When the iPad launched, it was supposedly the end of the Kindle and other single-purpose book readers. For a few days, Amazon’s device, with its HAL-styling, clunky buttons, and limited connectivity, seemed destined to become the Betamax of mobile devices. The iPad’s multi-touch whizzbang, for a few weeks at least, seemed to blow everything else out of the sky.
Why would I want a device where I can only read books, people asked, when I might want to watch movies as well? Why would we want to e-read when we can read in high-definition? Or: Why would we want to read digitally at all, when print has served us so well for hundreds of years?
I had to read a "real" book the other day. It arrived in a package in the mail, a big chunky carbon footprint of a relic. When I read it, I struggled to hold its weight in my hands. I shifted position in bed, trying to find a comfortable position to balance its bulk, my finger wedged in the fold, while its hard edges dug into my stomach. When I placed it down on the table -- my other hand absorbed with eating toast -- the pages kept springing shut. I wanted to break its rotten little spine.
I longed for my Kindle, its lightness in weight and touch, its ergonomic complicity, the softness of e-ink easier on the eye than the eye-swimming harshness of ink upon paper. I had become a convert.
Peripheries, first: I never quite grasped why it seems so ludicrous to own (or even carry around) a device for reading and then a device for everything else. We’re perfectly happy to buy a juicer and a coffee maker and a digital photo frame and a fan and an electronic potato peeler, but the idea of buying one device for reading and another for surfing the web and watching movies seems to offend our collective tech wisdom. (We also don't mind lugging around bags full of books.)
But the real reason why I have developed such an attachment to my e-reader is, in the words of Steve O’Hear writing in TechCrunch
: “it’s the only gadget that encourages me -- no, forces me -- to go off the grid and get away from...the ‘background hum.’”
Living in this always-on world, with pings, and push notifications, and endless endless tweets, reading (deep reading, rather) has become a challenge. It’s also become a rare pleasure.
The beauty of the Kindle is that you're locked into the book. There is no email or Facebook to distract me. I can not multitask. The medium is designed to focus me on the text and (almost) nothing else. (Although according to Jonah Lehrer
, losing myself in the text might not actually be a good thing.)
Nicholas Carr, notably, has argued that the Internet and the digitization of everything is affecting our contemplative thought.
Once we didn't just read books, but we reflected upon them, alone in the windowless rooms of our consciousness. But now, information is streaming in from all sides, blinding rather than enlightening.
The evidence about how the Internet has affected the way we read and how our brains work is still in its infancy and admittedly what I know about cognitive function could be written on the back of a neuron. But if there is something to the argument, then perhaps the single-use e-reader is the vanguard in the fight against the onslaught of information.
Writing in "The American Scholar"
in March, Sven Birkerts argued that "concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for." In that, a dedicated e-reader can help you win that fight. Sensory attachments and nostalgia aside (all that tactile talk of fingertips on virgin white pages), I’m convinced that e-readers can recreate that sense of deep reading and immersion that so many feel is exclusive to print.
In that recreation, though, might lie the problem. The current crop of e-readers might be our new “horseless carriage” -- a limited, transitory new technology in the image of an old one. Even Amazon’s screensavers -- woodcuts of great writers -- are an attempt to reassure readers that while Amazon is living in the future, it has one eye firmly on centuries of literary tradition -- i.e. e-readers are a continuation not a disruption. Just as at the end of the 19th century our imaginations were limited by millennia of horse-based transport, perhaps now our visions (definitely mine) are limited by the omnipotence of print.
After letting the Internet percolate for a few decades, we might find that our understanding now of deep reading and textual processing is as quaint and as misguided as our idea that man would never get out of the saddle. We might find that actually, on cognitive levels unbeknown to us now, we understand texts better when we’re distracted by 14 different things. Linear texts make sense now, but they might not in the future.
I hope not, because apart from playing Angry Birds, I can’t imagine a pleasure greater than losing myself in a book. While I’m “progressive” enough to welcome an e-reader, I’m certainly not radical enough to salute the death of the linear text.
Hopefully, in a few years, competition will drive the cost right down and e-readers will be given out like loyalty cards. Sign up for 10 books a year and get a free Nook. Fine with me.
That might kill independent book stores, as we know them now. Well, while I would never want to see someone lose their livelihood, I always had a hard time with independent book stores: the snooty staff, the idea of reading to be seen, the cappuccino and conversations. Reading, for me, has always been a solitary unencumbered pleasure. E-readers -- with their vast digital libraries accessible instantly from the comfort of my windowless room -- help it stay that way.