NEW RESEARCH REVEALS we humans are becoming bi-literate. Reading online and reading on paper require different parts of the brain. Online we are non-linear. We skim and dart and skitter.
Manoush Zomorodi, the host of New Tech City, says we’ve adapted so well to this we’re losing the deep reading part of our brains.
Abigail Sellen, author of the Myth of the Paperless Office, says the implicit feel of where you are in a physical book is more important than we realized.
Other research explores the ephemerality of e-books and how the lack of weight, cover, typeface, identity, and smell creates haptic dissonance. To resolve this, designers are racing to invent tactile technologies to recreate the tangible experience of reading on the ancient technology of paper.
But all this research on how we comprehend and relate to e-books is missing the fact that books are more than repositories of information. They are artifacts of our lives. A single book is a signpost to who we were at the time we read it.
I used to read sitting on the middle stair while above my small daughters pretended to sleep.
That stair was the halfway point between my parenting self and my other self. I can recall much of the books I read while perched there, like Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. But more than that I remember the feel and smell of that stair, the sense of being poised between two worlds. Those books were as much about my life at that time as their subject matter.
We once gave books and inscribed them, or quelle horreur wrote our name inside the cover, or jotted thoughts in the margin. Years later those physical books bring back far more than the author’s words and ideas.
Our daughter picks up a copy of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson and asks her step-father about the inscription – Los Angeles 1998, and suddenly it all comes back to him. ”I was miserable,” he says and launches into a story, not about the content of the book, but about his life at that time.
I once stepped into an antiquarian bookstore and was immediately drawn to a book with a broken cloth spine. It was a tatty English language version of Struwelpeter, a German book of violent cautionary tales for children. I turned to the inside front cover. There, inked in cursive was a name and the words ‘best wishes on your birthday, 1908. The name was my name and yes, it was my birthday. But the year was 2008.
On an e-reader all books are alike in weight and texture, all words have equal status. The intangible traces of who we are, pressed between the words are lost to our future selves, and to our inheritors, known and unknown. And yes the book found in 2008 is still a mystery, strange and significant in some unknown way.