The weight, the heft, the lodging in the mind

I’ve read tens of thousands of words over the past few years in which people mourn the receding of physical books by focusing on what they’ll miss about the physical object itself: the smell, the feel, the ability to read in the tub. There’s so much of this that snarky book industry tweeters play bingo at conferences as these references pile up. Much more interesting to me, though, is what changes in the experience of reading when people move from taking in words on paper to reading on screens, through software. In this realm, two quotes  I’ve read recently illuminate each other.

First, James Fallows describing what he did on his winter vacation:

…I read lots of books! You remember, actual “books” — those big, made-of-paper objects whose contents, I find, lodge more firmly in your mind when you see them on a physical page than on an electronic screen.

And second, the ridiculously quotable James Bridle dropping some analysis on how the content of books enters the mind. Bridle says that books are “repositories of the experiences we have with them, and they are ultimately souvenirs of themselves”. And he compares the experience of digital music to the experience of digital literature:

The radical ephemerality of the MP3 file suits music in the same way that it destabilises the book, which has always existed to provide the corresponding physical weight to literature’s intellectual heft. Freeing the idea of the book from paper and hard covers thus entails reconceptualising what “the book” is — a weight that has proved hard for devices to take on.

Much more interesting than the bathtub thing, right?

One response to “The weight, the heft, the lodging in the mind

  1. Interesting post, Mark, but those just two quotes just feel like more rationalization to me. I have a hard time believe that somehow paper makes ideas stick more than a computer screen. I don’t find that’s true for me. In fact, a really nice advantage to Kindle ebooks is the page Amazon provides me that shows all of my highlights from the books I read. I can easily go back and review those highlights at will. That’s just no so easy for convenient with a physical book. Also, with ebooks I get the ability to see what other people have highlighted. For a lot of books, that’s very helpful. For me, anyway, ebooks are a great improvement over physical books — particularly now that I don’t have to carry so many heavy boxes when I move. :-)

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