I hear a lot of grumbling about the e-reader. “It’s Gnosticism.” “We’re consuming books now instead of savoring them.” And I am, in theory, sympathetic to those cries of woe. I love to read. I want others to love to read deeply too. Rather, by choosing not to condemn it as a harbinger of the downfall of Western literacy, the Kindle has revived my reading and, at least for me, has aided my quest to read well.
I absolutely loved Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (which, incidentally, I read as an ebook) and find myself returning to it often. His main advice is to “read at Whim” but also seek to elevate your taste or “read upwards.” You love Lord of the Rings? Try Beowulf, etc. He takes on the (often conservative) proponents of reading Great Books for the sake of having read them:
[F]or heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout – some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C.S. Lewis once called ‘social and ethical hygiene.’
I take issue with his choice of Middlemarch as an example because that book is delightful but the point stands. Reading should be pleasurable, not kale for the mind. Many arguments for the exclusivity of tactile books take the same shape: Reading should be accompanied by the feeling of a book’s spine, the smell of the glue, the weight of it in your hand. Otherwise it’s not really reading.
Let’s apply Jacobs’ warning to how we read and say we shouldn’t turn the act of reading into a moral issue. The way some essayists wax rhapsodical about their books make reading sound like a fussy, intricate oddity, not a pleasurable experience that we want everyone to have a part in. For example, William Giraldi in the new New Republic:
For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified.
He goes on to write “Paradise Lost will not put up with rapidity and diversion, and that is exactly why, for some of us, a physical book will always be superior reading, because it allows you to be alone with yourself, to sit in solidarity with yourself, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination.”
Sure, that is ideal. I have had transcendent reading experiences too, but they were when I was single, in undergrad, and had oodles of time to sit under trees. I still read a lot, but now it’s in stolen moments: paragraphs while the baby is playing, listening to an audiobook while I fold laundry, and nursing in the middle of the night by the glow of my Kindle’s backlight. I savor those times when I can escape to the coffee shop, and sit in solidarity with a chocolate croissant, book open on the table in front of me. But this elite attitude about reading makes it totally inaccessible to most and rings false to many.
I’m not saying we should abolish the codex. If I read a fantastic ebook, I usually make a point to look for a copy at used book stores so we can have it on our shelves, hopefully ripe for smaller hands to pick up one day. I benefited greatly from choosing books at random from my parents’ library and hope to replicate that means of discovery for our children. But, as Jacobs writes in a recent blog post, let’s not misunderstand books as an end in themselves, but rather recognize them as means to information, knowledge, and yes, transcendent experiences by way of their content, not their binding.