Do e-books free us from distractions? Responding to Tim Parks

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


This morning Shelf Awareness serves up this quote of the day, and it stops me.  I think I might just move on, but I can't.

Because Parks' assertion that reading the e-book frees us from "everything extraneous and distracting" ... "to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves" in no way jibes with my experience.  Yes, I have downloaded dozens of books onto my iPad.  Sadly, I've left many of them stranded.  Unable to scribble in the margins, dog-ear the pages, underline emphatically—unable, in other words, to engage in a physical way with the text—I grew distracted, disinterested, bored.  Yes, Michael Ondaatje will always keep me reading.  And so will the work of my friend Kelly Simmons, and the words of Julie Otsuka, Leah Hager Cohen, A.S. King, Timothy Schaffert, Paula Fox, and Justin Torres—though I wish I owned all of that work on paper.  But here on my iPad—stranded, unfinished—sit Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, Andrew Winer's The Marriage Artist, Margaret Drabble's complete short stories, and many other tales. These are, most likely, extremely good books, and yet, I find myself incapable of focusing on them in their e-format.  I need to interact—physically—with the texts before me.  I can't do that, in the ways I'd like to do that, with a screen.

I am also, as a footnote, intrigued by Tim Parks' final lines, when he speaks of moving on from illustrated children's books.  With the rise of the graphic novel and the increasing insertion of images back into teen books (and I suspect we'll see that illustration encroachment continue), I wonder if we have really moved away from illustrated texts.  I wonder, too, if we should. Art is not just for juveniles, after all.

Here is the quote at length, as excerpted by Shelf Awareness.
"The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children's books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups."
--Tim Parks in his post headlined "E-books Can't Burn" at the New York Review of Books blog

6 comments:

Serena said...

I don't see a move away from illustrations in books, but a move toward greater illustrations. I have a kindle and some books on it, but I have yet to read any. This is a sad statement. I have played one word game on the Kindle though.

Melissa Sarno said...

Funny, I am in complete disagreement with Parks on almost every account. I think e-books invite distraction because they can and will allow a different kind of interaction with the text, to a point where an entire book could become a giant hyper-link, allowing you to jump out of the text at every opportunity. (Sorry, I have an inexplicable fear of hyper-links.) His argument that the medium is for grown-ups is absurd. Adults are adapting to this technology. Children are raised on it. And moving away from graphics... Readers and tablets are, at the end of the day, at the most basic level, screens.

Raymond said...

Close than the paper book, closer to the literary experience? Come on, there is a time and place for e-book readers (vacations, waiting an hour after your scheduled appointment for the doctor), but the essence of the actual page, the literary experience, is the feel of that page, that it was printed and bound with others and exists complete in your hands for your reading pleasure, ready for easy access (not so on an e-reader) to flip back and be reminded who a certain character is or to look ahead to see how many pages before the end of the chapter—not to mention marking passages that sing the language. The essence of e-readers is to narrow the focus to a partial page; not unlike a horse with blinders, unable to see the buggy behind or anything to the side that has just moved out of sight.

Mandy said...

Very interesting, Beth. You're definitely on to something. The one thing that I love about ebooks, though, is the dictionary feature. I look up so many more words now. However, I, too, miss writing in the margins and underlining favorite passages.

Richard Gilbert said...

Although I have read some ebooks, I prefer the physical book, largely because I can see the book's structure and appreciate it, coming and going. Ebooks flatten that aspect completely.

Lilian Nattel said...

Actually studies show that reading is more fragmented on any device that isn't strictly for reading. Most people have a harder time staying focused when email, social media and access to the internet are available.

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