Tuesday, February 4, 2020

State of reading

Reading was a huge part of my life from about grade 3 on. I got glasses and could actually see the mythical chalk board at the front of the class. There was a yellow book full of stories; there was one about the real Nautilus, an Arthur C Clarke story set on the moon, one where a kid in a car goes back in time to Baghdad and routs an invading army, and many more. I loved reading ahead, keeping track of where the reading aloud was so I could carry on when it was my turn. I somehow knew that "island" was pronounced "eyeland" and that lead to a discussion of English words and why so many of the 'rules' had so many exceptions. Given my name, the whole i before e thing had particular resonance.

Then shift work and being an adult with busy hobbies happened, and reading took a bit of a back seat. Then I started trying to do some writing of my own, and was trying to avoid being infected by another writer's voice.

Recently I'm coming back to reading. There's a reading challenge that I'm doing with some buddies, and the main thing is to try new things. The category was 'A book about books.' It seemed to me that a comparison between a print book and a digital book was fair game so I grabbed it. As it happens, the book is more about what is going on in our minds as we read, and the differences between reading a print or digital book. It's much more profound than I thought. The book is in the form of 9 letters to readers.

She goes into deep reading quite a bit. I used to do this, diving right into the book world. There I was, in a spaceship, or diving for treasure, or a hundred other things. I'd pause and think about what the author said, and compared it to what other authors said about that. Sometimes I just admired the choice of words and let them roll around in my brain for a while to fully enjoy them.

That stopped happening when I was being paid by the hour. The habit started carrying over to reading for enjoyment, getting through a book fast just to see how it ended, what the story was. I'd skip irritating diversions, or the parts about characters I didn't like.

Along the way I got an iPad and tried reading on it. That didn't go so well, although there were features I really liked. One of them was the word epigenetic, used in the second paragraph of the book. It isn't often I run into an entirely new word where understanding it is critical to understanding the rest of the text. Usually I can figure it out on the fly. I looked it up and it didn't mean what I thought it meant, so I'm glad I did. But I had to put the book down, and open my laptop to look it up. One the iPad I could have double tapped the word, or something, and the definition would come up. I think if there are multiple definitions, the one that is appropriate to the text comes up.

One of the things I like about a printed book is that when you buy it, it sits on your shelf or chair side table till you read it. On a digital device it disappears. There's another kind of disappeared; where the rights for your country change, and that block of ones and zeroes disappears from your device without you knowing. A printed book will sit on your shelf for decades, unchanged, aside from slowly oxidizing. I have books nearly 100 years old, and they're perfectly readable. The Hardy Boys, 1927 edition with the tan hardcover, if you're wondering.

Digital reading tends to support a dash through the text. Skimming. Dipping in and out between visits to other distractions. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Something. The list is endless. Children are becoming used to this, and expect to be constantly entertained. They want to have a constant wash of meaningless noise and video across their brains. It drowns out any connections that might exist to other works.

Print reading, if you let it, if you work at it a bit, lets you explore those deep connections, and gives you a richer experience. This book is full of such allusions. Opening the book at random to page 88, she mentions how the works of Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, and Margaret Mitchell affected her childhood. Then in the next sentence is Alberto Manguel's remarks. Then an allusion to Walnut Street. Then the novels of Gene Luen Yang, and Mark Danielewski.

That's all on one page. Really, if you wanted to fully follow her thought, you'd need to think about what those people have written and compare it to what you're reading now. That's a lot of diversions, even if you're familiar with who she brings up. As for those names, I score 2 of them, in terms of knowing about what they've written, and for the first I only know she was a poet, but I can't quote any of her work.

Of course, one can dive into the text on the Kindle device, as you're on the train to work, and get lost in another world. The odds of missing your stop and being late go up dramatically. I've seen people desperately thumbing their device as the train is coming to a stop. They want to finish the last little bit, and yet the doors are opening and people want to move past them. I once nearly pushed a guy into next week because he was entranced by the elevator tv, and stood in the doorway, looking up.

I looked around on the way to work one day in a mostly full train. My half of the train car had about 30 people in it. One was asleep or nearly so, head leaning against the window. A couple people were in paper books. Everybody else has looking at a digital device, tapping it periodically. Mostly games, some email, text, or video. I don't think anyone was actually paying real attention, given the number of head nods happening. I think they would have been better off leaving their device in their pocket or purse, and just sitting quietly for a time, letting their brain run in neutral.

How do you get your reading fix? Print? Digital device? Both? Have you noticed a difference in your reading between the two?

Deadwood of the Day
A surprisingly deep hole in this log.


  1. Well, the simple answer is both. But as I think about it, the nuanced answer is much more interesting. In general my experience when I read digital material is all about obtaining content. Reading a physical book is not only about the content, it is also about the experience of reading and the interaction with the book. Furthermore, I read digitally sequentially. In the case of physical books I may not read linearly, especially if it is a non-fiction book. In that case I frequently return to a previous page or reference, and physical books are so much better at facilitating a non-linear approach. Cheers, Sean

  2. I don't have an iPad or Kindle so haven't gotten into reading books digitally, but I read heaps of articles on my phone. The book sounds intriguing. Do you recommend it?

  3. I read most books on my Kobo and love it. I travel a lot and do not want to carry physical books anymore. I do not bounce around between FB and other Social Media when on my Kobo as suggested. I read and get fully immersed in what I’m reading. I do not miss physical books at all except for the types where I might learn something (photography) or self help/DIY types where I like to write directly into the margins. I usually buy those of course. I know that people connect with the touch and smell of a physical book and wonder how the rest of us can not but honestly many bother me - I think there is a fine dust or something that always makes me feel like I’m going to sneeze and dries out my finger tips. I laugh as I write this as I KNOW for a fact that some of your blog readers are now sitting in shock. All I can say is, to each his own! Thanks for the review. I think I will download this one.


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