A reader from Missouri writes, apropos of yesterday’s letter from the owner of a hand-held e-book reader:
As a literature teacher in a tech-savvy junior high, I wanted to weigh in on the hand-held electronic book issue.
In my literature classes we often discuss the aesthetics of reading a book. Many of my 14- and 15-year-old students are voracious readers who are willing to tackle classics as well as contemporary and young-adult authors. We’ve actually discoursed on the implications of reading a book via the web or electronically versus holding the actual book and flipping the page. Many have commented that they enjoy turning the page of a thriller, or that they sometimes linger over a page when something particularly sad or shocking has happened. I must admit that there are times when I will hold that page between two fingers and dread turning it because I know the character I’m so fond of dies there.
That being said, I’m all for a hand-held electronic revolution if it will influence more of my students to actually read. While the introduction of the net, the web, and the dot-com world was originally touted as the demise of reading, it has actually become an impetus for improving reading skills and arousing interest in reading among my students. I can’t count the number of times we’ve read a short story and students have gone home to research, on their own, an issue that was brought up by the study of the story. Imagine a world where all of my students didn’t have to carry 10-pound literature anthologies and could whip out their e-book without worrying about fumbling to the right page. As well, the e-books would allow them to take notes as they read and to store them for future reference. Today, we have a “Thou Shalt Not Write in the Book” policy. E-books would end that policy and would allow the students to download their notes and comments later. I think many of my students would read more because they would feel less like they have to “read a book” and more like they’re reading a screen. There’s a difference, you know.
Another vivid front-line dispatch, worth a close reading if you’re wondering what the future holds in store. And once again, I was struck by a small detail–what you might call “nostalgia for the page.” I know exactly what my correspondent means when he talks about not wanting to turn a page.
On the other hand, I’m sure that the readers and writers of the future will be conditioned by their experience with computers to respond to the “printed” word in similar ways, only in terms relevant to their new technological environment. No, I don’t find type on a screen to be sensuously appealing, and I don’t like the visual anonymity of e-mail, which comes in a very narrow range of typefaces–but, then, the same thing was true of typewriters, wasn’t it? Nobody in his right mind would type a love letter, but lots of people send love letters via e-mail (usually peppered with emoticons). A couple of years ago, I sent a friend a condolence e-mail, and she was surprised to hear from me via that channel. I doubt she’d be nearly as surprised today.
I don’t believe in what intellectual historians call “the idea of progress,” but I do accept the inevitability of change. We get used to it, and if we don’t, our children will–which doesn’t mean it’s always good, needless to say. As so often, Dostoevsky spoke the last word on this subject: “Man gets used to everything–the beast!”
UPDATE: Brandywine Books is skeptical about my e-book-related speculations: “The weight of the pages, the smell of glue and paper, the look of the printed text, new or fading, these amount to a book’s atmosphere. You can cuddle up with it. You can sink back with it.” Not so the e-book, he claims. (Read the whole thing here.)