How We Read

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The question of how we read is a new one. It used to be you just read things that were written on paper. The paper was either big or small, bound together in thick books or alone, a single sheet, stuck on your fridge with a magnet.

Homepage Feature, Homepage Sub, How We Read  •  Jan 21, 2013

by Nathan Savin Scott

The question of how we read is a new one. It used to be you just read things that were written on paper. The paper was either big or small, bound together in thick books or alone, a single sheet, stuck on your fridge with a magnet.

Then the digital apocalypse came (or renaissance, depending on how you view the whole thing) and now the way we read, how we read, is suddenly a discussion. Books or e-book? Page or screen? Tablet or phone? How do you read, huh? How?

I wanted to write this column to explore that idea.  To navigate this new world of reading, where the question is no longer what we read, exactly, but how (and why, if we want to get into all that.)

I also wanted to write this column because of my own strange behaviors when it comes to the act of reading. I am a bit of an omnivore, reading-wise. I have a Kindle but I also read books printed on paper.  A man of two worlds.

What’s most curious about this whole omnivorous reading lifestyle is that, for some reason or another, I have mentally assigned things that are “Kindle-appropriate” and those that I need to read in proper book form. Some genres are for the Kindle. Others are to be experienced, need to be experienced, through paper, ink and glue.

For example, any non-fiction is perfectly appropriate for the Kindle. Likewise thrillers and mysteries. Long magazine articles are my Kindle’s bread and butter. (My Kindle wakes up every morning eager to get his hands on that day’s Longreads.) (My Kindle is also male. I named him Kenneth.) Same for any online article I don’t have time for during the day. (May I recommend any of the countless online programs, including Readability and Klip.me, that have a “Send to my Kindle” feature. Life changing.)

Poetry however? The thought of reading poetry on my Kindle seems almost, well, dirty.  You cannot stuff Plath onto a screen! This was also true for literary fiction, though I’m beginning to bend on that one. It used to be all fiction was saved for real, in-print, hold-it-in-your-hands-and-smell-the-fresh-paper books.  But now, for convenience sake and money sake and all the other sakes, it’s really just for authors I truly love, that I feel indebted to, that I go out and buy the book itself.

For example, the new George Saunders book was released today (well, the day I’m writing this) and by the time I got to Dupont Circle Books, here where I live in Washington D.C., the book was sold out. Undeterred, I went over to Books-a-Million on the other side of the circle, the bigger, impersonal bookstore that to be honest I don’t really love, with its cavernous ceilings and poorly organized mish-mash of supermarket thrillers and self-help, I even went there, and they didn’t have it either. (The poor clerk went as far to walk around the store with me, asking me a couple times if I’m sure his name wasn’t George SANDERS, which I promised him it wasn’t, but then we went and looked over at the Sanderses anyway. No luck.)

Of course, you’re asking now, why not just go home and download the thing? It’s not like I’m pirating the book. I am paying currency for it, some of which will (presumably, one hopes) make its way into the hands of the author.

The answer is I have absolutely no idea. I have no clue why I need to have Saunders (or Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith or Dinaw Mengestu) in hardcover and not on a screen. I hope (I really hope) it’s not because I’m so tied up in owning something that I can show off on my bookshelf, though if I’m being honest with myself I’m sure that has something to do with it.

But I also think it has to do with something tactile, some deep thing in my subconscious where I feel the need to physically connect, in whatever small way, with the authors I truly admire, the ones I want to be like, the ones who give me shivers and keep me up at night. The ones that make me reconsider the way I live my life.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, and perhaps this will change soon, but for now, I cannot get that through a screen. I cannot dog-ear the pages until they are battered and bruised, stained by my thumbprints, ripped and coffee-stained and worn. I cannot scribble a little note to myself in the margin of my Kindle. (I’m sure some e-readers have that function now. Mine does not.) I cannot smell the paper and ink.

These could just be the ramblings of an old soul, a young man nostalgic for some time I never knew and cannot possibly remember. But as a member of probably the last generation ever to grow up with paper, glue, and ink, I believe I’m allowed to wax poetic on its impending death. Though who knows? These e-readers may all just be a fad, a funny footnote in a history book our grandkids will read, many years from now, printed on good old fashioned paper. What a thought.

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Nathan Savin Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. He has appeared in Newsweek, ESPN, USA TODAY, Thought Catalog and elsewhere. He is finishing his first novel.

4 Responses to “How We Read”

  1. avatar Tara Kusumoto says:

    What a great piece Nathan – thanks for sharing! I, too, am a reading omnivore, and am pretty much in agreement with your “assignments” to Kindle vs. “real” book. The one exception would be nonfiction reference books, which I need to hold and flip through and go back to – I’m still not comfortable doing that on the Kindle. Going to check out Readability and Klip.me now…

  2. I’m afraid that I’ve been converted almost completely. The only way I’d buy a paperback or hardcover book anymore is if it’s at a book signing of an author I admire and I want the book signed. Otherwise, I love my Nexus 7 Google Tablet with the Kindle App installed. And I’m a big note taker when I read, so I can take notes right there in the book itself!

    I used to be so against e-readers and e-books, but now I ebrace it. Maybe it’s also because I’m in the Army and I know I’ll have to move every 3 years. I grew up with a father who used to own 10,000+ books. Packing and moving and lifting all of those boxes, was not fun.

  3. avatar Mireidys Garcia says:

    I knew you were going to say poetry should be savored and saved for the intimacy of a book – or at least I was hoping you would. Great article!

  4. Quote: “But I also think it has to do with something tactile, some deep thing in my subconscious where I feel the need to physically connect, in whatever small way, with the authors I truly admire, the ones I want to be like, the ones who give me shivers and keep me up at night. The ones that make me reconsider the way I live my life.”

    What an interesting thought – a print book as a tactile medium to connect to an author, or perhaps a ‘piece’ of author in your hands. Holding a print book is like embracing your favourite author, and holding a Kindle is like holding a library in your hands – your favourite author becomes just one of many. You cannot embrace a crowd, can you?

    Very sensuous article…

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