More on Writing in Books, iPads and Kindles

Whether we care to realize it or not, eBooks and eReading devices alter our habits as readers and how we interact with books. The issue of writing in (e)books is still a topic of debate among the bibliophile crowd. After all, eReading devices like the Kindle aren’t called eWriting devices for a reason — although, Barnes & Noble’s strategy with billing the Nook Color as the first-ever “Reader’s Tablet” may portend a blurring in the distinction between reading/writing devices.

Writing on digital books can also be taken quite literally. Example: David Sedaris signing a fan’s Kindle, with the Delphian scribble: “This bespells doom.” Always one to have a funny story to add to a funny story, Sedaris adds, “that he has actually signed ‘at least five’ Kindles, and ‘a fair number of iPods as well, these for audio book listeners.’ A frequent chronicler of his own eccentricities, the author often encounters his readers’ quirks at the book-signing table. ‘The strangest thing I’ve signed is a woman’s artificial leg,’ Mr. Sedaris continued in his e-mail message.”

Marks on a book are a way of personalizing the object, which is precisely the topic that The Guardian’s Books Blog (“Defacing books: the effluence of engagement”) takes up. Physically altering a book is an intrinsic part of the reading process, perhaps even providing our future selves a clue of past self: “… the person I was when reading it: how I was feeling, where I was sitting, whom I was with.”

Probably my favorite story on this topic was this Vladimir Nabokov anecdote from The New Yorker in his copy of “Fifty-five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940–1950” — with a perfectly delivered punchline at the end:

“Nabokov was also a professor of literature, and in his copy of the New Yorker anthology he gave every story a letter grade … Many of the stories did not fare too well, and would not have got their authors into a selective university. Top marks went to Jessamyn West’s “The Mysteries of Life in an Orderly Manner” (A-) and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (A). Prof. Nabokov awarded only two stories in the anthology an A+: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J. D. Salinger, and “Colette,” by Vladimir Nabokov.”

Yesterday’s post about objects within books had me thinking about another article from The Guardian (“The precious unprinted contents of books”), which wonders about not just writing, but the physical artifacts to be found in old books, like a pressed flower found between the pages of an old book: “Marginalia and forgotten mementoes are often squirreled away inside conventional books. What will become of such treasures in the age of the ebook? … [S]ome of the most touching reflections I’ve come across on the subject don’t just concern writing left in books, but material objects.”

Forgotten things that we might find tucked away within the pages of an old book have a certain compelling Proustian element: “[t]he kind of memento that can bring back floods of memories and images when left to mature in a book for a few years — but would entirely bork the inside of an electronic device.” (‘Bork’? What does that mean, ‘bork’?).

Either way, I think the point is well taken — when we lament the fate of the printed page, what’s really at stake is the emotional residue from our personal experience of reading which is memorialized in a physical book: “book-lovers seem to be dwelling particularly on the physical aspects of the paper object. It’s not the words that will disappear, after all, just the way they are revealed to us.”

Sue Halpern in The New York Review of Books (“What the iPad Can’t Do”) wrote about the tradeoffs with digital technology — that we miss out on the ability to scribble in the notes of ebooks and wonders aloud on the future of writing in (e)books: “Someday there may be a stylus and a way to physically write in the margins. Someday there may be optical character recognition software that turns those scribbles into manipulable text. Someday.” Personally, I do still feel that there is a very fundamental difference between the feel of putting pencil to paper, and tapping on a glass screen when it comes to truly writing.

Here’s a great link to David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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