Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on April 18th.  The Pulitzer judges called it "an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed."

So I'm wondering just how old Jennifer Egan might feel in the digital age if she knew that not everything in her book can be read on my Android smartphone. And that some of it is barely legible on my Nook 3G.  Let me explain.

I bought the "Nookbook" version of Goon Squad from Barnes & earlier this month. I'd been reading it mostly on my Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V, whose touchscreen display and resolution (3.2" and 320-by-480-pixels) is inferior to that of an iPhone 4 (3.5" and 960-by-640-pixels) but comparable to previous versions of the iPhone, whose screens sport the same physical dimensions as the iPhone 4's but the same resolution as my LG Optimus V's.

For reading text, a 320-by-480 pixel color screen works fine.  And the text size is adjustable to five different sizes for those of us in the reading glass set.

Curiously, however, in a later chapter of Goon Squad Egan departs from ordinary text and turns to what appear to be PowerPoint slides to present the story of a 12-year-old girl and her autistic brother.  Since the slides are grayscale they don't pose an insuperable challenge to viewing on my Nook 3G's E-Ink screen, which supports 16 shades of gray.  (In a world where even low-end notebook displays handle 16.7 million colors with ease 16 shades of gray may sound pathetic. But it offers enough contrast for basic black-and-white photographs and, yes, PowerPoint slides that consist mostly of text occupying flowcharty geometric shapes.)

But because these slides are embedded in the Nookbook file (and, I'm guessing, any other ebook file format) as graphics and not as text their limitations become instantly noticeable.  Here's how p. 188 appears on my LG Optimus V:

This screen capture displays the page at its native resolution of 320-by-480 pixels.  You might think that turning the phone to landscape mode would improve readability -- and it does:

But in landscape mode, as you can see, it can't display the entire slide.  And there's no way to scroll down or use the touchscreen to push up the image to see what you're missing.  You're stuck with an almost complete image.

And on the Nook 3G?

I couldn't figure out how to do a screen capture of my Nook 3G, so I was forced to take a picture of the screen and crop it.  This image doesn't display at the Nook's native resolution -- but it does approximate what you see on the 600 x 800 pixel E-Ink screen:

It's readable, but just barely.  What's more, because these PowerPoint slides are embedded graphics they can't be resized.  While the Nook 3G has the same text-sizing capability as the Android Nook app, text sizing is useless with embedded graphics.  They display only at heir native resolution.

Consider that this chapter of Goon Squad consists of more than 60 such images and you've got a feel for how unsatisfying it is to read on either an Android phone or the Nook 3G.  (I ended up reading the chapter with the Nook for PC app on my 20" desktop monitor, where the slides were effortlessly large.) Since the garden-variety Kindle has essentially the same E-Ink screen as the Nook I assume this problem afflicts Amazon ebook customers, too.  Or, for that matter, Sony Reader customers.

In the end not, as technology marketers are fond of putting it, a good "user experience".  Then again, good literature sometimes demands patience and persistence. Jennifer Egan may have imagined making such demands on her readers when she departed from linear storytelling and chose to fragment, concentrate, and embed a girl's discourse in a stream of PowerPoint slides. But I doubt she figured her choice would force any reader to persevere through three different ebook platforms just to render her content legible.

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