The Great Debate: E-Readers

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.


Filed under Books and Publishing

2 responses to “The Great Debate: E-Readers

  1. Minor correction… while I totally agree with the sentiments posted in the article (and, yes, have been part of the Pynchon discussion), the article was written by Kirk Biglione, our resident Pynchon expert. And the only member of either BS or ML to have read Gravity’s Rainbow cover to cover. He holds this over us, but totally doesn’t appreciate the beauty of V. Go figure.

    I’ve been reading ebooks since 1998. I’ve been reading print books (obviously!) longer. I don’t think about form as much as I think about story or content. I get lost when I am absorbed. Tonight, I had an extended period of time to myself, so rare, and was lost in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, to the point where a friend snuck up on me. I was reading on my Kindle. I do read scattershot, but that’s not necessarily a function of medium. It’s more a function of what I’m reading, what I’m doing, and what I’m trying to achieve.

    I disagree that etexts will inevitably lead to flighty reading. And I say this as one who reads multiple books at once. It’s not about form, format, technology, it’s about the reader. How the individual reads is not always a function of the delivery system, but the actual reader. I’m a big proponent of letting the reader be the reader.

    Of course, this allows me to lose myself in a novel — physical or electronic — and to ignore the world around me. If I’m sucked into the story, I’m removed from the real world.

  2. abbeville

    Thanks for the correction, Kassia, which we’ve noted in the post. I agree with you about letting the reader be the reader and leaving the “delivery medium” up to the consumer’s choice. And in principle, there’s no reason why words on a screen can’t engage a good reader as deeply as words on a page–clearly, in your case and many others’, they already do. I admit to being “flighty” myself in the sense of always having read multiple books at once, Internet or no Internet. Finally, I’ll admit that a Kindle would be a wonderful thing to have on a desert island (or long vacation, etc.). So in a sense we’re playing Luddite’s advocate here, and keeping tongue planted firmly in cheek as we do so.

    Still, I do think it’s a mistake (though not one I ascribe to you or Booksquare) to assume that something won’t be lost if e-books become the overwhelmingly dominant reading medium. For authors and publishers, a book is like a little theater, with the author the performer and the publisher the producer. There’s something disappointing about the idea of publishers having to tear down the beautiful trappings of the set (cover, illustrations, jacket blurbs, etc.) and authors having to share the stage with many other authors and their works. For both performer and producer, the digitized product feels less “theirs.” Perhaps I’m biased in saying this as a member of a publishing house that prides itself on production value, lavish illustrations, etc. But even as a reader, I think digitized books–if they consituted the bulk of my library–would start to feel less personal, less treasured, less “mine” as well. And as an author, I’d worry–fairly or unfairly–about sharing stage space as a new generation grows up with Net-addled attention spans.

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