23 Jun

On Reading

Yesterday, I heard a brief segment of the NPR program “On the Media,” which included an interview with Ann Kirschner, a woman who set out to read Little Dorrit in four different formats: paperback book, audio book, Kindle, and iPhone.

Now, just to clarify: she didn’t read the entire book four times, which is initially how I was envisioning this crazy project. No. Instead, she would start in her house with the paperback version, and then she’d pick up at that point with the audio book while traveling to work on the subway.

“I didn’t set out to be scientific, I set out to be practical,” she explained. Which is to say that it wasn’t so much an experiment as it was a method of fitting in 1000 pages of reading with an otherwise busy life.

But the experience still provoked questions about various methods of reading (and whether they all can be called reading). I don’t think there was a clear winner in her estimation, but the Kindle seemed to be the clear loser. She didn’t like “having to make a conscious decision to take it with her.” And she also cited the annoying black screen transition that animates every page turn.

I’ve seen this annoying black screen myself. Last week, one of the members of my writing class brought a Kindle to lunch and passed it around. When you “turn” a page, the writing turns white, and the screen turns black just for a split second. It’s jarring.

Ms. Kirschner said she spent the most time listening to the audio book version, and she disagrees with those who say listening isn’t reading. She admits that with an audio book, you’re at the mercy of the narrator; you can’t go backward or forward; you can’t dog-ear pages or underline or write in the margins. So it’s a relatively “passive” experience, she concedes. But is it still reading?

At first, I said no. It’s no more reading than typing is handwriting. But, of course, typing is still writing. And heck, dictating a letter is still writing, isn’t it? Might it follow, then, that reading exists independent of the medium through which we ingest the words? Can the blind not read? Or is braille as valid a medium for delivering words as is black ink or paid voice actors?

Whatever the case, Ms. Kirschner’s final assessment was back in the realm of the seeing. She had some surprising things to say about the iPhone, which I would have thought the least practical e-reader out there. It’s small and bright (maybe harder on the eyes?) and easier to steal. But she gave it points for the fact that it is always with you. And so, whereas you had to plan to take the Kindle with you on your various outings, you have the iPhone either way, which makes it easy to get a few pages read while you’re on the bus, in the waiting room, or taking a shit.

Well, as it turns out, I now have an iPhone, and I recently gave it a try. I’m warming up to it, and I must say, this morning, I read a Jonathan Franzen short story, and I actually found that I preferred reading it on the iPhone to reading it while at my computer desk.

Not that I’m going to convert to iPhone reading from now on. I love books too much. That is, I love the actual physical item (in addition to reading them). And since I’m just not on the subway that often, I don’t have much reason to branch out from the good ol’ paperback. But the question Ms. Kirschner posed to herself is the most important question in figuring out the future of books: Do you love books or do you love reading?

I would add an addendum to that question, though: Do you love either? Can reading — in its various forms — compete with TV, film, and video games?

I hope so.

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