Yesterday, The New York Times covered the US arrival of the Amazon Voyage (yours for $199), another e-reader to add to the list of increasingly obsolete e-readers, which possesses a high-resolution display to closely mimic the printed page. Text on its screen is 300 pixels an inch. I don’t know what that means for the reader, but it certainly sounds quite sexy. But the e-reader is a curious thing: I see less of them on the public transport system around our City than I did a year ago. Why? Are they all protesting against Amazon’s dubious tax status? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they, frankly, bored with reading erotic fiction at 7.20am in the morning in size 28 font on the Northern Line, where their neighbours cannot help but catch the words off the electric page?
To keep track of the characters, Kindle X-Ray gives you a summary of characters which you can refer to throughout the book so you can remember who is who. How, though, does this work with murder mysteries? Does X-Ray only filter through the characters as far as you’ve followed them through the narrative, or does it clumsily reveal that Miss Oakshott is not a local God-fearing nun, but is in fact the murderer? The Kindle Voyage is coyly proud of the fact that it is Amazon’s thinnest Kindle, almost as if e-reader devices were in semi-bulimic competition with each other. But this misses the whole point of what readers miss when they don’t pick up a book, but do pick up a Kindley-Windle.
I’ve been carrying out some rudimentary research amongst my contemporaries (chatting on Facebook when I should be doing the office filing). The overwhelming majority resent the fact their reading habit has dwindled to Kindle. They use Kindle, but they would prefer not to. They travel and cannot pack all their books. They can read shorter novels on them, but have difficulty immersing themselves in a longer read. They read but don’t like the light. The going-to-bed for a gentle read before sleep is disrupted (the backlight disrupts melatonin production in the brain), they don’t like Kindles, but they feel they more or less should hang on in there for those long haul flights, the ease and lightness of the device, and the fact that they’ve already shelled out for them, thank you very much. But there is no surprise that this is the human response.
Our brains aren’t actually designed to read. But they can be conditioned and trained to read on paper. Scientists have now found out this highly conditioned “paper reading brain” is not the same as our “digital reading one”, which may explain the issues people have with Kindles, as above. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading. This is not much good if you are trying to read a book, as they are linear. Most longer books depend on a deep reading process, which we trained ourselves to do as children and adolescents. And the scary reality is if we don’t regularly utilise our deep reading technique, we lose it. This may explain why, after three years of Kindl-ing, I had some difficulty adjusting to a long, paperback novel. I was bringing out a muscle and a technique that I hadn’t been using.
I wanted to find out why – after three years of Kindle App on my iPad – I still wasn’t getting on with it. We hadn’t become friends. We are not going to keep in touch. I can’t get close to the text, yet it really should work on our brains, shouldn’t it? How much research, how many optical specialists stood about and “hmm-ed” and “haa-ed” in the mystical vaults of Amazon world before designing a backlighting system that wouldn’t put us off? What has gone wrong? I certainly didn’t feel this way in the shift from CDs to digital music. I did that – and adjusted to that – in virtually one day.
The problem is the tactile disconnect to an entire world. Art is created to make us feel connected to some universality, some narrative that reflects a truth about the human experience, and this is primarily how fiction works. We don’t want to read a story, we want to get inside it. And you can’t really get inside a digital projection of a story in the same way that you can with a paper book. An Italian survey into Kindle reading gave 50 people a short story to read. Some were on Kindles, others were reading on paperback. They discovered the the memory’s ability to retain plot points was somehow compromised on a Kindle, whereas memory recall was sharper and easier for those who had read the paperback. Both teams were asked to remember 14 events from the story, and the Kindle readers recall was “significantly worse”. The problem is the Kindle does not provide the proper report for mental reconstruction that a paperback does. And this – well – this changes a lot, doesn’t it? Not only that, but there was a more sinister reaction: when readers were given an upsetting story to read and the group was divided again – half on an iPad, half with a paperback – the iPad reading contingent reported significantly lower levels of emotional engagement and upset. Quite literally, the device was getting in the way of their neurological response. The absence of the sensory, tactile pressure of finger on the page was one argument given for the results. When you read a paperback, you have a visual sense of the story unfolding as you see the pages gather when you have turned them. With the Kindle, there is no connection to this process; your finger flips, the page turns and the ones you have read vanish into one digital, devious ether. It may also explain why I can’t write the first draft of anything (not even this blog) on an electronic device. I write in longhand, and when it comes to writing in fiction, I always do first draft in longhand or on my 20 year old typewriter. And there was me thinking it was nothing but a daft habit or affectation. It turns out it isn’t – I’m tapping into my paper-reading brain and using it as an artistic device.
Further research is being conducted to ascertain whether digital reading has a negative impact on cognitive and emotional reading responses, but it caused me to take a more conscious view of my own online reading. Like most people in the modern world, I haven’t bought a daily newspaper since 1998. Apart from the Sundays, everything I read is online, but I’m not reading it : when we see digitised text, our brains simply don’t take it in the way we take in lines printed in ink on a page. Haven’t you done the same? Haven’t you scanned the first line of a paragraph and then flipped down to the next one? Perhaps you’re doing it now on this blog? I zip online from Facebook, to Twitter, to here, to Google News, and I’m not understanding half of what is being pushed electronically at me. If I sat here with a paperback book and nothing else I would have the luxury of immersion, but so florid and vapid is the constant information stream we are carried along in that immersion is virtually impossible.
There is quite a lot of talk about “digital natives”, that generation of e-readers who wander into Waterstones once a year and say “WHAT is THAT?” and point to a paperback Raymond Chandler. There is also quite a lot of talk that this is a load of guff as children learning to read respond readily to books they can touch and smear and deface with spittle far more effectively than their tinny, electric counterparts. But this is a new science and requires far more research to see how it is affecting us. The fact remains that a whole shedload of people find Kindle reading a bit of a dry hump : vastly unsatisfying, devoid of basic contact and consumed without delectation. Even though e-book sales are rising steadily, they still only account for 20% of the books sold, according to publishers. In the UK, 36% of readers own an e-reader device, but only 4% of those exclusively read on the e-reader.
I so wanted to love my e-reader. I edited, curtailed and lovingly watched the prices fall on my Amazon Wish List. I bought beautiful versions of non-fiction books before I learned my lesson (you retain zero information on e-readers when it comes to non-fiction books, and you can’t refer back to previous pages) but that was back in the times when we liked Amazon for bringing the prices down and putting everyone else out of business. Now, with the tax avoidance issue, with the nasty exposee of the treatment of those in the Amazon delivery depots that turned up on television last year, these electronic tax-avoiding books are leaving a bad taste. Perhaps, it’s not all about saving you 34% on the latest Freya North? Leave Amazon to the self-published novelists, I say. God knows they need the platform. And for a published writer – get thee to a bookshop.
It got to the point where switching the Kindle app on was depressing me. My reading habits are reported by Amazon, thrown into a machine and vomited back at me in a hailstorm of vague suggestions of similar reads at £1.99 a pop. I have no literary privacy. Everything I am is filed, counter-filed, kept and recorded. I hated this trespassing of private liberty. I hated the backlight with such a vengeance that I tried everything to make it softer on the eye – changing the background to the alarmingly demoralising taupe, having the text as white on black rather than black on white – nothing has worked. I suffered from visual fatigue with it, but eye tests revealed I have perfect vision. I can’t get to the story. The screen is getting in my way. Then, recently, I put myself in a situation where I had to buy books again and visit old fashioned libraries. You can’t be a student without having books; and you can’t footnote and reference something you’ve read on a Kindle. Back to the London Library then, for the first time in four months, to select a volume of a thriller 100 years old, hard-backed, smudged-ink within, other readers’ pencil remarks lovingly erased by library staff. And I read, and it was easy. Like falling off a log – like meeting an old friend you’ve not seen for a while and didn’t know how much you’d missed. Because we are tactile creatures, and we like to touch the things we have loved. I fell back into it. I’m more likely to do the shelf-stroll in the flat now, blinking along the shelves, finding something I haven’t read yet, or something I wish to re-read. My curiosity has been reawakened, and so has my possibility of immersing myself in stories.
I don’t understand fully the process that got me here, but here I am – almost unable to download another book on Amazon knowing I will have to read it on Kindle. So it’s off! It’s farewell my synced up, Table of Contents, Size 12 Times New Roman font-ed friend, it’s off to the ether with you. Your work is done here – on me at least. I would say it’s been nice knowing you, but I’m not sure it has because, after all, the Kindle completely fucked with my head, and my experience of reading. There is now a movement towards the new appreciation of the book as a physical object. There is also the slow-reading therapy movement, where people gather in chic cafes, turn off their internet access on their phones and read paperbacks for an hour in silence. Sounds like my cup of tea. I wonder, then, how many of you will join me?
Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will be back on Thursday November 6th. Thank you for stopping by to read and we hope to see you again soon. The London Bluebird x x x x