Saturday, November 2, 2013

Thoughts on Print and Digital Reading

So my sister recently posted on facebook Pam Allyn's Huffington Post article, “Why I’ve ‘Gone Back’ to Print Books,” and asked for others’ responses to it. I started writing up what I thought, and it went a little bit too long for the medium of a facebook comment, so I’ve decided to put it here.

I find the article intriguing in many ways.

1) I find it fascinating that in Allyn's intro to why she likes paper better than digital she completely flips on its head the current cultural perception that technology is for the 1st world, privileged elite and out-dated modes of communication are for the less-fortunate and under-privileged. It almost has the feel of one of those nostalgic reminiscences for the technology of the past, much in the mode of the currently hip interest in vinyl records and decades-old photography technologies. The speed with which tablet technology has introduced itself and evolved seems to have sped up the process of longing for the good ol' days. The Miniver Cheevey syndrome, if you will.

2) None of her reasons for preferring books to e-readers have anything to do with the content of the book, but rather the experience of reading viewed from a much broader perspective. It's not just the words, but the overall aesthetics of touch, and the sense of beauty that comes from the jacket. You might say that she only prefers the aesthetics of paper because that’s what she was raised with, and that someone raised reading electronically won’t feel the same way about paper books. I think I can agree with that. Those of us who say that reading print media is superior (I definitely include myself here) aren't so much saying that it is inherently superior, but rather that reading digitally is an entirely different experience from our own cherished experiences reading, and we’re loathe to see something we loved so much be cast away. Thus we cling to it all the more tightly. This is basically a reiteration of Marshall McLuhan’s nearly 50 year old assertion that the medium through we communicate is as important as the message communicated.

3) I’m intrigued by the sense of ownership implied in her point saying that she likes to turn the book over and over in her hands. She seems to be saying that when you have a book you feel a much stronger sense of ownership over the content than you do with an electronic device. With an electronic device that sense of ownership is lessened because, for example, you don't rightly know where page 187 is stored within the device. You can call the page up at will, but if the battery dies, page 187 is lost to you interminably. You aren't in control. With a book, there’s nothing that can remove that control from you except for those external forces that we as a race have been dealing with for centuries, i.e. fire, flood, marauding bands of thieves, older sisters, etc., and for which we as a society have evolved a sense of critical awareness and suspicion. E-readers, and technology as a whole, are forcing us as a society to conceptualize new definitions of ownership. But again, these are only issues that we can begin to deal with as we climb far enough up to social ladder that we aren’t worried about where our next meal is coming from.

4) The last point that I find intriguing is Pam Allyn’s own final point, and that is the social aspect of reading. I find this one most intriguing, because when we think of reading, we think of being alone, completely isolated from the world and enveloped in the reading. I think of times as a child when I was supposed to be cleaning out my closet and instead was sitting in my closet reading, hiding from Mom who was sure to come find me and get after me for not cleaning.

Photo courtesy of (don't worry, it's not a sketchy site.)

Every step I heard coming down the hall quickened my heart rate and made me throw my book, pick up a shirt and pretend that I’d been cleaning all along. More often than not Mom wasn't checking up on me, and when she did I'm sure she wasn't fooled, but the point is I was doing all of this completely alone. Yet Allyn asserts that she misses the sociality of it reading. She misses being able to see what others are reading and either strike up conversations or perhaps pass silent judgments on people because of their reading selections. It's almost as if reading gives you membership to a community of readers, and seeing others reading is a way of identifying members of that community. When we get rid of books, we get rid of our way of discerning out our own kind. With electronic devices people might be surfing the internet, or playing Angry Birds, or any number of other non-reading activities, so there's no way to tell where or who your community members are. I could go off from here and talk about how this idea might be related to animalistic puffery and modified versions of instinctual mating rituals, but I’ll go ahead and not do that right now.

4.2) This idea of reading as social activity leads me to another interesting idea concerning reading, though it’s not as related to the digital vs paper debate. When you read something intriguing or interesting or illuminating, a common response is to feel the desire to share that with someone else. The book club effect. We want to see what others’ thoughts are on the subject. We want to tease out the ideas introduced in the book. This happened most strikingly for me after I finished reading Stargirl for the first time. That book really shook me up, and I wanted to talk to someone about it. Unfortunately I finished reading it around 3 am, so there was no one to talk to. It drove me crazy needing to talk to someone about it, so I sent an email to Katy Challis, who had suggested I read Stargirl in the first place, dumping out all my thoughts in a place where I knew they’d have an audience. I couldn’t bear to not make an effort to create a social experience out of the inherently individualistic act of reading. As a matter of fact, that’s what sparked this whole blog post in the first place. My sister read something interesting about the digital vs print reading debate, posted it on facebook and elicited others’ thoughts. She wanted a community discussion, and here I've joined the community. In fact, technology, namely social media, has exacerbated this impulse to share what we read. So in that sense, digital reading has enhanced the social nature of reading by allowing us contact with an ever-widening community. The debate then becomes the value of networked and impersonal social interaction vs unmediated and in-person social interaction. But I’ve read too many poorly written freshman research papers on this subject to feel any desire to jump down that rabbit hole.

All told, I’m still firmly entrenched in my devotion to the printed word, but I find this whole debate fascinating. That said, I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the subject. (See what I did there?)

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