You read, and by virtue of the words, you become someone else. It’s all in the head, but does the physicality of it still matter?
The rise of printing was nothing short of revolutionary; information that used to be kept in libraries and copied by hand became widely available. With the influence of leaflets and pamphlets on religious and political campaigning, it has been described as a first social media revolution… and maybe the kind of practice we now see online is much older still.
With the books came the explosion of knowledge and of stories, the introvert bookworm who’d sit in a corner reading, the student or scholar poring over “quaint a volume of forgotten lore,” the reader “becoming a vampire without being bitten” – and the very association of books, and libraries, as stores of the same knowledge and stories.
The rise of ebooks has dealt a blow to traditional booksellers, made the purchase of books cheaper and easier (to the point where a library can be ‘established’ in a single download) – and it has shed them of their physical form.
Pros and cons have been discussed ad nauseam. Of course, it makes it easier to carry a book, if not one’s library, around. Marking passages, but especially copying and sharing them, is a breeze, given the right app. For better and worse, the publishers aren’t the gatekeepers anymore; books have become considerably easier to publish and share.
Quite a bit of the support for the printed book, then, may be a holdout from earlier times, antiquated notions of learning and reading that only result from the way previous generations learned to read. Growing up with ebooks being the “natural” format to read, the lack of interactivity and interoperability in traditional books may well seem as odd as ebooks appear to older generations now.
Then again, even as reading via devices and online is re-wiring our very brains, a fundamental aspect of how we are, and how we are in this world, may be overlooked.
Even when we read, even as a good story can captivate us to the point where we don’t notice anything happening around us or within us but the story we are immersed in, we are still physical beings.
As such, we don’t just read via our eyes – or hear an audiobook or narrated story via our ears – but the words translate into images and feelings, and we only imagine and feel them because we are not mere consciousnesses somehow attached to a physical bodily vehicle, but complete human beings. And so, we shiver to the cold we read about, get an empty feeling in the pit of the stomach out of fear for the heroes we identify with, and certainly get anxious to turn the next page and satisfy that hunger to know how the story will continue.
Not only that. Even when it’s a dry academic tome, it makes a difference whether it is just seen on the same screens every other text is also seen on or whether we can feel its heft, orient ourselves in the course of its presentation through a mental map we create in the turning of the physical pages, with eyes knowing where we’ve read something and fingers having felt the thickness of pages read and pages left.
It’s not only that the ease of online linkage makes it easier both to look things up and learn with more than just words on pages (if only the technology were used in such a way as to do it well) and to get sidetracked and distracted, if not raised to be incapable of following one clear line of argument attentively.
Our very thinking and memory is spatially organized, wrapped up in the situations and impressions gained while learning – but ebooks offer nothing to attach a memory to, physically and spatially. Having read something somewhere in this world we didn’t pay attention to, in some ebook shown on ever-the-same device as all the others, does not give nearly the same anchor for the formation of memory, and the building of knowledge, as a book that was held, picked up from and put a certain place, looked at from cover to blurb, leafed through, read and returned back to, put in the companionship of other books in some relation to it, smelled and felt.
The ease of ebooks is great, they are good for quick reads – but for books to keep, know they’ll be there whether life’s high-tech or needs candlelight, to know intimately like friends and companions, I’ll build my memory palace in real life, on my bookshelves.