One of the topics of this blog is ‘the act of reading in a digital age’. I would like to discuss that in a very literal way by asking where and how do you like to read? When people argue about whether or not digital reading is a good idea, they often complain that you cannot read e-books in the bath. Well, of course you can, although I admit I’ve never tried. But the question goes much deeper than that.
In a chapter on Private Reading in ‘A History of Reading’* Alberto Manguel describes the writer Colette’s love of reading in bed, and confesses that it has always been a pleasure for him too.
“Often, the pleasure derived from reading largely depends on the bodily comfort of the reader”. (p151)
There is no doubt, he continues, that the act of reading in time requires a corresponding act of reading in place, and the relationship between the two acts is inextricable.
“There are books I read in armchairs, and there are books I read at desks; there are books I read in subways, on streetcars and on buses.” (p151)
He finds that books read in trains have something of the quality of books read in armchairs, “perhaps because in both I can easily abstract myself from my surroundings”.
Manguel wrote his study of reading before e-books really began to be thought about, although plenty of people were already reading online when the book was published in 1997. But his is the story of looking back. He’s writing about the few short centuries following Gutenberg, before which reading was much less widespread and literature was more oral and pictorial than literary. Today, after the interruption of print, we’re moving towards multimedia again. We read, but we also listen, view, and interact.
If we were to revise Manguel’s book, we’d still be talking about reading in bed and on public transport, but we’d be doing it on a range of devices as well as bound paper pages. We’d include the notion of ‘reading’ via audiobooks while we drive, walk, cycle, or exercise, and add on the idea of ‘reading’ lectures and stories whilst viewing videos such as TED Talks, often in groups as well as alone, sharing them online and viewing together live inside Facebook, Skype or Hangout. We’d expect to be able to interact by contributing to a story, or deciding its course. All of these activities extend the act of reading not just in place but in time too. I’m not sure if this is available in the UK yet, but in the USA you can link your Kindle book with its Audible equivalent, so that it syncs and switches between the two. You can read Chapter 1 before you go to sleep then listen to Chapter 2 as you travel to work. How wonderful!
So I’d like to ask you to think about your own preferences in this regard. Where and how do you read? Where are the differences and similarities? How have your reading habits been changed by the digital?
As for my own experience, I’m casting my mind back to childhood and thinking about my favourite positions and places to read. I definitely preferred lying on my stomach, whether that was in bed, indoors on the floor, outdoors on grass or even the beach. Unlike many people, I was never into reading in the bath or on the toilet, and I really hated sitting upright to read. This became a problem as I got older and was expected to study in libraries where the only option was to sit upright on a hard chair at a hard table. Indeed, that factor played a large part in putting me off reading in libraries altogether. Now that most of them have armchairs it’s somewhat better, but I’d still prefer to stretch out on the floor. However, it’s not a very attractive prospect in a public place, either for me or for those around me! As the years passed, I learned to make myself comfortable enough for reading in an armchair, and even when needs must when sitting at a table. I got out of the habit of stretching out on the floor at home for all kinds of domestic reasons, but reading in bed is still a treat and triggers many childhood memories of being alone in my room, safe, cosy and quiet, but conscious of family presence nearby. The feel of the book varied according to the paper and board it was made from, and sometimes it brought with it the scent of libraries, shops, or previous owners. If it was a good book, I’d place it under my pillow when I’d read enough for the night. Later, when I became a writer, I sometimes did the same with my manuscripts, tucking them in beneath my head. It seemed there might be a kind of very satisfying paper-brain symbiosis going on overnight.
How has that changed with digital reading? Well, years of reading a PC screen certainly got me used to sitting at a desk, although I still often printed things out and took them off to my reading lair. But now I have a smartphone, and a Kindle Fire, and an iPad, all of which lend themselves very well to my favoured reading positions. So recently I’ve started lying down again – at home on the carpet or in bed, outdoors on grass or the beach. I’m returning to the portability of the paper book but with an extra component – wifi. I don’t always need it of course, since so many platforms can be read offline, but it does bring an extra level of accessibility to what’s going on right now. And if I want to, I can use wifi to co-read, chatting through a googledoc with a colleague, for example. As for audio, I save up my collection of podcasts for long drives, but I very seldom listen to them apart from that. This is probably because I don’t much like wearing ear-buds so I’d rather listen privately at home, as if to a radio. And it’s wonderful to have so many choices.
How about you?
I’ll end with interesting advice from Marguerite Duras. It sounds like she’s a candidate for a Paperwhite!
“I seldom read on beaches or in gardens. You can’t read by two lights at once, the light of the day and the light of the book. You should read by electric light, the room in shadow, and only the page lit up.” (p152)
*Page numbers are taken from ‘A History of Reading’, Alberto Manguel, Flamingo, London: 1997