Reading Landscape

This has been bugging me since August.

I received a surprise Kindle for my birthday in August. I was delighted to join the new century of readers, and immediately downloaded a book I’d seen, but not been able to afford, at B&N the month before. The book was All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus. It was terrific, and I was pleased that the Kindle’s screen looked and felt more like a friendly page than my computer screen. The first pages ignited my curiosity, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t remembering anything from page to page. I was confused, in fact, about what was happening from page to page. It wasn’t the book itself, I knew, because I was enjoying the prose and Dreyfus’s conversational, kindly pessimism. I’d also jumped around the book while I was in the store, so I knew I’d be into it.

I decided that it was probably the fact that I wasn’t holding a pen in my hand as I read. The connection between my hand and my memory is direct, and usually I find that if I don’t write something down, I can’t transfer it into my long-term or academic memory very easily (woe to the millions of trees killed for the sake of six years of lesson plans). I put a thin notebook in my fancy Kindle case and clipped a smart little pen to it, but was perplexed to find that the stuff in the notebook later floated alone in a sea of no context, and I was hard pressed to figure out why I had written anything down at all. I tried instead the notes feature on the Kindle itself, but found that to be so burdensome that I quickly gave it up, too.

I resolved to stick to the lighter fare, after that – literature I was not as likely to want to mark up. I downloaded a few more titles, but then never really read past the first chapter or so. I continued my forays to Half Price Books (where you can sell books and buy on the resulting credit) and my school library.

I have stood silently by as legions of reader luddites assert the need for tactile validation, proclaiming that “there’s just something about the feel and smell of a book” – as though the pages themselves are magical conduits of narrative. When confronted with this argument against the present wave of electronic publishing, I’ve thought to myself that these are the readers who will probably never read my stuff (when/if it’s published). Likely, by the time I’m good enough to be out there in book form, the paper book will be on its way out, and the readers who love paper will cloister themselves away in their libraries.

I made the jump from CD to Mp3 late, but I made it. I still buy both, but I’m choosy about what music I want, how much I’ll pay, and which artists get my money directly. I thought the transition to ebook would allow me the same kind of sense of consumer control. But I was never prepared to be completely thwarted by the Kindle.

There’s something vaguely topographical about how I’ve trained myself engage with printed words and stories.  What the Kindle did was force me to recognize and reorganize my own reading processes, something I’d never before felt inclined to even think about.  I found myself frustrated by the constraint of forced linear narrative, backing up and skipping ahead with the buttons, and losing my place in the meantime.  The “pages” on the Kindle look very much the same, and there are no page numbers at all – only percentages.

The next time I picked up a paperback, I was suddenly acutely aware of how I was handling the pages.  I often start at the beginning, then skip ahead a few pages and read backwards for a while to see what’s coming.  Then I go back to the starting gate and read more closely, more slowly, until I hit the place I skipped ahead to read.  Then I start over again.  I’m basically Memento-ing the book.  It’s weird, but it works with a book. And it doesn’t work on the Kindle.  When I need to go back to refer to something, I flip through the whole  book and read my own margin notes until I find the spot I need.  By the end of a really good book, I know the book’s landscape: which chapters meet which expectations.

I don’t have the capacity to read the screen right now.  I think I’m going to believe (probably superstitiously) that with a little effort, I’ll map new neurological pathways that allow for the kind of comprehension required of the Kindle screen.  I’m going to believe that my brain is still malleable and capable of new tricks.

Now, this Kindle is not the newest model – I’m aware that the Kindle Fire is now out, and it might have all kinds of fancy options I’ve never before encountered.  Like, maybe Memento is a built-in setting – or at the very least, one of the cheaper apps.

2 Comments

  1. Ohhh, now that you have described HOW you read, it makes perfect sense that you are having memory issues on the Kindle. I rarely, if ever, jump ahead in a book unless I am impatient with pacing that is entirely too slow. OK, well, I think physical books make more sense for you then.

  2. I don’t know. I was composing this last week, all the while plowing through Betsy Lerner’s “Food and Loathing: A Lament” on the Kindle. I made it through, and I remember stuff. I’m going to start with page turners instead of books to mark up, and I think I’ll just have to practice. Reading.

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