require far more hassle than, say, pulling an excerpt from an online article to quote in a blog post, despite that all of this is digital. The book-reading (and book-based research) experience on the iPad thus fails to offers some huge advantages it could hold over print. The data is weightless — yet it takes all this heavy lifting to move it from one part of my desk to another. It’s absurd. (The new IBooks program coming out soon will also highlight and annotate, but it’s not clear how easy those highlights and notes will be to export.)


…beginning with the time before evolution itself began. Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name.

Highlighted by 32 Kindle users

…and in those days large organic molecules could drift unmolested through the thickening broth. At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man…

Highlighted by 19 Kindle users
Two passages from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene that I highlighted in my iPad. Took quite some trouble to get them from there to here.
Hardly disastrous. But disappointing, and needlessly so, that a device offering so many advantages for reading fails to exploit even established ways to integrate digital content into one’s own workflow. Books in particular remain sealed off. I can understand concerns about piracy and copying and so on. Yet I imagine those can be answered easily enough with limitations on how many consecutive characters you can highlight or copy, or other measures. Instead, quoting from or simply taking notes from them, as Halpern puts it,

… it’s a complicated choreography that requires a fair amount of concentration to avoid getting tripped up. Someday there may be an iPad app to get you there directly. Someday there may be a stylus and a way to physically write in the margins. Someday there may be optical character recognition software that turns those scribbles into manipulable text. Someday.

Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

*The easiest I found is to make the highlights and then — either on iPad or PC/Mac — browse to kindle.amazon.com, sign in, burrow your way to the book in question, and then copy the highlights you want into whatever program you want them in. Hardly a fluid workflow.


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