July 2014
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John P. Madden, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA

Many of us, and our students, are doing more of our reading on mobile devices. While most U.S. residents still read printed books, 1 in 2 now has a mobile device intended for reading, and nearly 3 in 10 has read an e-book (Zickuhr & Rainie, 2014). Of course, mobile devices quickly become dated. Knowing that we’re doing more reading on those kinds of devices led me to wonder what would happen if I tried to read a long novel on a small, aging device. So in the summer of 2011, I read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on my 2008 iPod Touch. I learned I enjoyed reading a long novel on a small device, but also found out how easily my novel could vanish from that device.

Learners might use devices such as their smartphones to read novels or other books in their second language (L2). Learners, like others, tend to keep their smartphones handy. Therefore, they could use their phones to read extensively, an activity that improves reading proficiency (Grabe, 2009). Learners could also use their phones to integrate reading with other skills. But if books were ever really a simple technology, we should now think of them as complex and even ephemeral. Below I talk about my experience and what we can learn from it.

Methodology: iPod Touch, Text, and Software

I obtained my first-generation iPod Touch in the summer of 2008. I have used the iPod to listen to podcasts in Spanish (my strongest L2) and to a self-guided museum tour in English (my L1). I’ve also used the iPod to share pictures with family and friends, surf the web, and check email. I cannot record audio with my iPod, but I can practice listening, reading, and writing, and have conversations about pictures; learners could do the same. They could get additional speaking practice using smartphones or more recent iPods that support recording.

Because I’m interested in L2 reading, teaching, and technology, I wanted to see what it was like to explore extensive reading on my iPod. I chose Moby Dick (Melville, 1851/2001) because the novel was challenging; because it was in the public domain and available free from Project Gutenberg; because I could locate, download, and read the novel using free software I had already installed (Lexcycle’s Stanza); and because I was planning a summer trip to Cape Cod, whose historical connections to whaling link it to the novel.


Reading the novel on the iPod was easy. I was able to adjust the font and text size, jump among chapters, and search the novel for key terms as if it were a corpus, a useful feature in a long book full of nautical terms. The iPod’s 3.5-inch screen supported mobile reading at the cost of almost constant page turning. On the other hand, I found myself tethered to my laptop in order to recharge the iPod, so when the laptop did not make the trip to Cape Cod, neither did the iPod.

While traveling, I read perhaps six chapters of the novel from an old print edition I found where I was staying. I found the print edition easier to read than the e-book, partly, I think, because of the longer line length on the printed page. In addition, I could read by daylight and make fewer page turns, though I lacked the search function. I finished the novel on the iPod after my trip.

After finishing the novel, I tried to update my copy of Stanza and learned that neither the new version (3.2) nor the old version, once restored to my iPod, would function. As a result, I lost access to my entire library, including Moby Dick. Amazon purchased Lexcycle in 2009 (Stone, 2009a). A recent search for “Stanza” on Apple’s iTunes Store returns a number of e-readers other than Stanza. Even were Stanza still available there for my iPod, I’ve found that fewer and fewer programs are available for my iPod as it ages, mainly, I think, because its operating system no longer supports many current apps. For example, I cannot install apps that would allow me to use the iPod to borrow e-books and audio books from my local public library.


I enjoyed reading Moby Dick on my iPod. This convinces me that, despite the limitations of screen size, smartphones would make viable e-readers.

A glance at many websites shows how much of a multimedia experience reading is becoming. Installed on a smartphone or similar device, multimedia e-books could offer English language learners rich, truly mobile input that integrates language skills. On the other hand, multimedia e-books could easily disappear from students’ devices because of technological change or even concerns over copyright (Stone, 2009b).

I have found alternative ways of reading Moby Dick. It is widely available in print. In digital form, I can read it on my iPod using the WattPad app or on my laptop using Amazon’s Kindle app, or a web browser, or a PDF reader. I’ve also found a volunteer-read audio version of the novel from Librivox that I can play on my laptop or iPod.

It’s common to experience the obsolescence of older hardware, software, or files. Print books can go out of print, physically deteriorate, or become unreadable because of language change. E-books, though, can become unusable much more quickly. As teachers, we need to improve our digital literacy to help students obtain the print and e-books they need.

The major limitation to this article is that it reports on my own subjective experience. Adding the experiences of others would add to our knowledge. In addition, I wrote about a public domain work that most English language learners will never read in the original. Copyrighted works might present their own set of challenges. Finally, many learners lack reliable access not just to e-books, but even to printed works.

I found I enjoyed reading a challenging book on a small, aging device, so learners and teachers could do the same. But I also found that reading is an increasingly complex act of digital literacy.


Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. New York: Cambridge.

Melville, H. (2001). Moby Dick; or, The whale. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm (Original work published 1851)

Stanza (Version 3.1) [Computer software]. Seattle, WA: Lexcycle.

Stone, B. (2009a, April 27). Amazon acquires Stanza, an e-book application for the iPhone. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Stone, B. (2009b, July 18). Amazon erases Orwell books from Kindle. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Zickuhr, K., & Rainie, L. (2014). E-reading rises as device ownership jumps. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2014/01/PIP_E-reading_011614.pdf

John P. Madden is an associate professor of applied linguistics at St. Cloud State University, in St. Cloud, Minnesota. His interests include second language comprehension, technology and digital divides, service learning, and teacher education.
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