This article picks up on some comments made on my recent piece on display technology for ereaders, which basically implied that no ereader screen, no matter how perfect its quality, could precisely duplicate the experience of reading a physical book. Well, that’s as may be. But how much of what books are really for would we actually lose, even if that were so?
Take audiobooks, for example. I don’t recall many people arguing that the partially sighted, dyslexics, or others who are dependent on audio for much of their experience of books, are missing out on some fundamental quality of comprehension or response that is essential for a book to convey meaning, inspire emotion, evoke imaginative involvement, and generally do what all its pounded pulp is supposed to be for. Does anyone claim that the partially sighted are intellectually disadvantaged just because they can’t read on paper? And yes, this leaves aside Braille, but it doesn’t alter the basic point about audiobooks.
And as a related example, poetry is often written first of all to be heard, and only later to be read. Certainly, some is written to use every resource of the physical layout on a page. But if you’re reading the text of a Border ballad, for example, you’re reading something that was not necessarily intended to be written down in the first place. You could even make a case that the printed form robs it of something essential to its true literary character, or is at best a partial basis for it. That applies even more to plays. Paper or screen doesn’t really make any difference to something that was really supposed to be performed, not read. And yet, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, plays are regarded as some of the profoundest explorations of human experience going.
I’m aware of some studies that suggest that reading onscreen alters and diminishes our capacity to understand and appreciate text. I also very much doubt their premises and their conclusions. To take just one example, the academic community in just about every discipline has taken up online publication of research papers and learned journals full blast. Now, if there’s any area where intellectual impoverishment or loss of understanding would be immediately obvious, isn’t it the scrupulous, rigorously peer-reviewed, and highly competitive realm of academia? Yet I don’t hear of any such thing: rather, of how online publishing has enriched and enlarged learned dialog, and enabled publication of work hitherto too erudite or specialized to find a press.
By all means, value the unique experience and physical quality of books. Venerate their cultural importance. Only, don’t try to claim that the paper and ink somehow mystically transmit meaning and import in a way that the words themselves don’t. The words are what matters, whether they’re on screen, paper, cloth, bamboo, marble, clay, vellum, papyrus, rock. Only the words convey meaning: the message, not the medium. Meaning comes first. Meaning matters more. And if you don’t see the centrality of meaning, why are you reading books?