The Literary Reading Experience of eBooks (NYRB)

A thoughtful piece from Tim Parks at New York Review of Books (“E-Books Can’t Burn”) that I would highly recommend.

It’s easy enough for us to compare the features of what ebooks can and can’t do, but the question of our reading experience — as in, our actual engagement with the words that we read — is less apparent.

Reading an ebook is a different kind of reading experience. For one thing, ereaders encourage (or, enforce) more of a page-by-page, linear reading style, as opposed to the jumping back and forth that opening a book made of printed pages allows for —

“It’s true that on first engagement with the e-book we become aware of all kinds of habits that are no longer possible, skills developed over many years that are no longer relevant. We can’t so easily flick through the pages to see where the present chapter ends, or whether so and so is going to die now or later. In general, the e-book discourages browsing, and though the bar at the bottom of the screen showing the percentage of the book we’ve completed lets us know more or less where we’re up to, we don’t have the reassuring sense of the physical weight of the thing”

And when we talk about literature as a medium, it has to differ very significantly from the other mediums (painting, music, sculpture) we might instinctively use for the sake of comparison. We understand art as something that we experience in ourselves — but we also understand that literature is an especially inwards-facing type of experience. After all, if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?

“What are the core characteristics of literature as a medium and an art form? Unlike painting there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat. Unlike music you don’t have to respect its timing, accepting an experience of a fixed duration. You can’t dance to it or sing along or take a photo or make a video with your phone.

Literature is made up of words. They can be spoken or written. If spoken, volume and speed and accent can vary. If written, the words can appear in this or that type-face on any material, with any impagination. Joyce is as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman. And we can read these words at any speed, interrupt our reading as frequently as we choose. Somebody who reads Ulysses in two weeks hasn’t read it any more or less than someone who reads it in three months, or three years.”

When we think about ebooks, and what they can or can’t do, we may be overly concerned with the form of the ebooks, and not the content — the words themselves. Maybe. And maybe thinking about ebooks means that we’ll think more about what constitutes a literary experience for us. Although it’s fashionable for academic types to bemoan the demise of our romantic notions of paper (paper, print, and ink will be fine by the way), credit to Tim Parks for fashioning a defense of the reading experience of ebooks —

“Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object .. but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end. More than any other art form it is pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page. If we say the words in sequence, even silently without opening our mouths, then we have had a literary experience — perhaps even a more intense one than a reading from the page. It’s true that our owning the object — War and Peace or Moby Dick — and organizing these and other classics according to chronology and nation of origin will give us an illusion of control: as if we had now “acquired” and “digested” and “placed” a piece of culture. Perhaps that is what people are attached to. But in fact we all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves.”


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

tyler shores cambridge

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