Earlier this month, The New York Review of Books Blog featured a piece from Tim Parks called “E-books Can’t Burn,” which has since been much tweeted, facebooked, and otherwise shared. It’s a solid, considered defense of the e-book, one that rehearses all of the practical advantages of digital reading (portability, one-handed reading, resizable type, etc), and kindly but firmly dismisses the materiality that people are reluctant to leave behind (the feel of paper, the scribbling of marginalia, the books on our shelves). In his repudiation of the notion that there’s much lost with the transition to e-books, Parks writes directly against those “literary men and women” who are most loathe to see such change.
He notes that e-books are one more stage in the evolution of the material experience of reading:
Weren’t there perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without? Certainly there were those who lamented the loss of calligraphy when the printing press made type impersonal. There were some who believed that serious readers would always prefer serious books to be copied by hand.
More than just a defense, though, Parks actually argues for the superiority of the experience of literary reading done digitally:
The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
Fetish-free direct engagement with the essence of the literary experience certainly sounds like a great thing. But this nearly-utopian vision overlooks quite a bit of the actual experience of e-reading. The very advantages provided by the e-book surely undercut its ability to fuse us directly with the text: We can read e-books with one hand while the other clutches a strap on a crowded, racing train; We can read e-books on our phones, with calls and text messages breaking in at their whimsy; We can read them on our tablets, where the internet just dares us to call it extraneous; We can read them on our Kindles, with advertisements and crowd-sourced annotations.
We’ll leave aside all the very real concerns about what happens to the quality of the literary experience when we’re all trained to expect books for $9.99 or less, and won’t do much beyond chuckle at the suggestion that our engagement with gadgets (gadgets!) could ever not carry fetishistic gratification. Because we’re not e-book haters, honestly. Some of our best friends are e-books.
But, despite his nods to reading as an evolving experience, what Parks has written feels a bit too much like a declaration of the end of (book) history. It’s a celebration of an apparently friction-free medium whose mediation we can’t yet actually claim to understand. The study of the history of the physical book should make this clear. It’s a discipline that didn’t even exist until recently (the scholar Peter D. McDonald suggests that 1982 perhaps marks its birth, noting the publication that year of Robert Darnton’s classic “What Is the History of Books?”). This field, which has seen so much incredible work in these three decades, surely teaches us that there is much to learn from studying the experience of reading, even if it took us centuries to take note. And the work of scholars such as Matthew Kirschenbaum, who’s studying software’s impact on writing, should suggest that its impact on reading is similarly ripe for examination.
To be sure, this isn’t meant as another attack on e-books, nor a defense of print. But to suggest that we’ve come closer to “the essence of the literary experience” seems to take for granted that such a thing exists, when scholarship suggests that it doesn’t. Mediation is a wonderfully messy thing, even when it comes on sleek screens.