"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I confess that when I decided to buy an iPad, I mostly thought of it as an ultra-portable TV that I could also use to surf the Web and occasionally check e-mail. I expected the cornucopia of Netflix Watch Instantly to keep me occupied for quite a while, now that I can finally watch video in bed. (Not only does my laptop get too hot to make this comfortable, but I worry that I’ll fall asleep and accidentally kick my hard drive into oblivion.)
One weekend into owning the thing and I’ve only managed to watch half an episode of “Black Adder.” I have yet to play a single game. What I’ve mostly been doing on the iPad is reading, because this much-ballyhooed harbinger of the future turns out to be the ideal device for that most old-fashioned of leisure activities.
One of the very first things I read was an early draft of Joan Walsh’s review of the new Barack Obama biography by David Remnick. While I was eager to see what Joan had to say about the book, I wasn’t looking forward to having to read it on my laptop. I’ve always found it difficult to fully concentrate on longer, in-depth stories on my computer unless I was actually working on them as an editor or writer. In the past, when I’ve needed to really think hard about a longer text, I’ve even resorted to that terribly analog (not to mention wasteful) practice of printing it out and carrying it off to my sofa to read in peace.
Once I clicked on that e-mail attachment, though, and Joan’s review filled the tablet screen in my hands, I knew this would be different. I nestled into the sofa, propped the iPad against my knees and blissfully read the whole 3,000 words from start to finish without once experiencing that nagging urge to check e-mail or Twitter or Facebook. OK, so maybe some of that is a testament to the piece itself, but I assure you that in light of my recent track record with on-screen reading, it was extraordinary.
Reading a document on the iPad feels … serene. There’s no dock filled with application icons lurking at the edge of the screen to suggest that I log onto iChat to see who else is online (maybe it’s Joan, and she can explain this one reference to me …) or double-check the day’s to-do list. No files on the desktop remind me about that other thing I need to put the finishing touches on and send. No notifications from TweetDeck pop up to inform me that Rose had insomnia again last night or that Ron found a fascinating article on the Guardian Web site or that Michele just posted an adorable new photo of her dog.
Many pundits have complained about the iPad’s inability to support multitasking, and while I can see how that makes it impractical as a tool for work, it’s actually an asset for someone who just wants to focus. You can only do one thing at a time on the iPad, and while I’m well aware that e-mail and LOLcats and all kinds of social networking treats are not much further away than a few extra clicks, switching from one app to another feels so definitive — qualitatively different from having multiple windows open on a single screen.
And, ultimately, my laptop is for doing things and making things. Above all, it’s for work, which, even in my case (the case of someone who works on solo projects at home), means juggling a lot of different balls at once. The iPad really isn’t that practical if you want to get things done (unless you’re a pretty remedial computer user; some commentators consider it a good choice for late and/or reluctant entrants into the digital realm, like my mom).
We are often urged to frown on devices that don’t prompt us to collaborate on and create — or at the very least comment on — all the amazing old and new things, from news reports to scientific studies, Web comics to video mash-ups, that proliferate online. It’s so undemocratic, so anti-DIY. So old paradigm.
But here’s the thing: Sometimes I don’t want to talk. Sometimes what I want is to listen, really listen, to what someone else has to say. I’ve managed, for example, to own a few iPods over the past 10 years — gadgets I use every day — without ever once missing the option of composing my own music on them. I can’t even remix music by other people, for crying out loud! Oppressively top-down, right? Only, I don’t care because I have no desire to ever try my hand at composing (the first thing I do with any new Mac is delete GarageBand). Nevertheless, the iPod has expanded and enhanced my appreciation of music, simply by giving me more opportunities to find and listen to it.
So, while even before it went on sale Saturday the iPad was disparaged as a mere “media consumption” device, that description is exactly what piqued my interest. I know that my laptop can do just about everything the iPad can, but it’s not designed to be curled up with at the end of long day; it’s the long day’s main battleground. I find it hard to entirely relax with it, to enter a more receptive state of mind. Your desk at work can hold up a plate as effectively as the sidewalk table at your neighborhood cafe, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll feel as happy eating lunch there.
The iPad may not be ideal for what the tech industry calls “productivity,” but it’s well-suited for the purpose I had in mind: absorption. Even the most creative individuals will tell you that they have to spend some time simply soaking up the world around them, including the work of other creators, or ultimately the well runs dry. Much techno-utopian rhetoric implies that devoting your whole attention to someone else’s creation, sans interactivity, is necessarily a sad, incomplete, merely passive experience. Not only is that incorrect, it reflects certain troubling psychosexual attitudes about surrender and control that I don’t even want to get into here. When people complain nowadays about not being able to think or read as deeply as they used to, they’re not just acting like a bunch of old fuddy-duddies: They’re noticing a genuine lack of substance, the threadbare sensation of living in a culture where everyone’s talking and nobody’s listening.
But speaking of fuddy-duddies, should any of them still be with us, they’re probably asking why, if I don’t like reading on my computer, I can’t just stick with paper. Even if I weren’t so susceptible to shiny new gadgets, the fact remains that much of what I want to read now doesn’t exist on paper, at least not unless I print it out myself. In addition to Joan’s review, I’ve read the following things on my iPad:
Two chapters from a terrific Y.A. novel a friend is currently working on
Long articles from the Web sites of the American Scholar and the London Review of Books (to which I do not subscribe)
The New York Times Book Review (the only part of the behemoth Sunday paper I want)
A short story offered as a free sample from a collection by an author I’m curious about
An extended blog discussion of humbling erudition on a subject I’ve written about myself
A PDF of a graphic novel, which looked unbelievably gorgeous — devices like the iPad will surely usher in a golden age for this form
Two software manuals
The first couple of chapters of a new novel in the Marla Mason series by T.A. Pratt. I got hooked on the noirish magical adventures of this sorceress/crime lord though audio versions of the first few books. Pratt has had difficulty placing subsequent installments with conventional publishers, so he’s publishing online and soliciting donations.
Most of these items have languished in “to be read” files I keep in various places on my computer but never get around to revisiting because reading anything long on my laptop has come to feel like a chore.
Notice that none of these documents is a conventional e-book. Unlike the average iPad user, I’m drowning in new print books, so buying e-books of those titles makes little sense for me. I already own print copies of many of the public-domain classics available as free e-books from retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple’s new iBooks store, as well. Two books released by publishers as promising stand-alone apps — a version of “Infinite Jest” with hyperlinked footnotes and a new Philip Pullman novel that comes packaged with video and other extras — turned out to be made for the iPhone, not the iPad. You can still read them on the iPad, but either in an absurdly small, iPhone-size format or blown up to a degree that the type looks fuzzy.
I’m not averse to e-books; I’ve read entire novels on my iPhone (and look forward to the perversity of revisiting “Infinite Jest” on that tiny screen). The iBooks store doesn’t have a lot of titles yet, but there’s an iPad version of the Kindle software that looks just as good and has the advantage of Amazon’s extensive Kindle catalog. And while there are a lot of free apps that repackage public-domain classics, not all of them are well-designed or easy to use; you can’t, for example, search the app Free Books by author. I’ve heard glowing things about Eucalyptus as a reader for the vast public domain library of the Project Gutenberg, but so far that app is not iPad-ready.
Many commentators have complained about the digital rights management imposed by Apple’s (and Amazon’s) e-book store. In principle, I suspect they’re correct, but as a less sophisticated user, I’ve never had a problem with this aspect of iTunes. And, as the resident of a small apartment, I’ve always found storing books to be a bigger challenge than keeping them. I also don’t trade books with friends, so it never occurred to me that not being able to pass an e-book along would be a dealbreaker for some readers. However, I do think it’s ridiculous that (at present) you can’t read your iBooks purchases on your iPhone (or laptop). If nothing else, the many debates about e-books are a reminder that people use books in very different ways.
My chief complaint with the iPad is that while it’s the perfect way to read a collection of assorted documents in a variety of formats — an assemble-it-yourself magazine, in effect — it’s not easy to figure out how to get this material into the device in the first place. Someone who’s reasonably comfortable fiddling with computers can manage it, but if the iPad is supposed to be an especially friendly tool for the digital non-native, it needs improvement in this department. Here is what I can recommend:
Instapaper Pro: You know those interesting longer articles you keep stumbling across on the Web but don’t have time to read right away? This app allows you to collect them in one place — in your account on their Web page, but also on your iPhone and now on your iPad. It downloads the text so that you don’t have to be connected to the Internet to read. The home page even features editors’ recommendations, with stories from Vanity Fair, the New Statesman, the New Yorker and other publications. There’s a free version, but give them the five bucks, you cheapskate, because God knows they’ve earned it.
GoodReader: If you want to read text or PDF files on your iPad, you’ll need an app to load them into. This is a good one, and reasonably priced at 99 cents, but like all the rest, it has terrible support documentation, and figuring out how to use it is needlessly arduous. There are a couple of ways to load documents, including a pretty arcane method for doing it wirelessly. I prefer this much simpler option:
1. Make sure you have iTunes version 9.1 (no earlier version will work).
2. Once you’ve installed GoodReader, plug the iPad into your computer.
3. Select the iPad under “Devices” in the left-hand column of iTunes so that you see a little picture of the iPad in the main window.
4. From the tabs running along the top of the window, select Apps.
5. SCROLL DOWN in this iTunes window, until you get below the controls for “Sync Apps” and and see the controls for “File Sharing.”
6. Select GoodReader from the left-hand menu, then click the “Add…” button on the bottom of the “GoodReader Documents” panel on the right-hand side. A dialog box will pop up asking you to select which documents on your computer you’d like to load into GoodReader. Pick as many as you want, and they’ll instantly move over to the iPad.
You’re done. To sort and read your documents on the iPad, just open GoodReader.
If you want to actually edit and work with documents on your iPad, you’ll need an app like Pages, which Apple is selling for $9.99. My plan is to hold out against any such impulse for as long as possible. The iPad reminds me of a motto that appears over and over again in “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Lemony Snicket’s delectable children’s books: “The world is quiet here.” I’m hoping to keep it that way.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)