Reading a book is an act of concentration that abolishes the world. As the type on the page dissolves before the reader’s private re-creation of the people, images or ideas that the ink evokes, reality is enhanced by insights, emotions or perceptions that were not there before. This compensatory quality is the product of concentration; it arises because reading is linear, reeling us along sentence by sentence toward a series of revelations. Reading a book remakes the temporality of the physical world. The shapelessness of experience yields to a chronology whose internal symmetry feels superior to the disorder of life. Book-based transcendence fuelled the three ancient Middle Eastern monotheisms that became the core religions of the early modern period in the West and on its fringes, and which were exported to other continents; all were “religions of the book.”
The book’s sacred status survived the secularization of society. The words of the imaginative writer, particularly the novelist, invested specific social configurations with mythic resonance: Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, García Márquez’s Macondo, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo.
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More than a decade ago, when I moved to the university town where I teach, it was common to see students reading books on municipal buses. Now, with the exception of the occasional nerd stuck into a fantasy novel, or a diligent student poring over a diagram-filled textbook on her lap, this sight has disappeared. The students travel in stooped postures, jabbing their cellphones with their thumbs. Most of this jabbing is texting, or playing solitaire; but even when the students are browsing online course readings, what they are doing is not reading, because they are not performing an act of concentration, but rather one of perpetual distraction. As Marshall McLuhan perceived, the medium is the message. Reading is an act confined to books and magazines, and, in somewhat more scattered form, newspapers; what we do when we absorb words from a screen—and we haven’t yet evolved a verb for it—is not reading.
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The term ebook, more than a misnomer, is an oxymoron: we may read a text on a screen, in between anxious jumps to other windows, but we do not read a book because we do not achieve the level of concentration necessary to experience the spiritual or artistic affects that books provide. Some software even invites the user to read the book and watch the movie at the same time. A tweet is a perfect match with the medium of the screen; approaching a book in this way is like trying to view the rings of Saturn with cheap binoculars.
Link to the rest at GEIST and thanks to Timothy for the tip.