Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Reading Books on the Phone

February 5, 2011
New York, N.Y.

I spend a good chunk of my waking hours staring at a screen. Pretty much all of my work hours are spent that way — typing words into Microsoft Word, or code into Visual Studio, or looking up framework documentation in Internet Explorer — and some of my non-work hours are occupied that way as well, such as with the program I named Blog Hack that I'm using right now.

Even away from the computer, screens are often involved: The TV is an obvious one, of course, but going out to the movies also entails staring at a screen.

More and more these days, I value activities that do not involve a screen. One major non-screen activity for me is reading books and magazines. For over two thousand years, reading did not require looking at a screen, and that's still how I prefer it. If I start reading newspapers, magazines, and books on screens, I'll be spending something like 80 or 90% of my waking hours staring at screens, and that seems way too high to me.

Besides, real books have other advantages as well. From where I sit right now, I can glance over at hundreds of books and pick one off the shelf in an instant. Some of these books I've owned since I was a teenager, and hence are as much a part of my current self as my DNA. Books are complete in themselves. I don't need to worry about my reading device being charged, or if the book is in "the correct format," or if I actually have access to the book if the company who sold me the book no longer exists, or is no longer supporting the device on which I purchased the book.

For these reasons, I haven't been tempted by ebook readers, and I've said so in this blog, even when my attitude sometimes seems to make some people angry and call me a Luddite.

Recently, however, I had the opportunity to use some prototype book-reading software on Windows Phone 7, and I was hooked.

What really seduced me was the sheer convenience of the thing. In my day-to-day excursions out of doors, I travel light. Everything I carry is in my pockets: A wallet, my keys, a couple index cards for notes or brilliant thoughts, a pen, and my phone. Since I'm carrying around the phone anyway, if this phone can also let me read a book, then I'm in heaven.

Whenever I find myself with a minute or two to spare — whether on the subway, or waiting in a checkout line, or sitting in a theater waiting for a concert or movie to begin — I can read a few pages. There's almost no overhead involved. To stop reading, I simply press the on/off button briefly to turn off the screen and put the phone to sleep, and the phone goes back into my pocket. If that's how I left the phone, starting to read again is a snap: Press that button again to wake up the phone, and sweep up the opening screen. The Windows Phone 7 tombstoning activation kicks in, and I'm pack on the page I left at. It all happens very quickly.

If anybody had told me a year ago that I'd be reading books on my phone, I would have been skeptical. After all, it's an awfully tiny screen. The image above of the Windows Phone 7 emulator is more than twice the actual size of the phone itself. (The screen on the HTC HD7 that I'm using these days is about 2 3/16" wide.) However, keep in mind that the Windows Phone 7 screen has an extremely high pixel density. The screen is 480 × 800 pixels so in theory there's plenty of room to display several hundred words of a book page. The resultant image is extremely crisp and very readable.

And I speak as someone who has worn glasses for near-sightedness since about the age of 10, and who has in recent decades also suffered from age-related far-sightedness, and whose right eye is not fully correctable due to an old scar on the cornea. I find the best approach is to prop my glasses on the top of my head, and hold the phone about six inches from my eyes. I think I learned the technique from a well-known phone enthusiast who is two years younger than myself:

Once I get back home, however, I'm back with printed books. This means that I'm reading different books in print and on the phone, but that's not exactly something I think of as a problem.


I too am surprised at how much you can read on a phone screen if you talk your glasses off and hold it close. It's a bit like a heads up display. Only problem is that you can't see anything else!

As to ebooks - I bought a Kindle and can share books between the device and my phone. This means that I can continue to read when I get home.

This said I agree about still prefering paper books but I would also add that the Kindles screen isn't really like reading a display - it is closer to the paper experience.

Mike James, Sun, 6 Feb 2011 05:44:53 -0500


I started reading books on my PDA 1999. When I started with my first tree killer book two years later I was struck by the lack of contrast and sharpness of paper. Nowadays I read screen/treekiller in about a 50/50 ratio.

My latest "discovery" is to upload the ebook on an ebook reader site and read it from there. This means it doesn't matter which phone or computer I last used to read, it just picks up wherever I left.


LosManos, Sun, 6 Feb 2011 09:19:46 -0500

I'm always surprised when people get hung up on the messenger instead of the message. The content of the book is the important part. If I enjoy reading a story I don't really care about the delivery mechanism. The story isn't better because it comes to me on paper. The characters aren't more clearly drawn because they come to me electronically. I remember great stories I've read but I don't reminisce about the great bindings a particular book had.

Each to his own though.

— Terry, Mon, 7 Feb 2011 07:29:52 -0500

I think it's quite obvious that the medium used for conveying information certainly affects the interpretation of the information. A good chunk of Marshall McLuhan's research was centered around the concept that "the medium is the message."

Take an extreme case: I suspect that everyone agrees that it's crucial whether you see a particular movie in a movie theater, or on a television set, or on a phone. Everything is the same but it's quite a different experience.

Text is not just an ASCII stream. The layout of text influences how the text is interpreted. This is why typographers and graphics designers are so focused on fonts, margins, and line spacing. The presentation of the text makes a difference.

The packaging of books also influences the reader. We have different expectations when a book has a cheap paperback binding with lurid cover art than when a hardcover book has an elegant dust jacket and a solid binding meant to last for decades. This is all part of the message from the creators of the book to the readers of the book.

Many of these distinctions disappear when a book is read electronically, and I think it's to the book's disadvantage. Electronic books don't have a particular individual kind of "personality" that a printed book has. They blend into each other in a big digital soup. It's harder to tell the old from the new, the non-fiction from the fiction, the serious from the frivolous.

Moreover, the primary characteristic of electronic books is that they are easily disposable. They are designed for reading and deleting — not for preservation or for consulting later in life. If I need to find a book on my shelves that I've read in the past, I don't even need to know the title or author because the color and typography of the binding is still familiar in my mind and I can visually scan my shelves very quickly to track it down.

It's counter-intuitive, but: Digital is disposable. Paper is forever. — Charles

Um, wait. This article explains why you write books. But this article is on your blog! Now you have to write a book in which one chapter explains why you write blogs.

"Digital is disposable."

Hey, I represent that. But I must confess that you're right. DEC is dead, long live DEC. I was part of the problem, making computers programmable interactively using screens, unlike the old fashioned way of writing programs on paper to be punched onto cards by keypunch operators.

— An ex-Digit, Mon, 7 Feb 2011 20:38:43 -0500

I'll admit I was skeptical at first. Although I've been reading books on a Palm OS PDA for years it has a relatively large 3 inch screen. I thought downgrading to the mobile's 1.9" screen would make reading impossibly painful. I quickly discovered that I was wrong. I found that I could read just as fast and with as much enjoyment on the smaller screen as with the PDA or even a printed book.

Aurana Books, Wed, 2 Mar 2011 02:49:45 -0500

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