Comic on the joy of online reading

Lucy Knisley's comic "Downloading Optimism: Pessimism Detected" is a thoughtful response to a panel where great indie comix creators (Linda Barry, Jules Feiffer, Matt Groening, Chris Ware) decried online comics and online reading. Click through for the whole thing.

Downloading Optimism (Thanks, Ape Lad!)


  1. Excellent Comic. I like one point that now a days we can read the books in an Ipod. I hope most of the people are using this technology to read the books.

  2. To think Ray Bradbury dreamt of a world where books would have to be burnt to be forgotten. one day soon maybe all that would be needed is a little line of code..

  3. I’ve been reading things on computer screens for years, too, and my preference is still not to read things ‘scrolling’. I’m just saying.

    But that doesn’t matter; every text reader I’ve seen (on the iPhone at least) primarily operates in a ‘paged’ mode which doesn’t bother me. And though I’d prefer not to read a glowing screen, convenience wins out.

    What I still feel is missing (and maybe I just haven’t heard from them) are digital libraries where one can borrow single-read books and return them for free. Buying books just seems ‘wrong’ to me.

      1. I had no idea that physical libraries had ebooks, or even that the technology to allow that existed. I will definitely check my local libararies. This has been a sore point for me… my local libraries in suburban NJ have ridiculous hours like “10 am to 6 pm weekdays only” which means they might as well not exist. (free library) ebooks might get me reading again and ween me from this TV and internet compulsion.

  4. I have a theory that it’s actually harder to read on a computer screen, because the resolution is lower. So your brain has to do more work figuring out what the letters are. It’s unconscious work, but it still takes effort. So it has an unconscious effect on how you feel about that reading.

    Reading on high DPI electronic displays feels very different from reading on a normal screen. I wonder if increases in resolution (and increased portability of those screens) will change the attitude towards screen reading. I guess I’m talking about the Kindle and friends at this point, though I think they miss the point by heaping on other features aside from the display.

    1. I think it’s related to page width. Books are typically printed with a shorter line length and page width than you would use on a computer screen which makes it much easier to speed read and to avoid losing track of the line you are on. You can make your browser window tall and narrow for a similar effect but this tends to mess up the page formatting. An iphone held in portrait mode is much nicer.

  5. I’ve also been reading novel-length chunks of text on-screen since the young age when I figured out how to find fan-fiction (X-Files fic, back in the good old days). As far as I was concerned, free fan fiction was often of as good quality, and met the same needs for cheap’n’easily digested entertainment, as the mass-market paperbacks that cost more than half my weekly pocket money and then built up into a ridiculously huge collection of paper that sat on my bookshelf while I wondered what to do with them. And sitting in front of a computer to read has always felt easier than holding a heavy hard-cover in my lap or trying to find a way to prop it up that didn’t wind up straining my arms and shoulders 4 hours into a marathon reading session.

    I buy hard-copy books these days that will be referenced over and over again: craft books, language books, recipe books. Books that are useful to me in their physical form. Reading long pieces of text, for leisure or education, continues to feel easier on a computer screen. I can empathize with the nostalgia for the medium that one grew up with and became comfortable with, but I don’t personally feel it.

      1. Empathy, n., 1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

  6. I’m a fast reader and reader on large screens – after all, it’s trivial to zoom up the font and still have a lot of paragraphs to see. The drawback is that the screens kinda fast away – from 50 cm to 75 cm in some cases, so I see too much other stuff around the screen. And I can’t position myself freely, that’s bad, too.

    I also read on my iPhone (and before that on my Palm), which has its own drawbacks. While I can position myself as I wish and the screen’s close to my eye, it’s still a damn small screen – I usually read whole paragraphs, which rarely fit on such a device.

  7. I’m not that old (I’m 25) but I still feel there’s a big difference between reading e-books and physical books. I could never read a whole book on a screen; it’s just too uncomfortable.

    There’s something special about holding a book and physically turning the pages; about having a book for years and going back to it time and again, the pages becoming yellower and more worn each time.

    And, as with MP3 albums versus vinyl, there’s less of a temptation to skip ahead. You feel a commitment to the task of going from start to finish: with a paper book, it’s about the journey from page 1 to ‘The End’, while I always feel with e-books I can just ‘scroll past’ the less exciting bits – it’s about reaching the end of the page.

    1. Ditto.

      Re: Knisley’s point about expending energy on how a story is delivered and instead focusing on the quality of the words … that’s missing the point. Half the beauty of a book is its physicality — the texture of the pages, the gloss of the cover, the smell of slowly aging paper and glue, the grain against your finger when you run it down a page, and the sharpness of the paper edge against your thumb when you flip the pages and listen to the sound.

      Just because some people take pleasure in a book’s physical qualities doesn’t mean we’re overlooking the quality of the writing. It’s a complementary appreciation.

      There’s a satisfying *wholeness* in a fantastic story that’s also a pleasing object. It’s like how the best of architecture balances function and form. A building that just works is good, but a building that works and is beautiful is amazing.

      To be fair, yes, I’d probably grumble at you if you only read books digitally, but it’d be good-natured grumbling. What am I really going to do about it? Burn your iPod?

      That said, while I can definitely agree that digital books are cheaper and just simpler to transport in bulk, I think a single book still works just fine — it’s easy to mark your place, it’s easy to transport, it doesn’t require a technical format or electricity.

      The benefits in the jump from scroll to book were big — books were less unwieldy, could pack more content on less paper, were more easily portable, and were sturdier.

      I pretty much never buy hardcover books unless it’s an important reference book or an art book that’s intended to last. I like how paperbacks take on all the dings and marks that make it mine, how it ages with me, and eventually, if I love it enough, falls apart, just like me. I like how I can just give someone a book (same with a CD; there just isn’t the same feeling about giving someone a digital album for a gift) or leave it on a bench for a stranger.

      If a book’s embarrassing? I read it at home. I’m almost never just reading one book at once. Or I lose the facade and just take my hits :)

      And I’m no old fart here. I’m 24. And I read fanfiction.

  8. I haven’t read any reports from the panel mentioned, but going by the strip there’s no real suggestion that the creators decried anything; they seemed to be concerned with the state of print, but the only people quoted as criticising digital work are Lucy’s family and friends (of family). So the write-up here seems a bit unfair on Feiffer and co., to me.

    In the fabulous Lynda Barry’s case, at least, her recent work fares far better in print – What It Is is presented as a faux-journal, a collaged collection of scraps and textures that makes sense as a handheld book but doesn’t work as well for me digitally, where the illusion is stretched too thin.

    This reminds of the scene in Gremlins 2 where the film reel appears to break and the Gremlins make shadow puppets on the screen. For the VHS release, they shot a different sequence where the tape breaks and the screen turns to static, but if you catch it on TV you very often see the film effect – and while everyone understands the gag, it’s not the same.

    (Of course, even if you see the VHS version on TV it’s not the same – they’d need another version that simulated a loss of the TV signal, which may well exist for all I know…)

    So my point appears to be that sombunall comics need to be printed on paper. I’m sure the same is true of ‘regular’ books (House of Leaves comes to mind). I can see where people who lament the state of printed comics / strips are coming from, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what can be done digitally, too. What I’d be most interested in is something great that could only be done digitally, to stand alongside the Nemos and the Gasoline Alleys in the Hall of Exemplars.

  9. I think that digital text has a definite place and is improving greatly over time. My question is this? What about permanence? What about the beauty of a well-designed book? I used to work in a library where I could go into a beautifully-furnished room and look at books made hundreds of years ago. Many of them were gorgeously-made. Yes, the text is the most important thing and having it in a digital form means that it can be copied exponentially, thereby greatly lowering its chances of ever being lost. However, what about the books that aren’t considered essential by the general public? Unless someone makes a concerted effort to preserve these works as well, they can be lost in a matter of years. Print simply lasts longer. You know, I was reading some of the things I wrote in college the other day… wait. No, I wasn’t. Why? Because I wrote them on a Brother word processor and saved them to a floppy. While I still have the disks themselves, I have no way of extracting the files or even telling if the disks are physically-sound. Brother, at that time, used a proprietary file system and I have yet to be able to find a way to extract the data. So, all of those things that I spent so much time writing, including love letters to my first serious girlfriend and short stories and plays, are gone forever. However, I can dig into a box in my basement and find stories that I wrote in high school or when I was a child and they’re still intact. Sure, they’re not worth reading to anyone other than myself, but that’s not the point. Digital text is a convenience. Analog printing is (at least a little bit) forever.

    By the way, if anyone knows of a way to get that data off of those discs, you’d be my best friend.

  10. I not only love physical books, I love hanging out in libraries and bookstores.

    I’ll admit that I’m a bit worried about where we’re headed.

  11. I still LOVE my paperbooks (in fact, I have a subscription to the COOLEST book service ever – Indiespensible through Powell’s Books in Portland, OR), but I have to admit that I also LOVE reading on my iPod touch. It’s not the same as reading on a computer screen – much more comfortable – plus I can make bookmarks on important passages I want to remember, I can highlight words to look up later, and I can carry ANY book with me anywhere without adding a whole lot of extra weight to my bags.

    I think people who love books will still buy paper books (I sure as heck still do), but people who love to read anything and everything will probably buy both paper books AND e-books. I don’t know anyone whose Kindle or iPod has completely replaced their personal libraries.

    And I’m with you, Bender – I also love bookstores and libraries. I am really fortunate to have a small public law library right near my office where I frequently go and hide to read on breaks and lunch when I don’t have other things to do. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by a cocoon of quiet book-aroma. It does wonders for my soul.

  12. “Half the beauty of a bookk is its physicality — the texture of the pages, the gloss of the cover, the smell of slowly aging paper and glue, the grain against your finger when you run it down a page, and the sharpness of the paper edge against your thumb when you flip the pages and listen to the sound.”

    Taking the term “book” literally, you are (partly) right. An ebook-reader is just a approximation of a real book, as a real book is just a approximation of a scroll and so on. Therefore any physical aesthetics of ebook-readers will have to be developed and appreciated on their terms.

    However, I disagree with the implied notion that only a book can somehow deliver a full experience. The „half” you mentioned is hyperbole. Take a book you cherish highly and place it at 100. Now take a book you truly despise, because it’s badly written, shallow, an adolescent power fantasy with cheap sex scenes inexplainable aimed and bought for by adults. Place that at 0. Now switch their covers. Okay, do you think both are a 50? I doubt it very much.

    You probably have some other, probably flexible, ratio you use to weigh the importance of the physical aspects. And other people have other ratios. Mine’s usually very high, i.e the physical aspect is not that important, as long as it’s not related to usability and, that’s quite irrational, matches the other books of a series or run. I’d never bought a Harry Potter from another publisher than scholastic press or another edition after I committed myself to their first three hardcovers and I despise Fischer for mixing matte and glossy covers for their Dostojewsky translations by Geier. *vent*

    And some other people apparently just buy books to look at them and display them. A strange hobby, but hey, to each their own.

    1. That’s fair. “Half” was just an expression. I freely admit to hyperbole, because I wanted to get across how much pleasure there is to be had when a book really gets it right in terms of presentation. It’s the same enjoyment in a well-made piece of furniture. Yeah, it’s important that it’s comfortable, of course, but it’s so nice to have something I like looking at and that I can use aesthetically.

      The gist of my meaning is that I don’t like how the comic seems to dismiss people’s objections to e-books because physical books are old-fashioned or impractical. People are not always devoted to physical books because of irrationality or tradition, but because there’s genuine pleasure. And pleasure sometimes can override concerns of practicality — e.g., I’ll happily own books and bookshelves over the convenience of a single e-book reader.

      “real book is just a approximation of a scroll and so on.”

      A book is not an approximation of a scroll. It’s a totally different format. They’re both *physical* but the difference is really huge. Switching from scrolls to books wasn’t altering what you held in your hands, but how you perceived the content.

      In fact, I’d say that an e-book, which can be read on a screen and (mouse-)scrolled, is a lot more like a scroll, because the text can read continuously if you want to.

      What *really* interests me about e-books isn’t all this stuff about price and portability and instant availability, but how it’ll affect how we present content.

      I think the fact that some books have fakey e-pages you flip, when you don’t need to, is a little weird; it’s not faithful to the format. I want to see what happens when the e-format is really exploited.

      1. Well, ebook readers still operate in terms of pages, because right now they want to mimic books. Myself, I think in “screens”. However, I’ll believe that the word “page” will stay with us for a long time, because books and ereaders will likely coexist for quite some time. Like ”fire” to mean “shoot”.

        The flip effect: Yes, some programs on computers do that. E-Ink readers, where most of the action is these days, don’t, because the technology behind it doesn’t allow is. But some effect will probably emerge – part of the attractiion of the iPhone user experience is how it mimics physics. how the virtual reacts to the finger in an intuitive and understandable way.

        I don’t think that scrolling will become en vogue, though, because the fast readers will probably just change screenfulls.

        That’s were the random access of books trumps the scroll, too.

        1. “Well, ebook readers still operate in terms of pages, because right now they want to mimic books.”

          It’s a fair thing to want to do, and I get that mimicking books makes it easier in terms of mental accessibility for people switching between digital and physical. Personally, though, I don’t get it, and it wouldn’t be something I’d be looking for if I got an e-book, because if I wanted to flip pages, I’d just get a book, right?

          Hmm. Maybe because pages help visually break up and manage the content? It’s interesting that as books evolve, the layout of pages could remain not because it’s a physical limitation but because of how it affects content consumption.

          (I like the idea of “pages” persisting as a term in the future even if they might not exist anymore.)

    2. “Therefore any physical aesthetics of ebook-readers will have to be developed and appreciated on their terms.”

      Of course they do, and I’m not saying e-book readers will never have any physical appeal.

      I’m only defending my own appreciation of physical books, which is not to the exclusion of other formats. I’m just addressing the argument that physical books aren’t practical, etc., and pointing out my love for books is not necessarily practical. Argument doesn’t apply to me, because essentially, I agree, yes, physical books aren’t practical, and I’m telling you why I’m overriding that concern.

  13. Well, what ABOUT permanence? My book isn’t permanent if I loan it to a friend who never returns it, or have it on me one day when I get caught in the rain, or if I move around a lot and can no longer afford to haul boxes of books with me. My digital copy, assuming that it is not DRM crippled and that I have a fairly reliable back-up system, is about as permanent as it gets. And I can loan it to my friend to read without the fear of never seeing it again.

    I gave up collecting books as soon as I began living independently, because the hauling of them from one house to another in the years of 6-months-or-less leases is just too much. Nowadays I pass books on as fast as I read them (except for that small collection of reference books), because the physical object is a liability. So for me, a digital copy has much greater permanence. I never have to worry about how many boxes it will take to pack up my digital archive.

    I am not anti-book, I am just anti-the-constant-nostalgic-generalisations about how much everyone will miss the smell, feel & weight of their physical books (I in NO WAY miss the days when I used to lug 2-3 hardcovers around with me so as to always be sure to have something to read. My spine suffered greatly for it). I don’t think books are actually going to go anywhere as long as some people prefer to read them hardcopy, and I don’t think the people who prefer to read in digital mediums are actually missing out on some integral, essential component of reading. I think the constant decrying of the rise of digital reading strays well outside of people’s individual preferences and into a kooky magical land of attributing a universal value to the experience of reading & owning hardcopy that isn’t actually universally real. This comic is pretty great as an example of someone piping up and saying well, actually, I LIKE reading digital. Not all of us are pining for the musty-paged old days (which are also still the current-days: you CAN still buy books, you know).

    1. None of us is doing anything. Everyone here is reminiscing about their own experiences, or people they’ve talked to.

      “have it on me one day when I get caught in the rain”

      I’d say that an e-book reader wouldn’t survive any better. A book does just fine if you drop it, step on it, or even wet it. Sure, the pages look hilarious now, but paper *can* dry out.

      “when I used to lug 2-3 hardcovers around with me”

      Well, it sounds like digital reading is for you, a reading heavy-hitter. I sure as hell never lugged around 2-3 hardcover books a day; I just brought the one paperback, and maybe a spare.

      I don’t know why you need to be so offended. Do your own thing. I’m offended, however, by people who think I’m stuck in a “kooky magical land” or “pining.” I like something I’ve been doing for a long time, and it isn’t wrong just because it’s tradition.

  14. Echoing half the people here … I really love my hard-bound books. It’s almost a fetish thing, how much I love them. Yes, it’s true, I do take them to bed, and frequently sleep with them.

    I also like to write on them … underlining, calling out specific quotes, summarizing in the margins, or outlining main points on a blank page in the front. Lovemarks, all.

    I also like that, for the most part[*], they don’t go away if you’re not thinking about them. They mostly just need a place on a shelf in a room in a house you live in. Very low cognitive load.

    * With the exception of that one book which disappeared when quantum effects split the universe into whatever comes next in the multiverse, and you ended up in the version of the universe where the book really did just fall through the floor, even though you attributed it to a relative walking off with it.

  15. It’s sort of wierd to see ebooks described as being cheaper – they cost about the same as a paperback, which is what most people actually buy. And paperbacks don’t require you to pay through the freaking nose for an electronic device.

    Though as somebody who owns over 800 novels and probably another 200 non-fiction books, I can sympathise with the stack of books comment… Though decent shelves and paperbacks mostly fixes that.

  16. Just another thought on the so-called “permanence” of books. I’ve worked in library special collections for half my adult life. Yes, you may see a 500-year-old book, beautifully bound, of exquisite workmanship and magical legibility. However, that barely-100-year-old book next to it is crumbling to dust in a clamshell box, completely unusable because the pulp it’s printed on is essentially devouring itself. Mass-market paperbacks last, what, a few reads before the pages start coming unglued? Books are only as permanent as their workmanship, and as bookbinding is no longer done by hand, everyone who thinks their personal library will be in readable condition in 150 years is fooling themselves.

  17. I rarely buy books unless I really, really like them. Most of the time I check a book out at the library. I’m one of those people who wants the sum total of their possessions to describe something about the owner. Too much static and the message is lost. Therefore, I don’t own much stuff, and I certainly don’t own entire bookshelves full of pulp paperbacks.
    I might be into digital reading if a few requirements were met:
    – The ability to check out an e-book at the library. Currently, my library has like 3 kindles loaded with e-books available to check out, and there’s a huge wait. This leads to the next requirement.
    – Screw DRM. There’s no way to “check out” an e-book from the library without checking out the kindle it’s on. There’s no way to give an e-book to somebody if you don’t want it anymore. There’s no way to back up your e-book collection in case your kindle crashes or is lost. You can’t re-sell an e-book.
    I have no doubt that the technology will eventually catch up to a point where there’s no more effort required to read an e-book than a conventional paper book. Until all this DRM straightjacketing is gone, you’ll never see me reading one.

  18. I’m torn in two on this one, and I have a feeling I always will be. I read a lot online. The constant access to fanfiction is basically what justifies me paying so much for a cell phone I barely ever use to make calls or to text. The digitization of books has the potential to offer practically instant access to content that I may not be able to find or access while perusing a bookshop or the shelves of my library. But hanging out at used bookstores and the library is one of my favorite things to do. I spend a lot of my money at Amazon for dead tree version books. I hardly ever part with a book I have purchased, but I’ve removed ebooks from my portable devices when I am through with them. Digital content still seems a bit impermanent to me, like it’s just not quite as good as the hard copy version of it and therefore is disposable. For content like some online comics or fanfiction that has no hard copy, then the digital is more than acceptable because that’s the only means by which it is available. If I like an ebook enough, I’ll have a burning need buy the hard copy so as to make it a permanent part of my lit collection. Digital books are cool and all, but as I discovered this summer while beach reading, sand in your Blackberry is not cool. Sand is easily extracted from the pages of a book.

  19. I’ve read a lot online. CRT & LCD. I’ve read novels. Most of Harry Potter (all of it, actually). Lots more. I too started out in and read a lot of fanfic. I don’t really have a problem with it, and nowadays I’m just more used to sitting in front of a computer than a book.

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