The NYPR programme Radiolab broadcast a very good podcast on time perception . It includes the story of a woman with lupus who suffers acute short-term memory loss and as a result is an excellent very long-distance runner. She runs those three-week races through the Arizona desert where you (certainly not I) run for 23 hours and sleep for one hour, or something like that.
Her advantage over other runners is that around the tenth day, they’re not only carrying their backpacks and water but also the weight of the knowledge and resentment that they’ve been running ten days and they must be mad to have thought they ever wanted to and maybe they’d like to stop. The woman with memory loss doesn’t remember how long she’s been running: she simply knows that she needs to run.
(I haven’t listened again to check the details, by the way. Remember what Ondaatje says about novelists needing a bad memory. That’s me.)
Anyway, this story reminds me of the effect of my Kindle on my reading.
I love using my Kindle. It’s funny that the word ‘using’ presented itself to me just then. ‘I like reading from my Kindle’. That sounds odd. You can read a book, but you can’t read a Kindle. The Kindle is merely the technology which transmits words to my brain via the movement of photons bouncing off that pearlised, non-glare screen. Without the text - the author’s ideas and work - it would be nothing.
But without text there’d be nothing to a book, either, except its pages and binding. A ‘book’ in this sense is more accurately called a codex: the technology of binding pages together and giving them a cover. (You can imagine a 3 CE Facebook scroll-status: “Just visited the Oracle. She reckons those clunky square-edged codexes aren’t destined to catch on – says scrolls give you a more flowing sense of the meaning, come closer to emulating life’s cyclic nature, type of thing.”)
We’ve long been used to collapsing the identity of a specific codex, its cover design and typography, together with the ideas, poetry or narrative it contains. A hard-copy book takes on the memories and impressions of its reader. The books on my shelves are bound up with the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about them, where I acquired them, and my ideas of the person (people?) I was when I first read them.
But I have to admit that the Kindle is making me into a better reader, and for that and the excitement associated with reading, I love it.
Normally I read ludicrously fast (unless it’s non-fiction, or I’m going to review the book or assess a manuscript), absorbing chunks of text for a story-drugged escape and the pay-off. That wouldn’t matter if I only wanted to read for fun, but language and narrative and ideas are how I see the world, and developing my understanding of how they work is vital to what I do.
When I first took possession of my Kindle, I tried reading a few pages of Pride and Prejudice (pre-loaded onto it by the lovely person who gave it to me). The reading felt boggily slow. When I tried to figure out why, I realised that usually I read up and down the page as well as from side to side, and scan across to the facing page to check whether there’s anything more scintillating going on there, skipping to dialogue and action. Sure, call me shallow. Only a love for language and composition and an intense interest in human behaviour has prevented me from becoming a James Patterson or Dan Brown fan.
For those who haven’t yet viewed a Kindle, its screen behaves only a little like a paper page. The lines are much shorter, and in the font size I’m reading at (about 12 point) it fits around 230 words – a couple of meaty paragraphs. I’m currently reading The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Green, and it takes five screens to get through a single page of the edition. Because I see fewer words at a time, I read more meditatively. I’m less distracted, and the ideas seem to sink more deeply into me.
Both The Fabric of the Cosmos and Anna Karenina (my previous Kindle read) are weighty books. I don’t have a good history with weighty books. In a swotty way I like their challenge, but about a third of the way through, I feel the pressure of all those unread pages on my right wrist. The story’s great, I think, but still so far to go. Even if I slog through to the end, my pleasure in the story is diminished because finishing it has begun to feel like a duty.
The Kindle, on the other hand, weighs the same no matter how much I’ve read. It tells me at the bottom of the screen what percentage of the book I’ve finished, and there’s even a little visual indicator (a bar that slowly fills from the left), but that’s more abstract: it doesn’t affect me in the same way as would a bunch of actual paper. As a result, a little like the long-distance runner with memory loss, I focus more closely on the words in front of me and think less about how far I have to go.
I don’t want to do all my reading on a Kindle. Codex-books with their designed covers and tactile pages possess more dimensions and reach more of my senses than the Kindle. They seem imbued with more spirit, feel friendlier – perhaps that’s down to our shared essence of carbon – and are immeasurably more attractive. I’m looking at a collection of spines on my desk that include Further Convictions Pending, Towards Another Summer, Marcus Chown, Wulf, Gifted, Sport 38 and Strange Meetings. It’s soothing and exciting just to run my eyes along them. However, I think everyone who’s watching is agreed that for better or worse, this time round it won’t take several centuries for the balance between old and new technologies to shift.
Susan Pearce is the author of Acts of Love and a number of short stories. She teaches the Short Fiction course for Victoria University Continuing Education and sometimes writes about books and writing at swimmingwithbooks.