Booksquare and Medialoper have been weighing in recently on the most important debate of our generation—by which we mean, of course, the debate as to whether or not the e-book can supplant the regular book, not the presidential foofaraw that took place last Friday. (Which we did watch, though, and watch in style: Times Square bar, libations, pounding of tables, the whole shebang.) Booksquare seems to be less wary of the e-future than we are; Kirk Biglione* laments in their latest post the impossibility of “reading Pynchon on a Kindle”—not because the device is uncomfortable or inadequate to the purpose, but because Pynchon’s novels are currently unavailable for download. Their commenters have suggested that this may be because, like J. K. Rowling, Pynchon himself has insisted on keeping his work available in print only. We’d be willing to believe it, and considering the staunch forty-year stand he’s taken against leaving his house, we doubt he’ll bend on this one, either.
As well he shouldn’t. Any writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, or large-scale imaginative work in general should be cautious of the e-reader, for the following simple reason. As soon as you turn all books into miniature computers, you lose the style of reading that books nourish and encourage. Nicholas Carr’s much-discussed recent essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008), was the first to put a finger on the disturbing way in which the online world of hyperlinks has made our collective reading habits more, well, hyperactive. As Carr puts it:
I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Assuming you’re still reading this post, you can see where we’re going with this. Even if e-texts aren’t hyperlinked (and we suspect they inevitably will be), the availability of 15,000 other texts within the same hand-held device will virtually ensure the same flighty, superficial reading habits. That spells trouble for an author hoping you’ll make it through Gravity’s Rainbow—or any work that depends for its effect on what John Gardner called the “sustained fictional dream.” If readers are constantly lured away from immersing themselves in such dreams, the value of a great many books will be lost. Again, we’re not militating against e-reading devices; we’re simply suggesting that they have a place within the larger book market and are not (or should not be) the future of the market entire. And you know who agrees with us? THOMAS PYNCHON. So there.
*Correction 9/30: Our original article incorrectly cited Kassia Kroszer as the author of this post. Thanks to Ms. Kroszer for pointing out this rare evidence of our fallibility, as well as for her thoughtful response to the article in the Comments section.