Alexander Chee on e-reading

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This essay by Alexander Chee at The Morning News is one of the most rational, reasonable pieces on adjusting to e-books I've read in the past year of following this topic. Faced with a book collection that was about to take over his apartment, he turned to buying e-books out of logistical necessity. He had been hesitant because until then the screen had been a source of distraction, for reasons we've heard a million times by now. But he found that reading books and long magazine articles on a screen, particularly on an iPad, rewired his brain for getting lost in a book the way he used to, before the pull of 24/7 online news and Twitter:

A month ago I picked up the iPad and found underneath a copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. I’d stolen it from my brother years ago and it was one those books I’d never read, a giant Penguin paperback with pages soft and feathery from age and use. For years, I liked to hold it and flip the pages like a deck of cards and put it back down. It’s 1,158 pages long, beginning, as I discovered that day, with West resting in a hospital after surgery in 1934 and being shocked by the news of the murder of the king of Yugoslavia in Marseilles. I kept reading into her record of the way this news drove her to go to Yugoslavia, the subject of the book. I recognized West’s crisis, too—an early 20th-century version of my own. When I paused to make coffee, I admitted to myself I had finally started reading the book. But also, I was reading again in the way I’d always known, previous to the internet, previous to the vigil. I wanted to cheer a little but I also didn’t want to disturb it either, and so instead I kept reading, which was perhaps the only right way to celebrate this. If I had in fact remapped my brain with my e-reader, which I suspected, the map I’d found had led me back here. 

He cites Nicholas Carr again, who likes to say that our brains are "plastic," able to be molded and rewired by how we spend our time and attention. The argument is that heavy internet use rewires it for skimming data, short-burst concentration, and shallow attention. But he never explains why, if the brain is so plastic and adaptable, it can't be wired back to a more ponderous state. Chee accomplishes that here quite elegantly.