Literature in Miniature: Reading on the iPhone


To be perfectly honest, reading on an iPhone is a little like browsing through those tiny novelty books they sell as impulse buys at the front of bookstores. It’s clumsy and hard on the eyes, but on the upside, it can fit in your front shirt pocket. And while those tiny hardback books mainly stick to funny photos of cats or poems about friendship, the offerings for the iPhone and other mobile devices are becoming nearly unlimited. These days, you can find magazines, Pride and Prejudice, or the latest hot paperback thriller, all as downloadable content. With all that in mind, our sister publication Boldtype gave three iPhone e-reader applications — the Google, Kindle, and Classics apps — a test drive. Read the results after the jump.

That’s good news to anyone with an already-bulging purse (or man satchel), since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (even in paperback) can really put a physical strain on the constant and voracious reader. But for the skeptics, such as myself, all this can be a bit scary. I actually get a lot of pleasure in cracking a book’s binding for the first time. I even use a bookmark to preserve some of that pristine quality. Will the digital age of reading squeeze all the sentimentality out of the act spending time with a good book? Before I take my life totally the way of Thoreau, I thought I would give this whole curling-up-with-my-phone thing a fighting chance. On my iPhone, I downloaded the Google, Kindle, and Classics apps, found a comfy chair, and gave them a test drive.

I began with the mobile version of Google Books, designed especially for portable devices. It’s basically a stripped-down version of the regular Google Books site; the selection is entirely free, but limited to public-domain titles. Its mix of true classics and wacky obscurities is presented in a very readable format — you just navigate vertically with a sweep of your finger. The mobile site is best for those times when you’re bored and looking for a curveball — a bit like browsing through a real used bookstore, but without the dust. For instance, I searched for Where the Wild Things Are, so I could take a little nostalgia trip before the movie comes out; the mobile Google Books offered up a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Dorset by Thomas Hardy. Searching for WTWTA on “all books,” instead of just “free books,” however, I was taken straight to the childhood classic, but just through a purchase link.

If it’s the latest releases you’re after, Amazon’s free Kindle app is very easy to use. A friend of mine who works in publishing owns an actual Kindle, which he uses to take multiple books and manuscripts home with him. He let me play around with his full-sized Kindle, and I must say that the Kindle iPhone app is the better-looking kid sister. Instead of using keys to scroll, you flip pages by just moving your finger across the screen. You can even dog-ear pages just by pushing a button — like the real deal, sans paper cuts. Amazon has a fairly big selection of popular books available for sale, and before you pay for any of them (it’s $9.99 for most books) it will send a pretty large sample to your iPhone. Not a bad deal in these economic times.

The Classics app, meanwhile, is less of a practical reading device than a clever way to get around to reading a certain type of book; you know, the ones you may have skimmed in high school, but keep telling people at parties you’ve been meaning to actually read. The app is currently on sale for 99 cents, and it’s worth it just for the kitsch factor. The interface looks like a shelf of hardbound tomes — from Dracula to Alice in Wonderland — which open as you touch them. The pages look similar to those in the Kindle app, but instead of dog-earing, Classics places an animated satin red ribbon to mark your place. While Classics doesn’t feel like a must-have for reading, it’s certainly a fun way to pass the time on a subway ride or during a boring meeting (hint: reading on your phone is very inconspicuous).

While I’m not a total convert to reading on my iPhone, I now see the perks. If you already own one, why not? It’s worth it to carry a few books on it for when you get restless at a bar and literature is a better companion than that girl or guy passed out next to you. You can even read Ulysses at 1am on a Saturday night, and everyone will think you’re just texting a hot date.