I am attempting to read David Foster Wallace’s very large novel and write about the experience as I go. That is all.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

(The percentage)

When you read a novel –  a conventional, book-shaped novel, with paper pages and a cover and the like – there’s a fairly easy way to judge how far you’ve gone. You just look at the book side-on and compare what’s on the right of the point you’ve reached to what’s on the left. The critic and novelist David Lodge has argues that this is a key difference between the construction of novels and films, especially when it comes to endings. If you come to what appears to be the explosive climax of a book, but there are still 50 pages to go, you’ll work out that the author has something else to offer; whereas you’re less aware of time remaining when you’re watching a movie. Of course Lodge wasn’t taking into account the fact that the back ends of many modern novels are packed out with author interviews, suggestions for book groups, maybe even the opening pages of the writer’s next work. Or that it’s easy enough to work out when a film’s real end is approaching, provided you check beforehand what the running time is.

Books on Kindle are different. They have no size or weight, above all no thickness. People who have embarked on reading Infinite Jest in all its 1000+-page glory can mark their achievements as the left-hand side gets thicker and the right decreases. Kindles have a little percentage counter that tells you how far you have to go, which is handy, but it lacks the emotional heft that comes from seeing the pages conquered, the pages still to come. And of course, when you get into the really big numbers, percentage points start to feel pretty vague. At the end of the first chapter, the indicator still says 1% – and I don’t even know how far into that first percentile I’ve got.

Was this really a good idea?


  1. Isn't there an option so tat it'll show page numbers instead of percentage? It's a big silly to show percentage, especially when you wanna know where you are.

    I started reading IJ on my laptop, then I switched to print. Much happier with the print; like you said, I can be happy about what I conquered and what I still have to conquer.

  2. Any future readings of IJ I do will be on Kindle - I *love* that Kindle books have no weight and the percentage bar as a way of tracking progress works fine for me (I am weak-wristed and numerically inclined though).

    (I also don't tend to think about books in terms of "conquering" them - perhaps I'm not macho enough?)

    My issue with Kindle reading is with annotation. I really want a stylus-style system where I can scribble on the page but my old Kindle just has highlighting and typed in notes.

  3. I agree. I just don't *feel* the kindle at all. (Well, I have the iBooks thing on the iPad which is much the same, I think.) Reading is as much a physical experience as it is a visual one. Besides, I like my house containing more books than I will ever have time to read in my lifetime.

  4. Hi Jane. If there is a page count indicator, I can't find it. And Kindle pages are smaller (in terms of word count as well as size) than most paper pages, so it might seem even more daunting.

    Agree about scribbling, anon. My Kindle's in a leather folder thing, that also contains scraps of paper on which I occasionally scribble. Not ideal.

    I agree, slender-means. But I haven't stopped buying books since I've had the Kindle, any more than I stopped buying vinyl when I got a CD player. I just find the Kindle much easier when I'm away from home. (cf Walkman or iPod versus proper stereo)


What do you think of it so far?