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The Physical Landscape of Words

13 November 2017

From Medium:

I have always felt bothered by e-books. As an engineer and a technologist, as someone who owns a Google Home and studies computer science and knows how to solder, I should love e-books. But as a writer and a poet I kind of hate them.

I like the idea of e-books. I like the idea of not lugging around a huge novel. I like the idea of sharing a virtual library with my father, who does love e-books. I like the idea of having the definition of a word at the touch of my fingertip. I like the idea of minimizing my physical footprint.

. . . .

But I don’t like my inability to flip through the pages. The percentage-done indicator stresses me out, but when I turn it off I wonder how far along I am. I once bought Mark Strand’s Collected Poems to read on my Kindle while traveling and it was a terrible, empty experience.

. . . .

As writing was invented, we co-opted processes and places already in the brain to deal with these new and intricate symbols that, tied together, could create great and varied meaning. Our brains improvised: we used regions of the brain dedicated to spoken language, motor coordination, and visual object identification to read words on a page. The brain learned to treat words not as strings of symbols but as physical objects in space.

This explains why I can remember exactly where on a page I read something, even if I don’t remember what exactly I read.

Link to the rest at Medium


13 Comments to “The Physical Landscape of Words”

  1. This explains why I can remember exactly where on a page I read something, even if I don’t remember what exactly I read.

    Lovely if it were true. It simply means you’re unable to process what you’re reading.

    I was hoping to find out why Mark Strand’s poems was a bad experience on her Kindle, but she didn’t go into detail. Again, it sounds like she is more attuned to the shape of images than the content of words. Like someone with exquisite taste buds versus, well, myself, to whom pepper is an exotic spice.

    • Dexter von Dexterdorf

      More like they are saying that they can’t enjoy an exquisite meal if it is served on a paper plate versus the tableware of a fine dining restaurant. Same food, different experience? I dunno, that’s what I’m translating the OP is saying.

      Maybe he can only enjoy poetry when there’s strong fumes of binding glue present. Sort of like when you try to watch “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”

  2. Obviously not one of those that uses digital formats often enough to find themselves pressing the tab that isn’t there to advance the page of a book ….

  3. My favorite part was that the progress bar stresses out the author. A progress bar I can ignore, and often do. How many of us can ignore the number of pages turned (and left) in a physical book? Fairly easy to see, in fact, it’s easier to notice how much you have left and much harder to ignore.

    This article has nothing of substance. I suppose they miss the smell of paper too?

    • The ‘only’ time I check the progress bar (or see how many pages are left) is when I ‘should’ have gone to bed an hour ago – but I want to see how this bit ends/gets cleared up.

      (Best complement from one of my beta readers was: “I was supposed to be packing and getting some sleep before my flight tomorrow – NOT reading your dang story up to the &*^*%&^%^% cliffhanger!” Never could get him to tell me why he hadn’t simply waited and read it during the flight … 😉 )

    • I mentally process the progress bar and the physical pages left in exactly the same way. Oh there’s only this much of the story left? It doesn’t change whether I’m excited or dreading the end, or eagerly rushing to the end, or going slower to savor the journey to get ther.

  4. *shrug* I think we’re going to be dealing with similar comments/complaints until we as a whole have adjusted to digital reading. For myself, the subject determines the format. I have found that I have difficulty with retention for digital works, but those are predominantly genre fiction. For nonfiction, I still prefer paper (can you imagine a Kindle cookbook in a busy kitchen?), because I’m often flipping back and forth.

    For fun, just imagine all the grumbling after switching from clay tablets to papyrus, from scrolls to bound books …

    • I like the quote by Martial about the advantage of the codex (book) version of his poems over the scroll versions. Something like, “You can easily carry this version of me.” He encouraged fans to go with the codex format.

      I don’t know if any one attempted a rebuttal 😛

      • “One hand can hold this copy of me.”

        Which is a distinct point. You needed two hands to read a scroll, but only one hand to read a pocket-sized codex.

    • I have a busy kitchen – and one that is really too small, dang it. I didn’t think I would use the Kindle in the kitchen, nevertheless.

      But now I find that I am using it more and more – much easier to carry from the counter, to the table, to the pantry – and when the recipe says “let rise for 30 minutes,” I can flip over, set the timer, throw it in my pocket and wander off to do something else.

      About the only times I crack open a paper cookbook these days is when I need to see a picture of what I should end up with at some step – the screen just isn’t quite as good as a big cookbook for that.

    • My husband uses his ipad all the time in our small, busy kitchen. He gets most of his recipes off of websites these days, but also has a couple cooking apps I think.

      So many people say they still prefer paper for non-fiction, but I don’t really get it. To me it’s pretty simple to utilize highlighting and bookmarks to flip around an e-book. Plus you’ve got a built in dictionary, which to me is invaluable. And if it’s a tablet and not just an e-reader you can also look up anything on the internet with a couple taps. And it’s a lot easier in my opinion to use multiple books on a kindle than having a pile of heavy hardbacks to work through.

  5. ‘…I have always felt bothered by e-books…’ … lost me right here.

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