Sunday, 1 May 2011

A sexy, controversial topic

Ebooks, Amazon Kindle, or paper books? You can tell they're discussing it. Heatedly.

I have been one of those technophobes that still can't quite get the hang of Facebook. I have to ask one of my particularly Facebook-savvy friends how to send messages. And when Facebook goes and changes things around, there I am, rocking in the corner, missing the old ways. Sometimes I think I would have been better suited to a pilgrim existence. Perhaps I should have been one of those lucky devils washed ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, stepping off the Mayflower with nothing but a satchel of raisins and a dream.

But alas I am alive in the 21st century, and along with that comes various niceties. Antibacterial wipes, Morrisons microwave Indian meals, and Primark shoes for £3 being just a few. And of course technology. I would die without the Internet. I am writing this, for example, on a laptop computer (my Dell Inspiron, how I love it). 

How does this relate to writing, you ask? Because the ways in which we write have changed over the years. And people have taken to it.  For instance, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote with a quill pen on some paper before metal pens began being mass produced in the US in 1860. You may say that at the time of writing The Scarlet Letter, he was faced with a newfangled instrument...invited to put down the quill and pick up the pen. Jump to a century later, to the 1960s: Stephen King on the front porch of his little new house, babies crying somewhere off in the house, with a child's desk balanced on his thighs, writing on a typewriter. Clacking away. He could watch the stack of pages grow. 

I have never used a typewriter but I have found that, for myself, my mind works faster than my writing hand, and so writing something down on paper (like a story, with dialogue, anything more than sideways scribbled notes), just ends in frustration.

Enter: the computer. I write so much faster and easier on a computer because I can type quickly. That matches up with my thoughts and I am able to write happily for hours without so much as writer's cramp. (Saying that, one of my dear friends, in her 70s, always wrote stories by hand on paper and to this day still does so. For her, the computer gets in the way of her writing process.)

And reading, ah, there's the rub. Because so many of us myself included choose to reject new technology when it comes to taking in literature, stuck in our old ways, stubborn as asses. But all the same, the ways in which we read are ever-changing. We now read computer screens almost just as much as reading things on paper. Studies have apparently shown - and I didn't do this study myself, I just am told this at work - that people generally read 20% slower on a computer screen than they do on paper. I don't know. But we are faced with reading on-screen a lot. Daily. We read the news, sports, stories and emails on-screen. So why not an e-book? Why not a Kindle? Are these things so different as to disrupt the love we have of real, in-your-hand, dusty-smelling books?

Are they so bad that we wonder whether it will take away the true experience of reading from a heavy tome, the one we have to hold with two hands and hold down with one (or two) other books to keep it open so we can eat our breakfast and read at the same time? Are these subtle annoyances, these little pains, somehow important to our struggle to absorb the literature before us? And this new technology, these Kindles, for example, are they there to make it just too easy? Where you can touch the screen and turn a page when there really is no page to turn? Does that take away from the literature itself?

All good questions.

I really have no answer. Like quill pen to metal pen to typewriter to computer, everything is changing around us and perhaps it isn't so bad to give new stuff a try. I can only say that I will always, no matter what, have at least one bookcase groaning under the weight of real paper books.  

Whatever form your reading takes, do it happily.


  1. This IS a sexy and controversial topic! I could not agree with you, more, about the typing faster than writing. I also get frustrated not being able to get my thoughts out fast enough. Then, after letting things sit, I have actually found myself cutting apart hand-written papers to re-order them...sad. ;oD

    On that note, my writing computer is a slow old Mac (the colorful clamshell laptop) and his name is "Clem." I don't have internet or email on him and the software I use mimics an old black screen with amber text. Basic. Allows my creative mind to kick in.

    Whew. Now, as for reading...since you asked my opinion (grin grin), I prefer to read books. When I read, that is. What I mean by that is...a little more than a decade ago, I discovered "books on tape" to help my hour-long post-college commute to work. In fact, I think you'll love this, my first book was Stephen King's "Rose Madder." I remember getting home and not remembering the drive (which is actually somewhat scary) because I was sooo intent on the story!

    I am still and avid book listener. On lazy Saturday or Sunday mornings, I can be found with a physical book or my latest copy of "The New Yorker," which I can't ever seem to keep ahead of. I can't tell you how many coffee-ringed books get donated to my local Goodwill. But when I get about my day, my iPod goes on and I listen to my books...while doing housework, mowing the lawn, cooking, and even taking my end-of-the-day-I-can't-see-because-of-the-bubbles bath. ;o)

    So in that way, technology has bitten me. But if I read, no offense to anyone who has chosen otherwise (I am thrilled people still love to read no matter HOW they do it), I still read a book-book.

    With all of that said (sorry for the diatribe), in doing the audible thing, I do see the advantage of having a book available immediately, when you want it. MANY gloomy Idaho winters, when the snow is swirling and the 12-mile trek to town seems too daunting to be bothered with, I have downloaded just the "book," I want (thanks to this here Intertubes) and lost myself in another world...In this way a Kindle or Nook or iPad would be handy.

    Okay, sorry, one final note. The thought that book publishers and printers might go bye-bye does fill me with a sense of dread and I can't quite describe why. I violate this by buying I hold myself accountable to my own hypocrisy. But sometimes I buy a book for just that reason. There is something sexy about a printed page. Getting your hands on a copy of a long-anticipated sequel...Smelling that moldy copy of Steinbeck's "Winter of our Discontent" I ordered from a basement library somewhere in Nebraska...sigh.

    My FIRST weekend visit when working in England was to Oxford. Walking around the streets and knowing that the first-run copy of every book the Oxford Press printed was below me, and growing every day, still gives me goose-bumps.

  2. Hi Lil,

    I also have goosebumps reading what you wrote. And audiobooks are great! I am toying with the idea of starting on those for my running and exercise-biking.

    I like to think that, although things are constantly evolving and technology is making it easier to access and absorb the content of books, until we can eat entire meals in pill form, we don't have to worry too much about actual real-paper publishing houses completely shutting down. I think there will always be libraries. At least I can sleep at night knowing a library will always exist somewhere.
    At least there will always be a little tiny library in my house LOL.

    And you were working in England! Where? Doing what? And did you like it? And how lucky you were to be in Oxford. Been here five years and I still haven't been there!

  3. Also Lil I think it is worth mentioning that your Clem is a wonderful tool for writing. Basic is best! No distractions from the craft itself... what a joy that is.

  4. I love your thoughts about "as long as there is food...there will be books." Soooo true!

    I am a computer programmer, by trade, but I also teach my craft (when the opportunity presents itself). I was in Reading, teaching a class to people from all over Europe. It was an AMAZING experience. The evenings were spent exploring as many pubs as possible (grin) and the weekends were spent being a tourist.

    Walking past buildings that were so old, knowing I was walking on the same ground as Wordsworth and Keats, and seeing the River Thames. I mean WOW! ;oD