The Great Gatsby on my iPhone

Two years ago I posted about reading Pride and Prejudice on my BlackBerry.  At that time, I was receiving free installments of the book, sent to me daily via email from DailyLit.

Well, I’ve moved on since then.  I’m using an iPhone now, and with the application Stanza, I get access to several online catalogues with over 100,000 selections of classics and contemporary titles and periodicals.  I must add though while the Stanza app is free, some of the eBooks in these catalogues, especially the contemporary ones, are not.

But I’m just interested in the free ones, and there are more than enough to choose from… mainly through Project Gutenberg’s catalogue of 30,000 eBooks in the public domain, classics of over 20 languages.  Not that I’ll be reading one in Icelandic, or Portuguese, or even Esperanto, but it’s good to know that they are there in case you might need them.  All the titles are free to download due to the expiry of their copyrights.  I’ll just stick with the 22,000 English selections for now, from Austen to Zola, from anarchism to zoology… yes, they allow you to search by authors, titles, languages, genres, topics.

Regarding the concept of ‘free’, the Project Gutenberg Website has this important information: ‘Free’ here means both free of charge and freedom to use the titles in whatever way a reader chooses, teaching, adapting, distributing…

So, what has been my experience of reading The Great Gatsby on my iPhone?

First off,  unlike the Kindle, which is the size of a paperback, or larger, the iPhone screen is just 3.5 inch diagonal.  While you can adjust the font size to suit your visual comfort, it just means the inconvenience of turning the pages more often the larger the font.  Reading it horizontally, my setting is about 10 words per line, 14 lines on each page.  I can choose my own style of font and the backlit format.

Compare with reading a hard copy, the iPhone has its convenience, that being smaller, easier to carry. You have your whole library at your fingertip, literally.  But the major advantage over a hard copy, I feel, is the lighted screen.  In other words, you don’t need to turn your bedside table light on to read. In a way, it brings back that childhood experience of reading under a covered blanket with a flashlight.  Ready accessibility, even in the dark.  What a fantastic treat for insomniacs.

Now to something totally different, the affective element of the reading experience.  Strangely enough, reading on the iPhone makes Roland Barthes’ theory a step closer to reality.  Just a recap, I’ve written a post on Barthe’s ‘The Death of the Author’ idea.  The text is the thing, he argues. Let it speak without any reference to its author.  Reading digitally transported me onto that path, whether intentionally or not.

When you’re reading a book, you’re holding the physical object called a ‘book’, with all its cultural meaning and significance, the reality of print on paper, the design and aesthetics of the object itself.  More importantly, from the outset, before you dig in, you’re looking at its cover art, jacket info on the author and the work, with the sometimes additional excerpts of reviews, author bio, introduction to the work… etc. In other words, you cannot avoid knowing who wrote those words you’re reading, his or her background, literary achievement and perspective.

But reading digitally, you’re only seeing the text, unless of course you change the screen to check info about the author or the work.  If you just stay with that screen, you’re only seeing the words per se, unmoved by any of the author’s background, literary style, devoid of any context. And because of the small screen, you’re only reading a few lines at a time. Instead of a complete whole that you can hold in your hands, you are confronted with the fragments, the digitalized, desensitized, deconstructed units of a literary work.

I have read The Great Gatsby before, in hard copy format, and now in the digital mode.  Reading it on the iPhone, I sense that my imagination is more reined in.  I encounter more ‘text’ than ‘images’, and feeling less for the characters.  Interestingly, some details of the plot are clearer this time, but the emotional impact is attenuated.  Of course, one could argue it’s because this is the second time around I read the story… but then again, it has been some years between the two readings.

There’s no perfect solution for everything.  You have the convenience, but the desensitizing of the reading experience.  Nevertheless, the free downloads of world classics at your fingertip is just too good to pass.

My next read from my iPhone library?  Well, there are quite a few choices.  I’m thinking of Proust’s Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time Vol. 1. Reading Proust on the iPhone… how much more postmodern can you get? Roland Barthes would have been pleased.

But it might be too daunting a task to attempt, imagine reading 400 plus pages on a 3.5 inch screen, 14 lines at a time.

And for now… let me just head out to the bookstore.  Nothing can compare to the sensation of being surrounded by books, and actually feeling them in your hands, cover, spine, and all.


Photo Source:  The Great Gatsby book cover at

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby on my iPhone”

  1. I’ll have to have Dear read this. He’s been considering a Kindle and I’ve been considering buying him one for Christmas. Thanks for the info.
    Hope all is well with you. I’m back from some travels and trying to re-adjust…


    I’m sure the Kindle is a much better reading device, you can download from Project Gutenberg as well. It’s just that I’ve got the iPhone with me, and can read from Stanza which is free, why bother paying to get another eRead device. Further, nothing can replace a real book for me.

    Must be nice to be back home. You must be busy preparing for Christmas. We’re snowed in these few days, not ready for winter yet.



  2. Wow, I cannot imagine reading from a screen so small. You bring up lovely points: a lighted screen, easily accessible, not much weight to hold. Still, I suspect I would miss the smell of the page, the heft of the cover, knowing how much is left. Probably one day I’ll be convinced that electronically is the way to go.

    The cover you posted of The Great Gatsby is the one I remember from my high school days. It brings back fond memories, and it’s nice to see a cover without Mia Farrow as Daisy adorning the front. 😉


    I don’t think eReading is going to replace real reading… for me anyway. Look at a book, it’s art in itself. As for the cover, I like its tattered look, which makes a point. A book is like a pet, an object that we relate to and which holds affective ties to our memory and psyche… something that an electronic device is devoid of.



  3. I’ve tried to be open-minded about all this new-fangled stuff, accepting and all that. I understand there are advantages to all these new gadgets, but still…

    You say, …reading digitally, you’re only seeing the text… you’re only seeing the words per se, unmoved by any of the author’s background, literary style, devoid of any context. And because of the small screen, you’re only reading a few lines at a time.

    Instead of a complete whole that you can hold in your hands, you are confronted with the fragments, the digitalized, desensitized, deconstructed units of a literary work.

    I think that’s a good summation, and I think that’s the horror of the whole enterprise. Count me among the literary Luddites, if you will, but I have no taste for “fragments, digitalized, desensitized, deconstructed units”.

    It feels to me like the difference between a living person and a dissected body in a morgue. I don’t want my literature in desensitized fragments – I want it living and breathing, with some heft and weight.

    If I have to haul out the flashlight now and then, so be it. As for all those free downloads – I have a friend who currently has about 20 books downloaded to her device. I asked her how she liked reading them. She hasn’t read a single one. But she’s going to get around to it. Someday. Maybe the new TBR pile will be the TBS file – “to be screened”!


    I have 20 books in my iPhone Stanza library too, and The Great Gatsby is the first one I finished reading through. Of course, it’s far from gratifying as reading a real book, and it hurts my eyes after a while. I’ve got piles of books on my night table, on the floor beside my bed, and on the shelves in my room. They give me a kind of pressure, TBR pressure. Interestingly, those 20 books on my iPhone are all silent entities, no pressure at all. They are as dead as bits and bytes.

    I hope we can remain master of technology, so we can use them for our convenience. Just like allowing emails to evolve from handwritten letters.

    Also, the two can co-exist… a chance to explore the different forms of reading experience. Although I must say I respect your conviction in remaining a literary Luddite 🙂



  4. It’s great that you’ve tried out these several formats. I like the idea of reading in bed without the lamps on — you’d just turn off your gadget and close your eyes when you were done!

    I don’t think I’ll go to ebooks since it’s beyond my budget. But the idea is intriguing. I often find myself wanting to page back and re-read when I’ve got confused and I’m not sure how the ebooks would feel.


    Now I must say one major disadvantage in reading from your iPhone is that you can’t mark your spot, not so convenient to go back and forth to check on things and re-read. I think with the Kindle you probably can do these better, like highlighting and bookmarking… etc. But, it’s nothing like writing down notes on the side, draw pictures, arrows and underlines, in other words, personalize your reading experience.

    The iPhone is convenient for getting emails and playing Solitaire, but I still bring along a real book with me most of the time… guess that will remain a habit for a while longer.



  5. You wrote: Nothing can compare to the sensation of being surrounded by books, and actually feeling them in your hands, cover, spine, and all.

    That’s why I am proud to be a Luddite. But I’m glad that you are willing to step beyond your comfort zone to explore the new technologies and relate them to the culture as a whole. That is most intriguing, indeed. Thanks!


    I’m still not ready to go out and get a Kindle yet. It’s just that since I’ve got the iPhone, might as well make the best use of it. But I’m just reading from Stanza occasionally, while most of my reading are real books… although when it comes to magazines and periodicals, I tend to read online. So you see, in a way, with emails, blogging, googling for info, reading online… we are already experiencing a paradigm shift, whether we like it or not.

    In a way I’m some sort of a Luddite too in that I’m still staying away from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter… at least for a while longer.



  6. Nothing like a good book (or iPhone for that matter) when you are snowed in. It’s just cold and wet here, no white stuff yet — I tried to catch a few snowflakes from your page.

    It took me a long while to read online news just on the screen — I first started by printing the interesting articles out, had to have something to hold onto.

    Hmmm, if I got the iPhone to hold onto, but couldn’t feel and turn the pages…? Do I move forward, or stay behind to dust the bursting shelves? Hmmmmmmm


    We’ve had the most fierce winter storm the last two days, and the temperature will remain in the minus teens Celsius, adding windchill it gets even close to minus 30C! People are shut in their homes for many roads are simply impassable. Reading seems to be the most comforting activity in such a situation. A comfy couch, a hot drink, and … definitely a good book, and not an iPhone!



  7. I keep thinking it’s only a matter of time before I get an iPhone. They really are incredible, along with Blackberries. I watched my son-in-law read his when they were here at Thanksgiving, and it just looked so small. I didn’t realize you can adjust font size and even font, which is pretty cool.

    I might have mentioned to you before that my boss, Chairman of the English department, spent the big bucks on a Kindle, and he didn’t like it.

    I guess I’m with DS, I need to feel a book in my hands. My friend pointed out though, that people such as herself who travel incessantly to Europe are able to “take” many books along in electronic format. Sitting on a trans-Atlantic plane reading that Proust book without lugging the book itself is pretty great.

    Of course I am always thinking about blogs, and your excellent post also reminded me of reading blog posts on Google Reader vs on their real home page. You lose the template, the wallpaper, the sidebar, and whatever lovely accoutrements the blogger surrounds herself with.


    That’s exactly why I don’t subscribe and read others’ blogs on Google Reader. I’d rather surf or go through my Blogroll and visit the blogs at their home page. I love to see the designs, their side bars, the quotes, the pictures… the whole package that goes with the blog. Another reason to reject Rolland Barthes’ idea of ‘text only’ reading: the author and the whole contextual backdrop do count and they are part and parcel of what makes a blog interesting and its message meaningful.

    As to selecting your own font to read, that could be quite contrary to what some authors desire as they choose the particular font in which to have their book published, for the purpose of the specific effects it could elicit. Again, reading is more than just decoding the text.



  8. Yes, yes, yes on reading blogs “in situ” and not from the google reader.

    A thought that just tickled me is that “visual rhetoric” is a senseless concept if there’s no “visual” to take in.

    I don’t know why Barthes bothers me so much, but he does. For one thing, if you strip away everything but the text, and reduce the reading experience to the sheer transmission of information – you’ve not only begun to “screen” books rather than “read” books, you’re right back at the point Paulo Freire fulminated against so effectively – the “banking” theory of education, where “deposits of knowledge” are made.

    But that’s not why I dropped by. One reason is that I found some photographs of reading rooms in the wonderful libraries of the world. Looking at the picture of the reading room in the NYC library, all warm and wood-paneled and beautifully lit, I thought, “That’s it! Reading is a sensory experience as much as a mental experience.” The iphone and kindle may be tools useful in certain circumstances, but they simply can’t replicate the experience of reading.

    And I found this quotation from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End while waiting for my car to be serviced: Only connect!… Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer…”

    Best of all, I spent all day Friday watching it snow!


    … and I spent the last few days digging out of it! We’ve just been hit by the worst snow storm of the year. The temp. is minus 20C today, but we still get out, swarm to shopping malls … life still goes on.

    And what a brilliant quote from E. M. Forster! “Live in fragments no longer…” How apt! Cathy’s comment mentions some larger size eReader for magazines which are interactive too. That may help avoid the fragmentation, and enrich the content as well. Definitely the paradigm has shifted. We need to seek the balance, and master technology for our use and convenience, and not sell out our humanity in the process.



  9. My sister and I were just talking yesterday of how much we love actual books and having a library in the house, no matter how small. Still, it’s wonderful that media will be more and more available through electronic means.

    Electronic readers will get cheaper and larger. Books and magazines will be readable in their actual format as well as be interactive. Sports Illustrated has an electronic magazine version that provides videos and is interactive. A friend posted an example on Facebook.

    When I get around to buying a reader, I’m looking forward to being able to access an archive of magazine articles, such as in Smithsonian. It’s very difficult and expensive to subscribe to and also store so many magazines. You can access Smithsonian online, but I would prefer to be able to read and store the actual magazine electronically. My shelves are overflowing with old copies of that magazine and others.


    Interactive eMag sounds interesting. As I mention in the post, it’s the convenience of storing a whole bunch of issues or stacks of books in one small device that’s so useful. I wonder though, would book art and paper making, layout design, or the fundamental art and skills of drawing and painting be obsolete one day? I sure hope not. I stand for technology for human, and not the other way round. Thanks for your input on some great innovations. Hope they would develop eReading materials and devices with humanity in mind and not replace it.



  10. Aww, I’m starting to realize that unlike many of you I didn’t get to experience reading with a flashlight under the blanket at night when I was little. I should’ve started reading much earlier 😦

    As with you, I also believe that nothing can replace reading a real, tangible copy of a book. Reading is a complete sensory experience, and the smell of a good book always makes it more enjoyable. But yes, I also agree with the advantages you stated for using electronic readers. I’m also interested in how it also allows you to bookmark and put annotations. That must be really useful for a book reviewer. Is that available in Stanza? I believe it’s available in Kindle.


    1. markdavidgan,

      When reading in Stanza, you just need to tap on a word or phrase, and it will be highlighted for you on another screen, where you can select to define and/or annotate it. Define leads to you to a list of dictionary meaning for that word. Annotate allows you to type in your own notes. After that’s done, you can go back to read the text. And the word or phrase you’ve selected will be highlighted so you know you’ve annotated it. Just tap it again and your note will show up. It’s quite a neat device that way. But the main disadvantage is the small screen of the iPhone doesn’t allow you to read a whole lot at a time so you’d easily lose the page where you’d done any annotation.

      As for flashlight reading, all’s not lost. Just read your iPhone or eBook in bed without the lights on, then you’ll get a glimpse of what it feels like. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!


  11. I remain a stubborn curmudgeon when it comes to reading a book on an electronic device. I hope we never get to the day when books aren’t available in paper form anymore. It’s funny – I think that may be my biggest technological worry — books on electronic devices.


    You know, eBooks may give a boost to books, since it offers an additional form of getting books to be read. But of course, we’d like to see it as an alternative only, and not a replacement. If books ever go into oblivion one day, it would mean the destruction of a major part of humanity itself!



  12. Arti,

    First of all, thank you so very much for your comments today on my blog. As you might remember, we once had an exchange as to the origins of Arti and spoke then of ‘Everything Waits To Be Noticed,’ so I especially thought of that when I was writing the piece. Thank you for stopping by. I treasure your comment, so much so, it made its way into my journal.

    I apologize for not honoring my blogroll more devotedly, particularly when I come across a post such as this. Like anyone who reads, I am curious about the stories and experiences from the digital front. I have not yet gone over, but your observations are so thoughtful, detailed, and erudite. It’s wonderful to have someone with a poetic sensibility render an analysis on the difference between what I don’t think will ever leave me — the love, the feel and the wonder of a real honest-to-God book — against the new and improved digital substitute. And that is what it will always be to me — a substitute.

    I loved your metaphor for a book being like a pet. It reminded me of The Velveteen Rabbit and what a fittingly apt comparison that beloved story evokes in judging what is revered with what is shiny and new. I’m speaking, of course, of the passage on What is Real. It continues to resonate, profoundly, all these many years later.

    Many thanks and a personal wish to you for a blissfully happy holiday. I look forward to being a better blogging friend to you in the new year.


    1. Errant Aesthete,

      Your words are just too kind… and certainly no need for apologies. I’m amazed you even have time to read and respond to blogs with a time and energy demanding career, albeit enjoying some time-out, and maintaining such a beautiful blog at The Errant Aesthete must be another full-time job! It’s my pleasure visiting your site, an eye-opener every time… that’s my reward already.

      Thank you for your Christmas wish and the same to you, have a blessed time during this meaningful Season. And yes, let’s conintue to enrich ourselves through blogging… what a wonderful world technology has opened up for us! And no, we will never, never discard our books, however tattered and dog-eared they are!


  13. Hello Arti! I just downloaded Stanza and you’re definitely right. It’s great! Thanks for posting about it 🙂

    Read on!



  14. This was pretty interesting. I, personally, take the opposite opinion, as the cover etc. definitely help to get my imagine working, but it was cool to see a reasoned article to the opposite. Also, I thought this post had a lot of relevance going into the uber-digital age! Like it or not I think you’re head first into the future way of things.


    Your song ‘Within and Without’, based on the quote from The Great Gatsby, ‘I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’ just illustrates the disadvantage of such a reading device. I had a hard time trying to locate that quote, yes, even though you mentioned it’s in Chapter 2. It would be much easier with a conventional hard copy, where I can see the whole page and my own underlining of gems and scribblings of my own thoughts.

    I’m afraid this ‘uber-digital age’ is here to stay and we need to accommodate by adjusting our reading habits. It’s keeping it in perspective that’s most important I suppose. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.



  15. How do i read a book from the gutenburg project on my iPhone? How to I download it and where do I read it? Thanks for feedback 🙂


    You first have to get the app ‘Stanza’ for your iPhone. You download it just like any other apps through iTune. It’s free. After you’ve installed Stanza into your phone, open it and you’ll see a catalog. In the catalogue under ‘Free Books’, you will find Project Gutenberg. Open it and you will see all the free books categorized into Authors, Titles, Subjects, …etc. You’re then free to make your selections and download whatever books you like. All your downloads will be stored in your ‘Library’ in your Stanza app.

    Enjoy your reads!



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