I am still pretty ambivalent about whether or not any of those portable reading devices are actually worth the investment. As a result I have decided to give myself a reading experiment based on my “untethered” MacBook Pro. I realize that this is larger than most readers; but, given that I already do a fair amount of Web reading in this mode, I figure I am creating a situation that gives the technology a slight advantage. Because I rarely read anything on paper without a pencil in my hand, I also decided to base the exercise on my Acrobat Pro, since I am pretty comfortable with the annotation tools it provides.
I should also point out that this not the first time I have done this sort of experiment. About five years ago I tried it with one of the early portable models that could be used in both tablet and keyboard mode. At the time the tablet resolution was way too crude to support my pencil habits. On the other hand I have been annotating PDF files in Acrobat for some time; so, again, I was giving technology an advantage of familiarity.
The real question I wished to confront was the one of length. I read most of my news on the screen these days. So I wanted to see if many of the habits I already had would scale up to longer documents. My experiment five years ago was with a full-length book; and I gave up after the first few chapters. This time I selected an article from the Journal of the American Musicological Society for which I had a really high interest level, since the topic concerned the relationship between Henry Cowell and John Cage between 1933 and 1941. (As a point of reference, this is the time period during which Cage heard Nicholas Slonimsky conduct Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisation” at the Hollywood Bowl.) Normally, I print reprints and read them with a very active pencil. However, this particular article was 66 pages long; so I had a pretty strong incentive to take a “paperless” approach.
I downloaded the PDF of this article on the afternoon of December 12. Almost exactly two weeks have elapsed, and my first observation is that I am progressing slower than usual. Had I been reading from hard copy, I would have been able to fold the paper into one of my copious jacket pockets and take it with me on many of my ventures from home. I do not do that with the MacBook Pro, and I am not yet sure how inclined I would be to carry around one of the new reading devices.
Nevertheless, I am progressing. I am about sixteen pages into the paper; but I had little time for reading it in the midst of last week’s pre-holiday activities. So I am not unhappy with my rate of progress. For the record, I have been using the Acrobat commenting tools; but, so far, that has only involved underlining two passages (one of which confirmed the story about Cage at the Hollywood Bowl). As to the physical reading experience, I find the MacBook Pro equally comfortable when sitting in a chair or lying on the couch. The new two-finger scroll control (which I initially disliked) works very nicely since I cannot fit a full Journal page on the screen. I probably would have preferred being able to look at the screen in portrait mode, but the keyboard would then have been awkward to manage.
I am waiting to see if I find any need for marginal annotations in this reading experience. I know that I shall not be able to actually “write” in the margins; but I have used the Acrobat tool for adding notes in the past. That creates notes with content that can be found with the search tool, and that may prove to be a real advantage. In other words I am not sure I would want to have any kind of “virtual pencil” with one of the new portable readers; and I suspect that, when I need to create such notes, I would prefer a physical keyboard to a virtual one.
At this mid-point in the exercise, I have yet to be convinced that any of the new technologies will support my kind of reading; and I also am willing to admit that “my kind of reading” may be going obsolete even faster than I anticipated!