Sunday, February 26, 2012

E-books Can’t Burn

Jacqueline Rush Lee, Little Red Book (Devotion Series), 2008

Interviewed after winning England’s Costa Prize for Literature in late January, the distinguished novelist Andrew Miller remarked that while he assumed that soon most popular fiction would be read on screen, he believed and hoped that literary fiction would continue to be read on paper. In his Man Booker Prize acceptance speech last October, Julian Barnes made his own plea for the survival of printed books. Jonathan Franzen has also declared himself of the same faith. At the university where I work, certain professors, old and young, will react with disapproval at the notion that one is reading poetry on a Kindle. It is sacrilege.
Are they right?
In practical terms it is all too easy to defend the e-book. We can buy a text instantly wherever we are in the world. We pay less. We use no paper, occupy no space. Kindle’s wireless system keeps our page, even when we open the book on a different reader than the one we left off. We can change the type size according to the light and our eyesight. We can change the font according to our taste. Cooped up in the press of the metro, we turn the pages by applying a light pressure of the thumb. Lying in bed, we don’t have that problem of having to use two hands to keep a fat paperback open.
But I want to go beyond practicality to the reading experience itself, our engagement with the text. What is it that these literary men and women are afraid of losing should the paper novel really go into decline? Surely not the cover, so often a repository of misleading images and tediously fulsome endorsements. Surely not the pleasure of running fingers and eyes over quality paper, something that hardly alters whether one is reading Jane Austen or Dan Brown. Hopefully it is not the quality of the paper that determines our appreciation for the classics.
Could it be the fact that the e-book thwarts our ability to find particular lines by remembering their position on the page? Or our love of scribbling comments (of praise and disgust) in the margin? It’s true that on first engagement with the e-book we become aware of all kinds of habits that are no longer possible, skills developed over many years that are no longer relevant. We can’t so easily flick through the pages to see where the present chapter ends, or whether so and so is going to die now or later. In general, the e-book discourages browsing, and though the bar at the bottom of the screen showing the percentage of the book we’ve completed lets us know more or less where we’re up to, we don’t have the reassuring sense of the physical weight of the thing (how proud children are when they get through their first long tome!), nor the computational pleasures of page numbers (Dad, I read 50 pages today). This can be a problem for academics: it’s hard to give a proper reference if you don’t have page numbers.
But are these old habits essential? Mightn’t they actually be distracting us from the written word itself? Weren’t there perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without? Certainly there were those who lamented the loss of calligraphy when the printing press made type impersonal. There were some who believed that serious readers would always prefer serious books to be copied by hand.
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