Reading Dickens' Little Dorrit 4 ways

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, academic, entrepreneur, and author Ann Kirschner asks, “Do I love books or do I love reading?”—in light of the ever-expanding publishing universe.

For me and probably most readers, it’s an easy question to answer: reading. I don’t much care how my reading comes as long as it’s written well. Kirschner wasn’t sure. So she decided to conduct an experiment, reading Dickens’ masterwork Little Dorrit four ways: paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and iPhone. LIttle Dorrit

Little Dorrit was an accidental choice, but I could hardly have done better. Its length, multiple story lines, 19th-century allusions, and teeming cast of characters helped me to test the functionality of different formats. Beyond the artifice of my reading experiment, though, please don’t think that technology compromised my ability to appreciate this beloved novel, written in 1857 at the height of Dickens’s power and popularity. Just the opposite.

She starts with the requisite warmed-over nostalgia for paperbacks: “How dare we think that anything could replace it? Impossible to imagine that any of these newfangled devices could last nearly 40 years. The perfume of old paper filled the air.” I would have clicked onwards had she gone no further. But instead she ventured on to audiobooks.

Audiobooks are wonderful in all the situations she describes, walking, driving, sitting in the dentist’s chair. But I can’t imagine how many hours this 1000-page plus books would consume listened to in its entirety. And audiobooks practically require you multitask. The painfully slow pace of spoken stories becomes apparent if you’re not, say, cooking; you don’t pull up an easy chair next to the fireplace and curl up with your MP3 player.

Doesn’t mince words

Which leaves the Kindle and iPhone. Kirschner doesn’t mince words:

I’ve been dreading this, but let me get my prediction out now: The iPhone is a Kindle killer. I abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can’t do better — and most important, the iPhone is always with me. Woody Allen had it right: Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.

Now I don’t have an iPhone, so I can’t really comment. But insofar as she goes, I imagine she’s right. However. I think of the easy chair in the fireplace’s vicinity. At the risk of reveal a Luddite streak, I just can’t see curling up with a … glowing phone.

Why I prefer the Kindle over the iPhone for curling up with a book

Whereas I happily sink into reading oblivion via my Kindle at every opportunity. However, I bet if I actually had an i-something, I probably could do the same. And as Kirschner points out:

Middle-aged readers think that the dimension of the screen is critical. It’s not: The members of the generation that grew up playing Game Boys and telling time on their cellphones will have absolutely no problem reading from a small screen. Let us pray that they will. Right now, they aren’t buying Kindles — and they aren’t reading books.

I don’t worry about this. I think there will be plenty of readers in the future. Just not ones very much like the ones we’ve got today. They won’t feel any compunction about curling up with their i-device anywhere. Which is great. It’s the words, the style, the story that matters. Not the format it appears in. Which is a point Kirschner offers a sly insight on: “My personal theory is that Amazon cares less about our choice of screen than our choice of store. Amazon wants Kindle to be a verb, not a noun, as in “I Kindled that book,” which could mean that I read it on a smartphone, computer, or dedicated electronic-book device.”

English Language will survive

I suspect she’s right. Which would be perfectly fine with me. The English language seems to be surviving the Facebook-enabled verbing of “friend”, so I bet it could take a “Kindling”. As long as Dickensian journeys keep on starting with “Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun. …”, I don’t think it much matters how they get there.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.