Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Philosophy of e-Reading

E-Readers are the newest devices to be welcomed into an ensemble of familiar portable friends: the mobile, laptop, mp3-player. It is no longer novel to spy one in the hands of the commuter a few seats forward. But just what are we to think of them? Will they revolutionise the way we read? And if so, for good or bad? Technology is an important enough aspect of our lives to warrant philosophical reflection. Below are some of my thoughts/experiences and much is inspired (or simply taken) from discussion with fellow book-lovers on just how this technology is shaping our lives - what excites us about it and what's more worrying. I got my Kindle (there are other e-readers but Amazon's has “lead the way”) last Christmas so I've had a few months to observe how it's shaped my experience as a reader. I'll start first of all with the loss; what valuable goods does ordinary reading have that e-reading does not?

A friend of mine brought this point out for me and I think they're on to something big. E-reading surrenders some of the physicality of engaging with a book. When you read To Kill A Mockingbird in the traditional way, you have the feel of paper on your fingertips. This is different to the feel of a button (or touch screen) not just in the trivial way in which they are different surfaces. It's different in that this paper just is my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is “embodied” in real concrete material. By contrast, the Kindle's screen and features are no particular story but all stories, or anything at all that happens to be loaded on to it. When you hold the Kindle you are not holding To Kill A Mockingbird in the same way even if that story appears. The experience is much less concrete.

Physicality is important to us as bodily beings. Something feels more real if we can touch it. Consider an animal that you've only read about or seen on TV. When you go to the zoo the animal seems more real to you now that you've seen it in the flesh. But it becomes even more real when you touch it, feel its fur on your skin. The digital age is an abstract age and our reading too is abstracted when it enters that realm. The sense of concrete realness though, is important for our ability to make the fullest meaningful attachments. The pages of a real book have creases, bends, marks where they've come into contact with our living. “Oh that little tear happened when I was travelling to visit Soph for the first time.” Our particular, individual book gets linked with these sorts of significances. An e-book, however, is “perfect”, identical to everyone else's. It can bear no particular mark of meaning.

A point more simply put is that it is harder to love an abstraction than something concretely “there”. It is harder to “love” To Kill A Mockingbird when one has no concrete object to direct the love. I have felt the same about music's march into the digital. Mp3s satisfy me if I'm a casual fan of the artist, but if I love an album, I must physically own it. Having the CD or vinyl along with the artwork tangibly in your hands cannot be rivalled by a digital booklet. The sense of loss can probably be felt more strongly with reading given that a book is constantly held, whereas vinyl or a CD is only touched briefly before being put it into the player.

I am tempted to say that this loss is more a concern for the avid reader of fiction, where emotional connection tends to be strongest. Most of my own reading is much more geared toward the pillaging of information in non-fictional, sometimes dry, academic sources. The line of course is sometimes blurred. There are those few books of, say, philosophy, which manage to get so close to the heart of my lived experience that they are cherished, not just intellectually admired. I would not be satisfied with solely having a digital copy for those. Generally though, music is a more emotionally connective experience for me and I have been more embracing of digital reading than listening. 

There is another loss I've felt with music that I haven't with reading. I hope a resistance to this loss is widespread. Mp3 players and programs like iTunes and Spotify enable you to quickly switch between songs, whereas a CD player (a bog-standard one anyway) or a vinyl player essentially committed you to the one record you put on. These older forms of listening to music encouraged attention to an entire album. You were trained to digest it as a whole and have patience with songs that you didn't immediately like but which you often grew to. Newer ways of listening to music enable you to flit between tracks at a whim. There is talk of the “death of the album” and a music industry that will grow to be more and more focussed on short releases, perhaps single songs at a time. E-readers also have this potential to enable “flitting”. You only have room for one or two physical books in your bag when you travel. On the journey you are committed to those and you may progress through them even if they're not always thrilling. You must hold your attention even if you're not very stimulated. With a Kindle, you can have hundreds of books on you at a time. If you're bored of one you can effortlessly switch to another. There's no pain barrier you need to put up with and you need never learn (or you may eventually unlearn) the habit to persevere with a difficult (but worthwhile) read.

Losing such valuable habits would be a great loss. I am thankful that I haven't noticed such an effect on myself from using a Kindle. Perhaps it's too soon to tell. Even though I am a passionate defender of “the album”, I can now see that newer ways of listening to music have decreased even my patience. Maybe, though, books just don't lend themselves to flitting so easily. Albums were always able to be understood as a whole consisting of smaller individual parts: songs. The album is able to be sensibly divided, chopped down. It's not so easy with books. Sure you have chapters, but chapters can't stand alone like songs can. You can flit between the opening tracks of Lungs and Origin Of Symmetry but you can't just flit between the opening chapters of Moby Dick and Oliver Twist. Again though, the future is too uncertain at this stage. Perhaps the influence of the technology will force the shape of books to change in order to accommodate the new breed of reader, as Nicholar Carr nervously predicts in The Shallows.

It is an open question as to where the developing industry and culture will take us, but as things stand I believe e-reading can bring great goods if well and wisely incorporated into our existing literary lives. Aside from the obvious advantage of e-readers in the realm of simple convenience (mass storage of books in a tiny space), they bring great goods for “informational” kinds of reading in particular. E-books are cheaper than (new) physical books and while they probably should be a lot cheaper than they are, these savings quickly mount up and make it more affordable for independent researchers to get hold of important works. It is also a relief to be able to upload academic papers to the device. Even though the digitising of journal articles and their release on the internet increased their accessibility, the actual experience of reading them digitally wasn't always pleasant. Back-lit computer screens don't easily permit long periods of concentrating on text and even laptops, despite being mobile, don't always make it easy to read when “on the go”. Now academic papers can be “easy on the eyes” and thoroughly mobile. Having a Kindle has allowed me to incorporate more papers into my regular reading. The ability to highlight text and easily makes notes in it also increases the academic worth of the technology. E-readers could be valuable for intellectual gains. There are also environmental benefits in dispensing with so much paper.

Overall, I think e-readers are excellent complements to our existing personal libraries. My immediate experience has left me feeling positive. One should be aware of their ability to de-humanise certain experiences, but this shouldn't overshadow the gains in informational reading and, yes, convenience. I've learnt though, that technology is no submissive play-thing, and we need to keep critical eyes on how these devices change our culture and ourselves in the years to come.

Those are my thoughts anyway. What's your experience with e-readers? What promise or threat do you see in them for our future?


Garren said...

I picked up a Nook Tablet primarily to make it easier to read journal articles and other PDFs not available in codex form. If I need to take notes, I've found it's easier to take out a physical notebook and pen to go along with the Nook. This helps with the 'physicality' aspect of the notes at least.

The major annoyance I've had with the e-reader experience is the difficulty of flipping back and forth within the same book. Just last night I was trying to consult maps in the back of an R. Scott Bakker novel, then find my way back to where I was in the text. What a pain! Sticking a finger in each spot and dithering back and forth is a far better solution when available.

Still, I don't think the change in physicality is all bad. I like being able to hold my Nook with one hand without putting effort into holding the pages apart. I like not having to move into good lighting. I like adjustable fonts. I like not worrying about what a book's cover might say to other people; I'd rather have them ask me what I'm reading and talk about it.

The worst thing is the way publishers are largely going the way of differing DRM schemes and "licensing" rather than selling books. Some larger libraries are able to strong-arm their way to actually purchasing ebooks, but most have to go along or go without. I wish publishers would take a lesson from the Steam gaming platform: admit piracy will happen, then provide the kind of pricing, flexibility, and social layer that makes people want to buy legitimately.

Oh, and I'm using e-readers as an excuse to only keep a small paper library of the best paper books. There's no longer a need to keep shelves and shelves around just in case.

Martin said...

Ah yeah it can be a little frustrating not being able to quickly flick to different pages. It's not all a gain in convenience!

Given your library science background I thought you'd have some interesting comments on the licensing and whatnot. I'm not very clued up on that. I am interested in what points of similarity/difference they'll be between music piracy and ebook piracy on their respective industries.

Martin said...

Oh and good point about the joy of one-handed reading. There is definitely a sort of physical satisfaction there.

Garren said...

I'm sure I'll have more to say about copyright and licensing soon, since I'm taking the Copyright class this Fall. Have a feeling the teacher won't have quite the same views I'm bringing to class.

Should make good blog fodder, since it combines ethics, law, library science, and technology.

rolo said...

What? The philosophy of e-reading! Is anything safe from the greedy little hands of you philosophers. Lol
Since I once again find myself fascinated by your posts I'll venture a quick response.
Personally when it comes to e-readers my opinion isn't just positive, but ecstatically so. E-readers not only have the positives you state in your blog, but they're also extremely environmental. No more destroying the rain forest and slaughtering baby animals so you can read Charles Taylor or the latest 1 million page academic tome.
I really don't see many significant negatives. You describe how e-readers make reading more abstracted, but I would say in a ironic way the opposite is true. Reading by its very nature is an abstract activity. When we read something especially a story we are not actually there experiencing it in the space time universe. Consequently, e-reading instead of taking away our sense of physicality when reading actually to perhaps our shock and dismay reminds us of the true nature of reading. At least that my two euros.