Monday, January 14, 2013


The so-called E-book Revolution has been around for five or so years now (precipitated by the introduction of Amazon's Kindle in 2007), but just how much of a revolution is it? 

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal referred to a survey of book readers that showed only 30% of respondents had read even one e-book in the past year.  Another research study showed only 16% of Americans had purchased an e-book and 50% said they weren't interested in buying one.

So, despite such predictions as the death of the book, the demise of book shops and the imminent bankruptcy of traditional publishers, it appears the printed book may be holding its own.  As an avid reader, my experience is that after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the wave of e-book fervour is ebbing.  Like others, I got carried along by the initial excitement of instant accessibility, portability, cheaper prices and the unfailing appeal of the new.  My Ipad is groaning under the weight of numerous books languishing un-read in techno-space while the influx of printed books, which I consume one after the other as if trying to set a  record, hasn't lessened in the least. 

I'm basically disenchanted with the whole e-reading process.  I do too much gazing at a flickering screen already, and prolonging this activity for the length of time it takes to read a book is pure tedium.  As well, jabbing at a hard, unfriendly screen to flick backwards and forwards just accentuates the disembodied nature of the activity. 

Books are tactile, living, breathing organisms.  They look nice, they smell divine, they feel warm and substantial in your hands and they give you something to do with all those bookmarks.  Besides when I read, I like to scribble and scrawl in the margins, turn down the page corners, poke yellow notes in places to go back to, all of which I'm told you can do electronically.  But it's not the same.  Even if I manage to master the keystrokes to take a note, I lose track of where they've gone.  And if, like me, you love the extra fathomless dimension shelves of books bring to a room, those little simulated versions on your tablet are a paltry substitute. 

These are all fairly self-evident objections.  A more philosophical argument in favour of printed books was recently proposed by Nathan Hollier in "The Conversation", and hinges on the idea that the digital reading experience is detrimental to our ability to concentrate.   Opening the gates to the digital playground of a tablet, which reading an e-book demands, he suggests, means you make yourself vulnerable to the lure of everything else that's on there too.

An impairment in concentration might not seem so dire, except when you consider that lowered levels of focus and the inability to concentrate are linked to stress related illnesses, which are proliferating in our society.   One of the triggers for faulty cognitive functioning appears to be a surplus of options, an overload of information, a cornucopia of visual, auditory and intellectual stimulants, the very conditions fostered by our wealth of digital accessories.

The digital age, Hollier says, has become an "age of distraction".  Without concentration, there can be no intellectual development, no thought that can truly be considered rational.  Focus means first of all capturing a wandering attention, becoming adept at bringing it, like a straying toddler, quickly into line. 

E-books purport to offer a rich reading environment.  A universe of books, both old and new is literally at your fingertips.  A few easy clicks of the keyboard and a book you suddenly get a whim to read is open before you.  It's exactly this technological powerhouse though that's the problem.  

As Hollier points out, Web2 technologies, with their hyperlinks, file sharing, animation and graphics  capabilities, have opened up a smorgasbord of  "side orders" to the main course of the book.  What we're getting bombarded with is more, more easily and faster.  Is this necessarily better?  We're told this is a transformative experience, opening up worlds of previously unimagined possibility.  But is it opening up, deepening, revealing;  is it expanding the level of immersion or just shallowing it out?  There is such a plethora of riches, we become spoiled for choice.  Our thoughts flit across the surface of subjects like an insect over water, never staying still long enough to absorb anything but an ephemeral glimmer.

In comparison, reading a traditional book is a singular activity.  The very nature of fixing the eye on a three dimensional, solid object held in the hands, controlled only by your own manipulation, forces you into a kind of rapt communion with that particular collection of pages, curtailed within their cover, inaccessible and separate from any exterior distraction, influence or interference.  For that piece of time, for better or for worse, you and that book are symbiotically joined. 

As well as concentration, reading is an act of contemplation … of other worlds, other characters, other ways of being.  A book is a small window into a world without horizons.  The armchair traveller is no less a traveller because he flies beyond his lounge room on the pages of a book, rather than as a passenger on an aeroplane.  And the travelling experience is a lot more congenial, avoiding as it does the need for booking flights, packing, boarding gate checks and other such indignities. 

It doesn't take much to put me off my game when I'm trying to compose my thoughts.  A case in point, even as I write this, I'm startled by the chime of an email hitting my inbox, immediately sending my already tenuous train of thought skittering wildly off the rails.  And all so I can learn that the Target Back to School sale still has some great bargains. 

The digital age is bad enough.  My own age is another cognitive impediment.  Grasping the thread of a coherent thought and holding on to it is becoming as arduous these days as trying to thread a needle.  Not having any inclination for sewing, I can happily dispense with the latter activity, but not the former.  Conceiving an original idea, tracing its progression in some sort of logical form and then transcribing it articulately is pivotal to the activity of being a writer.  My ideas too often emerge from the mental haze like diaphanous wisps, hover for a tantalising moment just beyond my reach and then dissolve into the ether like fairy floss on the tongue, leaving nothing but a faint forgotten sweetness.

If favouring printed books over e-books is going to help me in my fight against the great mental decline then there's no argument.   If the thought of the e-books I've wastefully purchased but not read bothers me, I can placate my conscience by thinking of all the reading material I'll have next time I go away somewhere.

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