letters from nairobi

Why I Read Books
February 22, 2012, 11:28
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Lately, I’ve found myself playing a role I never thought I would: Luddite.

It’s not that I am fearful of change, or adamantly anti-technology – I love my gadgets, think that the interconnectivity that the Internet provides is the single most important technological development in centuries, and Spotify, Facebook, and Photoshop my way through each day. I am shamelessly plugged in.

Except when it comes to one thing: reading.

The other night, over a boat of sashimi and clinking bottles of Tusker Lite, I found myself defending a position whose contours I’ve come to know intimately, almost mindlessly. The subject, as always, was e-readers, and their arguable superiority to traditional print.

The problem with engaging in this discussion is that my stance, like that of so many supposed luddites, is intangible. Opinions from both sides twist and curl in their own air currents, rising like smoke. There is no overlap; the dialects are unintelligible to each other.

Yes, e-readers are more convenient. They’re portable, lightweight, and provide access to an infinite amount of content. Yes, it’s easier to travel with one than lugging around a stack of books. Yes, it’s much simpler to share what you’re reading with others. Yes. Yes.

But, I find myself spluttering, it’s not the same. E-readers are, quite literally, blank tablets. Words appear and disappear like phantoms, all a uniform color of washed-out grey against grey. Nothing is weighted. Books become one endless scroll – there are no beautiful covers, no collection that exists in the world, no pages of fixed type that stand immobile, immovable.

And there’s no scent. Just cold, indifferent circuits, blinking beneath plastic.

As dedicated as I am to my yellowing, musty novels with their curling pages and technicolor spines, I realize that it is only a matter of time before my loyalty becomes eccentricity, and then archaic nostalgia.

A short article in the Atlantic, “How Tech Is Making Us More Aware of the Ways We Read,” considers how technology like e-readers and tablets are prompting people to re-examine not only what but how they read. The recent explosion of reading memoirs, the piece argues, points to a collective recognition that the act of reading is undergoing a profound change:

“…when we embrace a new medium, or new technology, we begin the process of understanding the one it replaces or supplants. We didn’t really grasp what theatrical moviegoing is like until it became common to watch movies at home, where we can move about, where we can pause the movie whenever we wish. What was truly distinctive about humans’ relations with horses didn’t emerge until people began traveling by train and then automobile.

Similarly, we began to be truly reflective about reading — people started writing books about its history, scholars banded together to study it — when it seemed that television would render reading obsolete. And now that reading is happening in new media, we reflect on the long history of the codex.”

This is not to say that there isn’t value in how we interacted with What Came Before – it may be more convenient to pause a film to answer a telephone or refill a bowl of popcorn at home but there isn’t a moment of shared laughter, or fear, with a roomful of strangers sitting in the dark. And while it’s much more efficient to drive to the office, an automobile is just a hunk of metal, not a living, breathing animal. We lose as much as we gain as lungs are replaced by exhaust pipes and hearts by fuel injectors.

So when I hold onto boxes filled to the brim with my faded novels, mildewed and crumbling, it’s not that I don’t comprehend why you prefer your slick plastic e-reader with its infinite words and scrollable pages. I get it.

But can you understand what is lost?


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Your only loss is weaker arms and more luggage space from carrying only a Kindle instead of 20 trade paperbacks. Join us!

Comment by Anthony

The wonder of books is unexplainable. My thoughts exactly.

Comment by Mari

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