What was the last book you read? Not an e-book, but the last actual book, that bound up stack of paper, with weight and thickness and texture and smell. What did it smell like, for that matter? The slightly musty aroma of old paperback stock that has to be earned, not made, by a Larry Niven novel from 1976, on its third trip through used book stores, and finally resting on your nightstand after you found it in a place reeking faintly of aged hardwood floors, stale carpet, and incense?
Or did it have the aroma that only a math textbook can, like Stewart’s Calculus 6th edition, with it’s slightly glossy stock and ever-so-evanescent bouquet, more a memory than an odor, of mimeograph copies and pop quizzes in 3rd period?
Yeah, your Kindle is cool. Holds a zillion books and all that. I know, I’ve got one. What does yours smell like?
I’m quite the dyed-in-the-wool, never-look-back, pros-outweigh-the-cons fan of science and anything technical. It’s been an abiding interest since I was knee-high to a Star Trek re-run (original series, of course). When computers first became something one could own and fit on a desk, I wanted one more than I wanted a car, even more than I wanted high school to be something other than a source of humiliation masquerading as a rite of passage. I used to wonder, decades before flash drives and MP3s, why an Atari game cartridge couldn’t contain music the same way it contained the program code. I cried when Carl Sagan died, and again when I saw “Contact” made into a film and realized he missed it. I have no nostalgia for vinyl records, and I can’t explain what I do for a living to most people in less than a paragraph.
So far be it from me to ever play the Luddite. But a funny thing happened on the way to the 1-click shopping cart these past few months. I keep a small personal library in one corner of one room, and we picked up another bookshelf. Naturally I wanted some books to go on it now that I had more shelf space than books, an inversion of the ratio I had been living with for years. And in doing so, I found that I got more reading done in that time than I had in the previous year, despite having an assortment of devices that make reading as convenient as possible, whenever possible, and will even remember your most recent page. Which is good because trying to dog-ear a Kindle will void the warranty.
While I’ve finished more than a few books on an e-reader, I’ve noticed the books I’ve read in that fashion rarely wove themselves into my consciousness with quite the same level of absorption. There’s something lacking. It’s more a dispassionate observation of the material, an analysis held at arm’s length, than a narrative that pulls you in and makes time irrelevant and the ringing phone unimportant. Not all e-books have felt equally detached to me (Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is a stunning book in any medium), but the pattern is consistent. The words become a museum piece, protected under glass. Sir, please stand behind the yellow line, and no pictures allowed.
In Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, a Pulitzer-nominated book addressing the loss of the deeper-thinking literary mind in our ultra-connected and ever-distracted lives, he relays the story of Frederick Nietzche using his first typewriter. Nietzche found that the mechanism itself was changing his writing and even his thought processes (he eventually ditched it). The medium may not be the message, but the medium changes our relationship to the message.
A book, then, is more than a neutral storage medium for the words it contains. Just as the difference between two piano players, playing from identical sheet music for Chopin’s Concerto #2 in F minor, is in their delivery of it, timing, and interpretation.
You might be tempted to say that this is a poor analogy, that an e-reader doesn’t have an interpretation, that the words are identical and they read the exact same way, ink or e-ink. You’d be right, but also missing much of the picture. Humans are not biological flatbed scanners. We interact with all of our senses. The weight of a book. The feel of thumbing through the pages. The variety of ways that it can be held. The interplay of light, paper, shadow, and ink. The tangible thickness of it. The uniqueness of it that distinguishes this book from that book. And of course, the smell. Judge a book not by it’s cover, fine, but the cover and binding are still part of the experience.
Think of your favorite reading spot -and I do hope you have one- and name some part of it that isn’t a tactile, sensual element. A favorite chair, couch, or corner of a couch. An end table, a place to sit a cup of coffee. Just the right lighting. Or maybe a nearby park, two hours prior to sunset at the start of fall, and a travel mug. Every part of this is designed, by you, to an exact specification that isn’t written down but is keenly felt. It involves all of your senses, even if at a not-quite conscious level. Comfy? Good. Now I’m going to hand you a slab of black plastic. The one thing you were going to really focus on in this careful arrangement is also the blandest.
You may find several things to read, even dozens, all presented the same. Quite convenient, no doubt. Can you stick to one of them without distraction? The last time you went to that ideal reading spot with a printed book, did you bring one book, or twelve? Did any of those books have the ability to push a favorite quote or passage to Twitter or Facebook, or did they allow you to quietly unplug? The last time you read on your iPad, how long was it before a notification popped up that took you out of the story you in which you were trying to lose yourself?
The physical space occupied by books is, I believe, an advantage over the reduction to pure information offered by a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. A glance at your bookshelf is a barometer of accomplishment and of goals, of what has been read and what’s still on your list. I have more than a few e-books and magazines that I keep forgetting about and remain untouched; they have no physical presence to remind me that they’re there.
Billy and I met up for coffee, and he told me of the experience of reading something on his Kindle, thinking it needed to be noted or underlined, and having the immediate first reaction of wanting to reach for a pencil. While e-reader interfaces have come a long way since the first attempts nearly 10 years ago, they have come nowhere close to the natural, no-training-needed-beyond-basic-literacy user interface known as pencil and paper. It’s not obvious, without some experimentation or up-front user education, how one bookmarks or highlights in an e-reader. Watching someone learn to do this is an exercise in cautious hesitation and sometimes profanity aimed at the device (no, not that sentence, dammit!). This despite the Kindle interface having evolved to a quite impressive state. It hides the considerable complexity underneath, the fact that this device is a computer with a full Android OS. I would be hard pressed to come up with a better design for an e-reader. But I can’t think of a better design for human interactivity, for direct intuitive connection, than words directly on paper. You can touch, trace, dog-ear the corners, bookmark, flip through to have a sense of how far along you are or look up a passage, underline, highlight, and note. It is immediately interactive with as few elements as possible.
Here’s the real kicker, the underlying realization, almost a dirty little secret, even; e-readers are largely a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The question of how to deliver narrative and story to other people in large numbers was solved by the book. A more complex solution depending on a massive technological infrastructure doesn’t beat a beautifully simple and direct solution that was devised in the 1400’s and has only needed gradual, evolutionary updating. However much book production has changed in that time, humans have changed even less. We haven’t evolved to need a different solution, and if we examine our experience closely we’ll see there isn’t a better one. Will I keep using my Kindle and various e-reader apps? Sure, just like I’ll order take-out now and then, but I’d rather make dinner at home and open a good bottle of wine.
I invite you to try this for yourself. For the next book on your list, or your next impulse buy, get the actual book. Find a good spot and make time for yourself. See if reading in this fashion isn’t somehow calmer and more absorbing. You may find that not every technological advancement is a human advancement.