13 September 2016
The Print and Digital Book Was There
Piper’s prologue to Book Was There takes a broad look at reading past, present and future, through the lens of his own experiences. He briefly examines the relationship between books and modern technology and how each relates to the experience of reading, noting that “Reading is beginning to change” (xii). The altered physicality and interactive features of electronic reading contribute “To a different relationship to reading, and thus thinking” (Piper x). The tools that we use shape the way we think and approach an action, so if technological advancements are really changing the way that we think about reading, is it for better or for worse?
Piper specifies the “Roamable, zoomable, or clickable surfaces” (x) of digital interfaces—these unique features can provide tools such as instant access to dictionaries or encyclopedias to explain a word or phrase without the need to pause reading and search somewhere else. In this manner, digital technology certainly heightens thinking, as it lessens the separation between the source text and external references. However, is it these same clickable screens that can also separate the reader from the text. While sometimes useful, scrolling and zooming around a text can serve as distractions, flipping between different pages can be cumbersome, and typically smaller screens spread related pieces of information farther from each other. The new tools available in digital formats often serve only to replace basic features of print books that were lost in translation, like the ability to highlight a passage or find a particular page. Where digital takes the clear advantage is in solving tedious tasks such as finding a specific phrase or defining a word. But these particular improvements do not actually change the way that we think, rather they only speed up the same task.
Although anecdotal, an overwhelming majority of readers, both casual and committed, will readily say that they prefer to read on paper than on a screen. Piper mentions the physical element of reading (x) as an undeniable factor. Staring at a lighted screen strains the eyes, affects sleep, and is often accompanied by a stiff posture if reading is done on a computer. The words on a screen intuitively feel less real than those on a page—something about ink on paper makes meaning clearer, mistakes more apparent, and reading more enjoyable. Print reading is also free of the miasma of distractions that plague e-reading, making it a more committed and immersive experience. It is easy to lose oneself in a book when the story is the sole focus, but on a screen with notifications and sounds continually appearing and interactive elements pulling the reader away, deep involvement with the text is harder to maintain.
Through the prologue, Piper frequently refers to his own childhood growing up with books; while he uses these stories as a personalized introduction to the text, he is also addressing the role of nostalgia in print reading. The vast majority of the adult population grew up reading print books or having print books read to them—we can forget just how recently these technological advancements that permit e-reading have appeared. For many, reading a book is a form of childlike escapism not only for the stories and characters, but for the return to the familiar feeling of curling up with a book. E-reading simply hasn’t had the time (or more importantly, the opportunity in early childhood) to form the same emotional impression. It remains to be seen whether the next generation will view reading from a screen as fondly as we do ink. E-reading has objective benefits in convenience and portability—if the emotional component of print is removed, what purpose remains for books?
Piper succinctly introduces the core themes of Book Was Here in his prologue, raising the questions which are to be answered. He indirectly and implicitly asks “Which is superior, the print book or electronic reading?” Unlike most industries which have readily embraced technological innovation, the publishing industry is temporally torn. Readers on one side want the convenience that comes with digital readers and all their accessories, while others cling to the print book for reasons of comfort, whether physical or emotional. One thing is certain, it is impossible to dismiss the concerns of the lovers of ink, as they still hold the majority of the publishing market (Perrin) and their concerns are widely shared. The future of publishing is in their hands, and their decision to embrace digital or stay the course will shape an industry.
Perrin, Andrew. “Book Reading 2016.” Pew Research Center, 1 September 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016. Accessed 12 September 2016.
Piper, Andrew. “Prologue.” Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. University of Chicago Press, 2013, vii-xiii.