Monday, June 09, 2008

Technological Reading

I saw my first Kindle the other day on the bus. It's an attractive little contraption--the one I saw had a pretty leather cover, and was about the size of a book. The type was quite big, which bothered me (not enough to read on a page), but I asked the owner and it turned out you can make the type several sizes, including one that I liked, so that seemed like a good feature (changeable type), especially for the elderly and people with vision issues.

What I didn't like, though, was the way, when you pushed the button to go to the next page, the entire page of type dissolved and then was replaced by the new page. Visually, this means that, for a moment or two, there's nothing to look at, and your reading flow is completely disrupted. I'm sure one's eyes would adjust to it--like my children's eyes see nothing wrong with quick jump cuts, and I'm sure I wouldn't either if I watched enough Disney and MTV, not that I want to.

But that dissolve figured, for me, a bigger issue about the physiology of reading. When I read, my eyes are constantly in motion. Often they jump to the next page, especially in a tense moment, even when I try not to. Sometimes they skim; sometimes they go back and read again. This eye motion is often accompanied by page motion: flipping back to see if I really understood or missed something, flipping forward to see how long the chapter will be. I'm not as bad as E, who almost always reads the last page very early on, but there is definitely a non-linear quality to my reading, and I would argue that I am not the only one, that reading a physical book which makes all its pages available to you at once is an endeavor that invites, indeed, almost insists upon, subverting the linearity that is its ostensible structure.

By only showing you one page at a time, the Kindle puts an end to the potentiality of this linear subversion (think page flipping). If this argument sounds like Nicholson Baker's argument about card catalogs, well, it is: we're looking at another computer-based substitution of binarism (which is at the root of everything computer) for serendipity, with all the losses and gains entailed therein. Unlike Baker (I work really hard not to be a Luddite), I don't want to make categorical statements about whether this is good or bad. For kids with reading issues and/or ADHD, it might be great, and for some people it might be the difference between not reading and reading, which also would be good. But for me, it's bad. I like my reading process, it works for me, and, for as long as I can, I'll be sticking with books.

(You know, I might be crossing Nicholson Baker, whom I quite adore, with Sven Birkerts, whom I quite loathe, on the Luddite factor. I read the Baker article a long time ago, and he may very well have taken a stance similar to mine--there are a lot of benefits to computer databases but there's a big loss in doing away with card catalogs--but I don't have time to figure it out.)

1 comment:

Lauren said...

I agree. I never much liked the idea of digital reading. Reading screens give me eye-strain. I definitely do all those reading actions you described. I especially like to look to see how long chapters are and if I'm getting too tense about something I'll flip forward just to make sure the plot does give me the answer I'm looking for.