How Can I Count the Ways?

Nicholas Carr from the Britannica Blog on Why How We Read Matters:

“A change in form is always, as well, a change in content. That is unavoidable, as history tells us over and over again. One reads an electronic book differently than one reads a printed book – just as one reads a printed book differently than one reads a scribal book and one reads a scribal book differently than one reads a scroll and one reads a scroll differently than one reads a clay tablet.”

Carr’s piece is primarily about the fear that the digital book format will destroy “the ethic of the monastery – the ethic of deep attentiveness, of contemplativeness, of singlemindedness” that getting lost in a story provides. He says it’s because the Internet is a place of  constant “clutter.” It can be, but his explanation is incredibly dramatic especially because the e-book reader is still a book buyer,  someone who reads to get lost in a story, awed by prose. But Carr isn’t entirely off base about form. It presents the opportunity for a different experience with the content, but not a negation of quality as he seems to suggest .

Listening to the audiobook version of Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, the first in a three-part series about America during the Martin Luther King years, is like sitting through a private lecture. It’s smooth, lucid and functional. The paperback is about 1070 pages and a pain to carry around.Holding it open on a crowded subway car is often a really uncomfortable battle between balance and concentration. PTW is only the second book I’ve ever listened to and already I’ve noticed a change in the way I’m experiencing the information I’m hearing.

I’ve been retaining facts with slightly more authority after my first listen than I’m accustomed to after my first reading of a text. However, I’m less likely to follow up on research interests than say if I had the notes and the bibliography at my immediate disposal. I’m more likely to reread something in my hand then to search for a section I may not remember hearing. Ever tried searching for a missed passage in your audiobook? It’s a frustrating game of trial-and-error. A minute or two off and you’re suddenly “pages” from where you’d intended to go. I can be psychologically resistant to the sight of long descriptive passages whereas by ear it’s smooth sailing. I’m considering purchasing books in the audio format in genres I would not have considered in hardcover, paperback or e-book. There is the sometimes problematic issue of interpretive intonations. This is similar to trying to read a book after seeing the movie. Since the movie images, as in someone else’s interpretation, are implanted in your mind it can be hard to fill in the imaginative space from the page.

Much has been said about the death of the book and more dramatically the death of the written word, but how people imbibe information is nothing more than a reflection of the culture at large. The existence of one option doesn’t necessarily have to cancel out the importance or quality of another.  Despite the cacophony of available information and entertainment,  I think the fact that various options for reading exist is something worth celebrating.

  • J

    Carr’s point is that the online/e-book format is inferior to print because of what it demands from the reader. Reading a book in traditional print form is one of the few activities in modern daily life that requires serious sustained effort and concentration. It requires a person’s full attention. You cannot walk the dog, cook dinner, exercise, play cards, hold a conversation, or who knows what else while you’re reading a printed book. This kind of reading enhances one’s thinking skills and one’s respect for language and is therefore essential in developing an educated, well-informed populace.

    Audiobooks—to use your example—are a convenient tool, I suppose, but surely you would agree that listening to a book on tape is not nearly as intellectually rigorous or demanding as sitting down and actually reading the book. You do not wrestle with ideas, language, structure, or the nuances of an author’s argument when you listen to a book on tape (imagine Nietzsche on tape!). You might retain facts better, but a book, if it is worth anything at all, is more than the sum of its facts. I actually think PTW, though it is an indispensable, elegantly written history of the civil rights era, suffers from an overabundance of facts and not enough argument.

    Anyway, you raise an important point. The books that are the best candidates for audio and electronic formats are books that contain lots of information and are likely to be considered by some too cumbersome to carry around, which includes a good deal of narrative nonfiction. Other good candidates are mass market paperbacks—disposable genre stuff that would only take up shelf space after a quick read. I think the sales figures will confirm this. There is not much of an e-book market for people who, as you say, read to be “awed by prose.” These formats do not encourage people to ponder a book’s language. They encourage you to skip around, skim, scroll, whatever, anything except pay attention to language.

    Which is to say that Carr is basically right that the other formats are ultimately inferior to print. Reading for information and entertainment are the lowest, most rudimentary forms of reading. You can certainly read for these purposes in print, but print remains the medium most amenable to more difficult and demanding forms of reading. Though I share Carr’s distaste for e-books, I find his anxiety unwarranted. As far as I can tell, the e-book, is not a major technological innovation. It does not improve the actual experience of reading a book the way that digital technology improved, for instance, the way we hear music and see pictures (in some cases). On virtually every point (visibility, portability, durability, cost, availability, and, above all, aesthetics) the e-book compares poorly to the printed book. And if it ain’t broke, why try to fix it? I suspect most people who read feel the same way and that the e-book will either become a relatively benign alternative to printed books (like audiobooks) or just fade away.