I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire via iPhone and iPad over the past few months. This marks the first time I’ve read any book(s) electronically, so of course I started with a couple thousand pages of epic fantasy. No half-measures, right? Not having turned physical pages in weeks is a new situation for me, and has me thinking about those tired old digital-analog dialogues in a new light. I’m less interested in objective debates over value and more concerned with my personal discovery that the way I digest what I’m reading hinges (to an admittedly alarming degree) on the text’s delivery mechanism.
But, for a moment, I’m going to talk about vinyl records. I started buying them in place of CDs and digital files a few years ago. This wasn’t out of any audiophilic compulsion or faux-nostalgic longing on my part — I was simply fascinated by the technology. That a stylus can trace minute grooves around a piece of plastic spinning at however-many revolutions per minute and faithfully reproduce the entire spectrum of sound stills feels magical to me. But records have to be flipped, and my turntable has the delightful feature of a tonearm that does not automatically lift when it reaches the end of a side. The first time the stylus managed to skate onto the record label itself, at the end of a side, at full volume, was also the last time it did (and nearly occasioned my first heart attack). Vigilance would be required, attention paid. MP3 players are easy, the set-and-forget slow cookers of the music-delivering electronic world. I have nothing against them. I use mine all the time: on the bus to and from work each day, hanging out with friends at home, and falling asleep at night. But I decided that if I was already going to the trouble of getting a record out, placing it on the turntable, and carefully dropping the stylus — all the while knowing that I would be going through these motions at least once more, three times more for double LPs — it only made sense to sit down and devote some real attention to it.
I’m realizing that my experience with records and mp3s is analogous to my experience with books and ebooks. I’ve processed A Song of Ice and Fire in bits and pieces over these weeks spent reading it electronically: on the bus, on lunch breaks, in between reading news articles and RSS feeds. With the exception of maybe one or two occasions of concerted reading for hours at a time (I defy anyone to stop reading at any point in the last three hundred pages or so of A Storm of Swords), I’ve unwittingly approached the series in an extremely piecemeal fashion. When I contrast this with my usual reading habits with physical books, the differences become obvious. My phone is quite the cosmopolitan, accompanying me throughout the day, but I don’t carry a book around with me everywhere I go. I’ll bring one to work with me to read on lunch breaks, but other than that, my books lead fairly sedate lives on shelves and nightstands at home. I’ll read articles and updates on my phone quickly, skimming for content, but I consciously set aside time to read books, preferring quiet, solitude, and above all ample time with which to ponder them.
At this point, I think I’m supposed to cue up the anti-technology screed, at least as it pertains to reading habits, but I’m not really complaining. I’m mostly just trying to become more aware of how the fashion in which I read contributes to the way I process what I’ve read. It’s been wonderful having an incredibly long, compelling story available to me at a moment’s notice, and without the added weight of thousands of pages. Detailed world maps and character histories are only a couple internet searches away. In fact, I think A Song of Ice and Fire might have been an unknowingly astute choice for my first e-book experience. Its incredibly dense cast of characters and intricately developed lore are begging for reference guides — if ever a fantasy series merited its own wiki, it’s this one (many thanks, A Wiki of Ice and Fire). I’ve certainly put my phone’s versatility to good use while reading on it.
Yet this is undeniably a completely different experience from sitting down in a room with only the books themselves. Having outside information easily available means I’m going to reference it, which in turn means I’m interrupting the actual text regularly to seek out more information on that text… which sounds suspiciously similar to the way I read news articles and blogs on the internet. Coming to the end of this initial ebook reading experiment, it’s apparent that as much as I appreciate their convenience, that same convenience renders them indistinguishable from all the other things I read on my phone. I end up focusing on one chapter at a time, constantly calculating whether or not I’ll have enough time to finish one before I’m called away to something else.
Sitting by myself, book in hand, I may be missing some references and misremembering certain events and characters, but I’m completely immersed in the author’s world (and in my own thoughts about that world and its characters) — my attention can’t wander from the text at hand, and I don’t have the temptation to see what else my phone can do at the end of each chapter. It’s my own textual equivalent of putting a record on and devoting the time necessary to listen through it completely, side after side. As easy as it was to blow through the 24/7 A Song of Ice and Fire electronic reading experience, I’m looking forward to reserving uninterrupted time for whatever novel I pick up next — even if it takes me a bit longer to finish it that way, that’s all the more time to ruminate over what I’ve read. My brain gets enough fast food on the internet; novels serve a necessary corrective function as my occasional multi-course mental feasts. I’d like to keep them that way.
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