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In my course on how revolutions in media production have changed the way we perceive information this semester, we have spent significant time discussing how both the oral word and the printed word altered our understanding of the world around us. For example, we read theories of the rise of the print revolution that contended that with the spread of printed books knowledge was both able to be spread and debated in a more permanent form but as a result also became more unstable. As the course progressed, we thought about the emergence of copyright, the forms books take, and the role of images in how we comprehend information. At the end of the semester, we discussed a variety of ebook readers and apps and their relationship to these questions. In our verbal discussions, we focused almost exclusively on the Kindle and Nook, but as those devices try to mimic the reading experience, I thought it was important for students to experience some of the apps that are trying to reimagine the reading experience. Thus, I had them experiment with two iPad apps – The Tempest and Frankenstein – and blog about their responses to how these apps are changing what it means to “read a book”.

The Tempest is an app aimed at those studying Shakespeare’s play; it contains commentaries by scholars, the ability to take notes, and look up words, and other helpful functions. Frankenstein rewrites the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley into a highly-illustrated “choose-your-own-adventure” novel, allowing readers to direct the plot. The students noted these differences in intent but were often skeptical of the innovative changes to the reading experience and wondered whether or not their experience was a “true” one. Despite growing up in a digital age, they often pined for the traditional paper book and questioned the values behind the digital innovations. For example, one student astutely remarked:

The Tempest application allows one to easily manipulate Shakespeare’s manuscript, which is highly esteemed and especially old, yet allows one to have complete control over altering the manuscript. The reality that it is so simple to copy, highlight, and essentially edit the words of this very famous and well known author makes his work seem far more accessible. The option to alter Shakespeare’s famous manuscript with simple movements of one’s hand make this version of Shakespeare’s work seem much less permanent because his work is simply words on a screen, whereas the physical book seems like a much more legitimate form of Shakespeare’s work. Though I can appreciate that these applications make Shakespeare’s work much more widespread and easy to access, the act of converting highly respected work into electronic applications removes some authenticity from the work for me

Student

Another realized the apps’ potential for more than “just reading”, however:

I also thought it was extremely ingenious to be able to select only one of the characters of the play that was talking. You could therefore view all their lines and I can see this being very helpful for actors.

Student

Not every student saw these features as a benefit, though. One, for example, commented:

I found the app for The Tempest to be more distracting. The text is often interrupted with an icon inviting the reader to hear “expert commentary” of watch a slightly unrelated video about movable type. The option of receiving “expert commentary” detracts from the traditional reading experience because rather than forming personal opinions as the narrative unravels, readers are given the option of hearing an “expert” opinion. I felt that this detracted from the personal reading experience when the opinions of other readers interject your own thoughts as you read (even if the interjection is as small as an icon).

Student

Many students voiced what the following student summarized in her poetic statement:

On the other hand, for recreational reading, I believe these e-books take away from a true reading experience. A traditional reading experience is one defined by cradling in two hands a tightly bound book that holds slightly off-white pages spread with typed letter print. Generations of readers have enjoyed the experience of sitting on a couch with a printed book, curling it to the shape of the crevice in their legs, and flipping through it with concrete pages in hand. These quirks of reading a traditional book are how people are able to delve into the enjoyment of reading books for pleasure. The electronic book on the Ipad, The Tempest, alters this experience, as few of the previously mentioned aspects are capable due to its existence behind a screen. With The Tempest application, I could not fold the book, hold the pages, nor hear the sound of a turned page.

Student

I would very much like to expand this investigation of student responses to digital reading and have them read the same work in print, online, on an app and write about the differences. I would also like to spend a semester with students rotating their reading habits to learn how different reading strategies work best on different devices.