01 April 2012

A new habitat for the short story

I'll get to the point of this post shortly, but I have some background to cover first. Feel free to jump down six paragraphs if you wish to skip the front matter.

Since I last posted on the subject, my attitude to eReaders in general and to the Amazon Kindle in particular have undergone some adjustment. I've been meaning to write about this for some time, but it hasn't happened yet ... since it started with a comment from Matthew Revell, I owe him more than anyone an account of my journey; but he waits in vain.

To sum up: I still much prefer, when reading for pleasure, the physical experience of turning paper pages ... but I now keep that physical experience for reading at home, in libraries, or at other locations where I can leave a book and return to it. For those times (much of my life) when I am on the move, I now carry books in electronic form. It save s weight (see Dr C's comments on this), and better still for me on bulk. It saves the problem of worrying that I haven't enough books with me to last the journey.

There are some practical considerations to be taken into account. One of them is social: my partner and I share very similar tastes in fiction reading, tending to pass books back and forth, but she has no intention of reading anything on a screen. This means, in practice, that I split my reading in two: at home I read books which she is likely to read as well, or has already read, while on the wing I read titles not likely to interest her.

Then there is the matter of reading speed: I have discovered that I read much more slowly on an eReader than from a book. At first it took me between twenty and thirty times as long to read the same material. It dropped from that, but seems to have plateaued at a factor of fifteen or thereabouts. There are confounding factors when it comes to being precise about this. I read fastest from the Asus tablet (somewhat larger than the standard dedicated eReader screen) and least rapidly from the iPod touch. on the other hand, the Touch can be pulled out and read in circumstances (and short periods of time) where the tablet, an eReader or even a paperback book wouldn't be practical. So, I have abandoned dedicated eReaders and use applications on tablet and Touch instead.

This has the advantage that I am not tied to any one system (you can have any number of eReader apps on one device) but, in practice and despite previous adverse comments, I use Amazon Kindle apps much of the time because their WhisperNet system is so convenient. WhisperNet keeps the devices synchronised so I can read on the tablet while on a rail journey, put it away as I get off, then pull out the Touch whilst waiting for a minute in a queue for the exit and continue reading seamlessly. That synchronisation helps to offset the reading speed loss, since I can reclaim reading time in moments when it would be impossible to get out a paperback from my bag, find my place, read, put it away again. And if I want to refer back to a book when at a conventional keyboard (to check or extract a quotation, for example) then it is instantly available there, too, in an equivalent PC application.

Anyway ... enough of that. The real point of this post is that, having started using eReader software regularly, I have discovered a particular collateral benefit which I hadn't previously suspected.

New technologies change habits and cultural formats. There is nothing wrong with that; it's the way life is and always has been. Nevertheless, sometimes an environmental change condemns to Darwinian extinction a form which I valued. The flip side (an archaic metaphor, that, deriving as it does from single song shellac and vinyl records) of this is that new conditions can become more favourable for previously endangered species.

For a long time, now, one such endangered species has been the short story. There was a heyday in which magazines formed a rich breeding ground for short fiction; nowadays, it survives only in collected form as a way for publishers to cash in on the success of a novelist. But the eReader, the cheapness of electronic publication, and the willingness of big beasts like Amazon and Apple iTunes to let individuals try their luck (it costs the big company nothing, and may sometimes pay off for them) means that the short story now has a new outlet.

I only realised the potential for this, in an epiphanic moment, when I picked up a copy of Geoff Powell's The Painter for one Euro on Amazon a few weeks ago. It's fractionally more than that, now, but still at a price which anyone can pay in a sprit of experiment ... if I like the story (as I did) I've gained riches; if not, I've lost only small change.

I have a number of short stories and one novella in my Kindle library, now. I hopefully imagine a future in which short fiction might be handled as albums of music are now ... as single stories and, if we like what we read, as collections too.

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