Learning to Live with E-Readers

Gustave Dore, Don QuixoteGustave Dore, Don Quixote 

An e-reader has entered our family. Here’s how it happened.

My son Toby is studying for his English Ph.D preliminaries and wanted to spend a month reading 19th century British works in the family Maine cottage. He was accompanied by his girlfriend Candice, who is writing qualifying essays for her dissertation. There wasn’t room enough in their suitcases for all the books they needed.

My wife, therefore, suggested a Sony e-book, which is cheaper than the Kindle and can, I believe, access books from more sources. One can even make notes in the margins. When we helped Toby purchase it, he instantly downloaded, for free, the complete works of Lord Byron. He later added, and read, Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley.

He couldn’t go cold turkey, however, and I witnessed him reading a number of works in their paper form, including Jane Austen’s Emma, H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. A number of these are available for free on-line.

I have always resisted e-books and was happy when, a few years ago, early versions failed to capture the public interest. It seemed to me essential to the reading process to be able to hold a book in one’s hands and literally turn the pages. I saw touch as a key dimension and smell as well. I am addicted to the smell of books.

But I have to admit to a fair amount of hypocrisy. First of all, I read electronic versions of The New York Times and The Washington Post every morning. Furthermore, not a day goes by without my tracking down a poem or a prose passage on the internet and inserting it in my website. I’m more surprised when I can’t find what I’m looking for than when I can. For example, I was taken aback when I couldn’t find E. M. Forster’s short story “The Road from Colonus,” which reader Blade Lawless had recommended after reading my post on Nabokov’s “Cloud Castle Lake” (which I did in fact find on-line).

I also must admit that e-books have some significant advantages. I know people with deteriorating eyesight who have come to rely on the large print that the electronic readers make possible. (Poet Billy Collins, however, recently pointed to a significant downside of changing a book’s original formatting, as least when it comes to poetry: to change a line length is to tamper with the essential meaning of the poem.) And then I think convenience: I imagine the time that would have been saved from all the packing and carting of book boxes over my lifetime. I think of all the trees that would have been spared.

An article in Monday’s on-line journal Slate offers another loss, saying that there’s too much privacy with the on-line book. We no longer know what the person next to us on the bus or in a plane is reading. Think of the wonderful conversations that now won’t arise from surreptitiously glancing at his or her book and finding we have something in common. If the world becomes paper free, we will no longer be able to look over someone’s bookshelves and get a sense of who they are.

Years ago there was a related debate underway over paperback vs. hardback. When I was attending the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course in 1973, I once mentioned to a higher-up in the American Booksellers Association that, while I didn’t mind paperback for undeserving works, I wanted to see significant works in hardback. I find myself thinking that way now regarding electronic vs. paper.

But the problem with such thinking, as the man pointed out to me, is that this is a slippery slope. Once hardback gave way to the economy of the paperback, the publishing institutions had to adjust. And so it is happening again. As the writer of the Slate article notes, hold-in-your-hand books may become like letters sent through the mail: something slightly arcane and precious.

To feel better about the transition, it helps to recall earlier transitions. Several years ago I had a student, Matt Sargent, who wrote his senior thesis on the status of books in Don Quixote. Following up scholarship in the field, he noted that Guttenberg’s printing press came to Cervantes’ world as a shock—as big a shock as the cutting-edge energy-generating windmills that pummel the good knight at every turn. People had been accustomed to hand copied and illustrated manuscripts, which of course were rare and expensive. (Chaucer’s Oxford clerk starves both himself and his horse so that he can buy twenty volumes of Aristotle.) Quixote’s longing for stories of the past, Matt argued, was in part a longing for the old books that carried those stories. Romances that once seemed to have a more direct relationship to reality—after all, people had painstakingly copied out the words—were now circulating in mass-produced volumes.

But why stop with Guttenberg? Let’s go back to the days before writing. What would Homer have lost had he composed on paper? The Iliad and The Odyssey must have had a special power because they emerged directly from the poet’s mouth, unmediated by technology. (Calliope, muse of heroic poetry, must truly have seemed divine.) Reading lacks some of the intensity of listening, and memory has atrophied from what it once was as we have become reliant on things being written down.

As an aside, I feel that I have a glimpse of what was lost by thinking about how movies seem different now that they are available on videotape and DVD. Similarly, C. S. Lewis complains about something getting lost when music began to be captured by records. A key essay on this subject is Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Would I want to go back to pre-literate times? Not really. How about hand-written manuscripts? From my vantage point, I know I would lose too much. So I will try to take stock of what has been lost and then step bravely into the future, knowing that some things will open up.

Such as, for instance, this opportunity to converse with you, dear reader. Better Living through Beowulf is the title of a book that I have written that is having difficulty finding a publisher. Electronic technology has allowed me to circumvent the publishing industry and find an audience of kindred souls. For that I am grateful.

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  1. Jason Blake
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Great, honest stack of observations.

    Here’s an anecdote and a link:
    My sister came for a visit, probably just to show off her new iPad. She was reading a novel in electronic form, but couldn’t get into it. And yet she tore through a paper version of the same book. What to make of that?

    Otherwise, here’s a clever bit on words vs. books by Rick Salutin:


  2. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I hope Toby enjoyed his month of reading 19th century British lit in your Maine cottage as much as I would have! He’s been reading some great stuff. As for the issue of e-books, I must come down on the side of the traditional curmudgeons. Aside from all the aesthetic considerations that you mention, Robin, I have two major objections to e-books: 1. It bothers my eyes to read an electronic screen for very long. 2. I like to mark favorite passages in my books and then refer back to those passages later. Hard to do that on an electronic screen, I suppose, or do the e-books allow permanent highlighting of some sort? As for the saving of trees, I’ve hugged as many trees as anybody, but I figure that the trees that are harvested for paper were planted for that purpose to begin with, and if those trees were not to be used for paper they would not have been planted at all. The owners of the land would instead have paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

  3. Posted August 5, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Re: “Reading lacks some of the intensity of listening, and memory has atrophied from what it once was as we have become reliant on things being written down.”

    Maryanne Wolf’s fascinating study, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, reflects on Socrates’ opposition to literacy: “First, Socrates posited that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life; second, he regarded the new – and much less stringent – requirements that written language placed both on memory and on the internalization of knowledge as catastrophic; and third, he passionately advocated the unique role the oral language plays in the development of morality and virtue in society.”

    I love literacy – don’t get me wrong – but I’m also becoming more and more a proponent of memory…even as mine has degraded noticeably over the past decade (sigh). I am more aligned than not with those educators who promote content and knowledge of the canon, even though I’m happy to engage in arguments about whether a canon – specifically, the traditional Western canon – is a good or bad thing. (Can one engage fully in such a debate if one is not knowledgeable about the subject at hand? I am skeptical.)

    It’s wonderful that the young scholars in your family expect to know things about literature and history. I have no fear of e-reader technology, but I do fear what we’ll lose if we devolve into thinking that everything we need to know is something we can look up later.

  4. Barbara
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    I, also, am firmly in the “real” book camp.
    Re Jason’s comment about his sister, there is some really interesting research in accounting that shows, counter to their expectations, auditors do a more thorough job: more issues checked, more time spent checking, etc. when the documentation is paper rather than digital. They think it has to do with reader organizing the information in pages: “upper right, near the front” or “middle of page, almost at the end” so that searches are more efficient in hardcopy. Word search technology just wasn’t an efficient substitute. Of course, that may change if e-books become “the standard”.

    Two additional comments. The accounting research seems consistent with research that shows chess players view the board in “chunks” rather than individual pieces.
    I wonder if comprehension is the same for reading in both modes. I write this because if I write something by hand, it’s in my mind almost forever. Typing is more autopilot and doesn’t seem to have the same ability to lock information in place, at least for me.

  5. Francisco
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, we have a debate on digital vs. print. I think its probably a mixed blessing and there are great points being made on both sides of the argument.

    Personally, I prefer print (just an old-fashioned guy) yet I would probably buy an e-reader when the price is reasonable. I’m a systems administrator at the office and it would be very handy to have a number of technical reference books on an e-reader at my disposal.

    On the environment side of things, the digital age does create its own toxic bi-products, unfortunately.

    BTW, congratulations on your “Better Living Through Beowulf” book. I was just going recommend that you make a book out of your blog.


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