Friday, September 3, 2010

My e-reading devolution

I woke up too early today and got into the city an hour before time for work, so I took myself out to breakfast at Veselka. Ssh, don't tell Teresa, who's out of town. Oh hell, she's got nothing to be jealous about--she's in Los Angeles, and after that San Antonio, so she's getting plenty of her own comfort food, the cuisine of her people, there in the Southwest, AKA stolen Mexico, and I know she wouldn't begrudge me treating myself to the food of my people. Well, strictly speaking, not my people so much as the people who tried to wipe out my people ... but much of the food is the same, naturally enough, since the Jews and the Ukrainians (and Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, etc.) lived in close proximity for several centuries until they got rid of us. 

Potato latkes. Borscht. Blintzes. And kasha, especially kasha, oh how I love kasha. It's a deep dive down the nostalgia well for me, I'm aware that it's not merely a matter of taste though I do love the taste. The merest whiff of the aroma of kasha sends me back, way way back to my teeny tiny years, to my Lithuanian Jewish immigrant grandparents' house on Broadstreet in Detroit. Kasha and mothballs, those are the two smells that evoke that house for me. You don't come across the smell of mothballs too often anymore--why is that? is it because all the material of which our clothes are made is treated with such an oh god I'd rather not think about it range of chemicals that no moth would come anywhere near them anymore?--so it's left to kasha alone to remind me of those otherwise nearly lost memories.

Before the plate of kasha and eggs arrived, before I ate breakfast in a buckwheat-bouquet reverie, I had of course been reading a novel. By which I mean I was deeply engaged in a profound experience in single-minded concentration; I was exercising vital areas of my thinking, creative, and imaginative brain; I was building new brain cells in those and other areas; I was, and though this might seem contradictory it's not, resting and refreshing my brain, among other things. Most of which, in any case the complex combination of which, is uniquely achieved by reading a book, especially fiction, is not and cannot be achieved via interaction with electronic devices.
This link is to a recent article about studies showing the dangers, detriments, shortcomings of high-tech multi-tasking--the texting/tweeting/emailing/web surfing/iPod-listening routine. It does not directly address the issue of your brain on e-readers. But the connection seems clear to me, and I have read several other pieces in recent months that are specifically about the difference between reading a physical book and reading text on a Kindle, Sony Reader or other screen device (pieces to which unfortunately I can't find the the links, but surely you trust me that I'm not making this stuff up)--differences not of the "I love the smell of books" variety but rather the crucial issues about depth, thought, learning, memory and so on.

It is becoming more and more clear, it seems to me, that there is a distinguishable difference in the mental processes and the effects on your brain--on you, that is, your self, your mind, the way you think, dream, imagine, understand, grow--that occur and accrue via the two different types of reading. And that the processes and effects experienced with reading old-fashioned books are superior to those that come with e-reading. In other words, we may lose something very precious indeed--the capacity for deep engagement, engagement at those under-levels of consciousness that churn away while we read a book and that, it's beginning to seem if I understand the reports on these various studies correctly, is not available to us when we interact with an electronic screen for reasons that are still not entirely understood--if we abandon physical books entirely.

I'd been leaning the other way for a while. As I wrote here earlier this year, I have no ideological objection to the new reading technologies. Furthermore, I'm sick of lugging heavy books around everywhere, would love to be rid of that burden and exchange it for a single light object that could hold within it many books. The development of e-readers under capitalism is necessarily driven by the search for profit, and so it's going to be a long, slow ride until these devices are available for the masses at affordable prices and with the capacity for borrowing library books instead of being limited to buying books, from pre-selected vendors to boot. All that aside, though, I'd been open to the eventuality.

Now, however, I'm rethinking. Of course, my view will remain tentative until I try out an e-reader for myself, and since nobody I know has one to lend me, it'll be a while till that happens. Who knows, perhaps I'll be surprised. Perhaps I'll find it as deep and rewarding as reading the page made of paper. I've come to doubt it, though. Even to fear it. My mind is challenged enough of late, what with words, names, all sorts of data constantly vanishing into thin air. The last thing I need is one more variable, along with hormone changes and lack of sleep, making me yet more pixilated than I already am.

Plus, I love reading in bed with my lover on a Sunday morning. Let an e-reader come between us? Never!