We will, it seems to me, inevitably end up doing a lot of our reading in digital format. Yes, lots of people say that nothing could replace the feel of paper or the heft of a hardback. But you only have to think of how much time we’re spending reading onscreen now. For many people, eight hours in front of a computer during the day means that they already absorb far more words in a digital form than via books. It seems only a matter of time before we become more comfortable with an electronic format than a physical one, with our work habits leaking over into leisure.
That being said, it’s remarkable how slow the progress in the development of electronic books actually has been. In the Western world, the idea of the killer reading application — the bookish equivalent of the Ipod — has been around for ages but seems no closer to fruition, as Emmy Henning and Jenny Lee discussed in Overland 190. Instead, we get ridiculous gimmicks. Like this, for instance:
In a move that could bolster the growing popularity of e-books, Google said Thursday that the 1.5 million public domain books it had scanned and made available free on PCs were now accessible on mobile devices like the iPhone and the T-Mobile G1.
Also Thursday, Amazon said that it was working on making the titles for its popular e-book reader, the Kindle, available on a variety of mobile phones. The company, which is expected to unveil a new version of the Kindle next week, did not say when Kindle titles would be available on mobile phones.
“We are excited to make Kindle books available on a range of mobile phones,” said Drew Herdener, a spokesman for Amazon. “We are working on that now.”
Well, it seems ridiculous to me. But, then, with the digital revolution, it’s often been the most unlikely aspects that have taken off, usually because they’ve been appropriated by users. Who would have predicted the billion dollar market in ringtones, for instance?
Which brings me back to something that I’ve mentioned here before but that continues to obsess me.
A mobile phone novel typically contains between 200 and 500 pages, with each page containing about 500 Japanese characters. The novels are read on a cell phone screen page by page, the way one would surf the web, and are downloadable for around $10 each. The first mobile phone novel was written six years ago by fiction writer Yoshi, but the trend picked up in the last couple years when high-school girls with no previous publishing experience started posting stories they wrote on community portals for others to download and read on their cell phones.
Magic iLand is one such site. It began as a community portal where users could create personalized homepages from their cell phones. In March, the company launched a free novel library where readers can download text and link to blogs by select authors.
The Magic Library Plus has quickly established itself as the gold standard for mobile phone novels. Work published there is guaranteed hundreds of thousands of readers and lots of street cred. Since its inception, the library has added at least 10 new titles per month. It includes frequently updated reviews and instructions on how to write a mobile phone novel.
It’s easy to dismiss these phone novels as a fad, one of those crazy only-in-Japan novelties. And maybe that’s the case. Still, given how marginal most literary writing is to the mainstream of the culture, it’s worth thinking a little bit about what’s going on in a forum that has young people passionately talking about and writing novels, and reading them in the hundreds of thousands.