As I scrolled down the page I became conscious that I was doing exactly the thing I was researching. My ‘normal’ concentration and attention to words, born of my lifelong love for seeing them unfold on paper, was wandering off and bouncing around.
There has been a good deal of research and publicity on how the way we read differs from book to screen. The research covers the way we gather, assimilate, remember and understand information and the results of some studies are startling, though you would have to read them all… preferably on paper, it seems… to get the full range of detail as they look at everything from empathy to engagement, from transportation, cognition, to the ability to reconstruct events.
This particular article was well crafted, engaging and interesting; the information pertinent… and yet there I was visually skimming the paragraphs, dipping in and out to extract information when I spotted key words… and astonished, when I pulled myself up and went back, at how much information I was actually missing altogether, bypassing or simply misinterpreting by failing to take in all the details given. I wasn’t reading.
Well, not properly… or not after the first thousand words or so.
Granted, it was a scientific paper and therefore not designed to capture and hold the emotions like a story, but I do find that while I am happy to learn and research online, for reading I want something I can hold. It needs to be personal.
I love reading… I always have. I love learning too and when the advent of the technological revolution placed a world of knowledge at my fingertips I couldn’t wait to explore. I will never forget the very first, magical moment when I opened a browser and began to look around in awe at the sheer volume of knowledge suddenly available…instantly… on every subject in the known and speculative universes, as well as a few fictional ones too. It was like gaining admission to an infinite library that held every human thought ever recorded. Yet, of course, in comparative terms there was really very little out there at the time when contrasted with what is now accessible.
I remember too the naïveté with which I first approached that information. It says so on the internet, so it must be based in some kind of truth… You can stop laughing now…With a book, you see, you always have that assurance. That is not to say that everything you read in books is true, of course… far from it… but what you do have is context from which you can discern the level of truth, fact or fiction involved.
You know when you are reading a text book or a fantasy. You can, by reading and getting a feel for the author, quickly decide when a theory is purely speculative, personal opinion, diatribe or sensationalism. You can tell whether they are writing from research, experience or imagination, fact or fiction, objective reality or inner truth. Language allows you to pick up on a writer’s personality and see just where it creeps in to colour their words and thoughts. With random pages of the internet that context is missing, the acquired familiarity with a writer’s voice does not grow as we skip from page to page and unless we are regularly following a particular writer online we are seldom even aware of their names.
For me that seems to take some of the emotion… some of the empathy… out of the equation. And that equation is, after all, not a mathematical one but a very personal relationship between the mind and heart of both a reader and a writer, particularly with creative works.
Perhaps it has something to do with continuity? A single click can erase all trace of a viewed screen; a book sits there quietly waiting for you to pick it up again. It isn’t going anywhere. It has a place both in your attention and in your world.
There is a permanency about books too. Online work can be quickly edited and changed… the hundred year old books that sit on my shelves will never change. Where factual information is concerned this ability to update and correct in line with current knowledge is undoubtedly a good thing, but a creative work carries the words of its creator into a future unknown, standing timeless as itself. It may become a dated relic… it may, like Dickens or Plutarch, for example, provide a window into a bygone age; it always preserves the mind of the writer in that scintilla of time when he wrote the final word.
Apart from anything else there is a physical presence to a book. I have a Kindle and love it… the fact I can read any one of hundreds… thousands… of stored, possibly rare or out of print, books anywhere at any time is wonderful, either on the device itself or via the app for the phone. Many a queue or waiting room has disappeared, melting into a fantastic landscape at the flick of a button. And e-books are so much cheaper as a rule than their paper counterparts… The thing is, though, that I will usually pack the Kindle for travelling, and read a paper book instead.
Call me old fashioned, but it is a landscape thing. With e-readers, pages just scroll, numbered or not, across a flat screen. With a book you can feel the turning of a page, the progression from start to finish as the weight of paper passes from right to left. You can recall exactly where that fabulous phrase was placed on the page… you can curl up with the smell of paper and the sound of it, the touch of it… There may be old notes in margins, intriguing scraps of paper with arcane messages left as redundant bookmarks by previous readers. A book is a tangible portal into an alternate reality… and part of an ongoing story… and as a reader I walk through that portal and who knows where the story might lead? Every book is an adventure…
I know. I’m a sad case.