Paper or Plasma? How Are You Reading This Summer?

Summertime is a favorite time for some favorite reading—but in these times, and in these summers, the issue is not simply, “What is to be read?” but “How is it to be read?” Readers are not only what they read, but also how they read; and civilized readers should not read like boors. Thus, they face a bizarre, if not boorish, choice when it comes to reading: “Paper or plasma?”

The question of book or Nook, of novel or Kindle, of ink or e-ink, is a real question these days; which is fitting since it is a question pertaining to a degree of reality. The situation is one based simply upon the difference between the physical and digital experience of reading a book. Despite how any individual’s judgment may lie, since virtual reality is, by the general judgment, the simpler medium, the tablet remains the trendy way to read, throwing books into a virtual fire of sorts. Of all the endangered things in the modern world, the book seems to be getting the least attention; while the e-reader—or e-reaper—swings its sweeping scythe, making the modern world scratch its head and wonder whether the book is dead?

The late Catholic thinker and teacher, Dr. John Senior, phrased a famous and furious position regarding modern media in his book, The Restoration of Christian Culture:

It is an obvious matter of fact that here in the United States now, the Devil has seized those instruments [of Christian Culture] to play a danse macabre, a dance of death, especially through what we call the “media,” the television, radio, record, book, magazine and newspaper industries. The restoration of culture, spiritually, morally, physically, demands the cultivation of the soil in which the love of Christ can grow, and that means we must, as they say, rethink priorities.… First, negatively, smash the television set.

The same priority applies to the threat to reality’s experience that the medium of the digital reader poses. Smash the Kindle. Join the ranks—indeed, the growing ranks—who prefer paper to pixels. The reasons are not difficult to grasp, because they are innately graspable. Nothing matches the feel and smell and weight of a book. A book is reliable, tactile, and real. It is designed to fit the human body with a proportion that computers do not share. The stuff of the digital realm is mutable. The stuff of a book is permanent. Its printed pages are not subject to the Wikipedia whirlwind of copying and pasting, deleting, or constant arbitrary change. It is, in the end, more real because it is more solid, and gives an experience that partakes more perfectly in reality.

In any case, why discard the book? Books have not lost any argument. There has not even been an argument. The problem is that technology always seems to get a free pass. No one has sat down and posed the question, “Are we sure that we as a society want to abolish things like handwriting, encyclopedias, library stacks, and the book?” There are no such questions and no such debates. Instead, society takes it for granted that if some new-fangled technology is new-fangled it must be better. Research on the subject is, as it often is, mixed. Some studies find that digital reading results in less retention. Other studies suggest no discernable difference between a digital or analog experience. But what is clear is that readers are not only what they read, but also how they read. And what is more real is the better choice no matter what the data may indicate.

Whoever heard of getting lost in a Kindle? So what is the draw, then? Is price the motivating factor, perhaps? Perhaps; but cheaper is not necessarily better. The Brothers Karamazov is a commitment and worth its weight. Books need to be taken seriously if they are to be read seriously. They need to be valued, and therefore they should carry value. The best that has been thought and said should not come cheaply. Or perhaps saving the trees is the reason people propound? It is no argument either. The earth metals used to make e-readers and tablets are not only rare, but also highly toxic. Trees are a renewable energy source. The energy that goes into cooling fans and broadband servers is not; though it does renew headaches and strained eyes. The Kindle may be fine for a sports update, a news flash, or an article like this one, but should not be used to take up Homer or Shakespeare or Tolkien.

Material delivered on devices tend to be less immersive, to sink in less, offering a sluggish experience in spite of Internet speed. On the other hand, the physical interaction of annotation, reference, and progress connects readers to the material. Immersion in a book is essentially different from immersion online, for a lack of focus always accompanies the latter. The constant reminder that navigation for the sake of navigation is always possible always hinders focused computer engagement. A user could always be doing something else that is waiting to be done. Email is just a click away. Hyperlinks beckon. There is a nagging, incessant feeling to go faster. To skim. To surf. To scroll. To be, or not to be. (That is the question.) The Kindle, like every interactive screen, encourages frenetic movement, whereas the book invites one to stay awhile. To search. To see. To stop. With books, there is never a tweet twittering for attention—just another page to be turned when the time comes. Kindles, like the rest of their digital counterparts, do not breed concentration or absorption. The screen world is a flitting, fleeting world. Modern personal devices are designed to distract and ensnare users in the World Wide Web. It is incredible how disconnected our so-called connected society truly is, and such disconnection is not conducive to the art and discipline of reading.

Is there anyone who did not feel a sense of solemn and serene accomplishment re-shelving the tome that is David Copperfield? Can the same be said for one who reads Dickens’ glorious THE END and then powers down the screen? What makes Moby-Dick great is not that it is compact. It is great because it bears a reality within its pages; and the sheer weight of those pages, and the passage through them, is an experience in and of itself. The act of reading a classic work should reflect what is at hand. In the end, pages are important, because one can only “smite the sounding furrows,” to borrow a line from Tennyson, if there are actually sounding furrows to smite. Books have a life of their own, and reading becomes a true joy when readers find their way into that life.

The truth is that people do not fully understand the mysteries of the 2,000-year-old medium called the book. The reasons for the mysteries, however, are not imperceptible. Books are good. They become like old friends. They interact, inspire, and intrigue—and are free of the flighty impermanence of the screen. Eternal literature simply does not sit well, feel well, or read well on a Kindle screen. The great and good works were made to be books, and books they should be. Readers are human, and the way they read should take that fact into account. People should not approach books like a Facebook feed. Reading that is meaningful is devoted, regular, and real—just like life.

So do some real reading this summer. Smash the Kindle. Smite the sounding furrows.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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