Thursday, November 22, 2012

Is E-reading really Reading?

There have been, and will no doubt continue to be, hundreds of books and articles on the decline of print, the value of traditional books, and the advantages and disadvantages of reading electronically, especially on Kindle and other book-like devices for e-reading.

The latest to catch my eye is an excerpt in of a new book by Andrew Piper, who says that e-reading is not really reading.  What does he mean, you might ask, by reading?

It is not, he tries to show, merely a matter of brain and intellect and eyes but of touch: reading is a physical, tactile activity. "It is something with do with our bodies" but especially our hands, he says, since at least the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century, who recounts in a famous passage of his autobiography how he opened the codex before him (not a scroll) and, after reading a biblical passage, saw that he needed to read no more. He turned the page in his life, finding answers to his doubts about Christianity in what he had read. He was converted.

Ever since, Piper argues, books held in the hand and turned by the hand have shaped our reading and our self-perception.  He does not develop the idea explored by others that private reading "turned readers into individuals"--a huge claim--but the interiority of the reading act is widely known. As are the private spaces people in Western society eventually created so that they could be alone, silently reading.

The book as a graspable thing, in a material as well as spiritual sense, has given it great power over the centuries. In taking hold of a book, in Augustine's sense, we are taken hold of by books, in Piper's words.

But not by e-books, whose digital contours are hard to determine: there is always something "out of touch" about the digital book. Such a text, he says, can't be grasped as a totality.  Where exactly digital texts are, in a physical sense, is vague, complex, even forbidden: we cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen's letters, Piper writes.  If the touch of the page brings us into the world, the screen keeps us out.

And yet, of course, touch is involved in new ways in digital reading (touch screens, etc.) as the industry keeps downsizing the computer--from large rooms to a desk to our hands. The computer world has been trying to insert the tactile back into the digital, but with mixed results.

Since there are no pages to turn in the old sense, e-books may try to look like printed ones but the differences are important.  Pressing buttons repetitively is quite different from slowly turning pages.

My summary of some of Piper's main points in the excerpt reinforces my own objections to digital reading. To do much of this kind of reading is bad for my neck, and every period spent facing a screen has to be punctuated with periods of stretching and moving.  This type of physical activity in reading is not, in my case, healthy.  The main point is that e-reading does not afford me the type of reflective, inward escape into another world that a printed book, held in the hand, does; and this is the main purpose of my reading.

E-reading is (I would say) a way of reading but not in the full, historical sense that Piper has explored. Just as I believe in the physicality of writing, it is good to be remind of reading as a physical act--and to think seriously about what occurs in reading and how mysterious the process ultimately is.

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