Stephen Henighan and the definition of readingI like Stephen Henighan. He's a pants kicker. In a country festooned with literary droopy drawers, steel toe inserts are occasionally necessary. But in his recent Geist article, he makes a dubious case for books being the only medium possible for a deep, resonant reading experience. He goes further, to say that reading via electronic devices is not reading at all because of the attendant distractions, hyperlinked or sidebarred or pictorial. OK. It's a gathering argument, and by now a common one, and one that seems to be gaining cachet by repetition if not persuasiveness. But I'm more and more annoyed by the broad brushes, and by the sentimental value attached to the almighty book.
I love books. Though not a fetishist, I love their feel, heft, smell, unique configurations and colours, give and strength, font shock and internal typesetting flourish and quirk. Did I say sentimental? That's my argument for books. Henighan's more experientially precise, calling on the power of the book to submerge us in a world of uninterrupted imagination, ferried along by the linear play within the pages. But that's the experiential ideal. In reality, most readers are not allowed the luxury of an uninterrupted book reading experience. We steal twenty noisy reading minutes on the bus ride to work; we're the driver of the same bus, Bob Smith, who in an interview with questioner Grant Buday circa 2000, stole a minute or two of DeLillo or Dostoyevsky, for years, between long red lights; and we're the person (me), reading about Bob Smith on the upper ferry deck, surrounded by crazed teenagers and zigzagging foot traffic. In contrast, when I read online, it's often late at night. Alone and surrounded by quiet or (presently) the actual sound of non-proverbial crickets, I can sail along uninterrupted over great stretches of the written word, whether poem or essay, political argument or news article, blog post or comment stream. "But what about the long form, the novel?" Well, I admit I don't have an eDevice yet, but if I can concentrate and even entertain creative responses to and from my late-night pixelated adventures, I don't see the problem should the novel form, eventually, be housed in the electronic hive for the majority of its output. The glorious past, I'm afraid, is of no sentimental force here. Long, uninterrupted, imaginative depth: the reading experience of the typical Dickensian page-turner? Many of Dickens' novels were first encountered in serialized form, and in newspapers alongside yesterday's equivalent of baby bum powder and floor polish hortatory pitch. And I doubt that most readers a century and two score ago had the same leisure time as us. Snatching a chapter chunk here and there, they managed to get through the entry before the next week's installment. Or am I painting a too-gloomy social supposition, the extreme of Henighan's? Well, the truth's probably somewhere in the middle, but I highly doubt that many of the non-John Jarndyce citizenry were jumping from one canon-provider to another at any time of day or night in timeless wonder.
The reality is that we read how and when we can. A new mother? Another working two or three jobs? Still another with his head stuffed with reference books who breaks the spell willingly to look up an obscure word, or to corroborate a historical setting? Just so, one who reads online, be it long-form or not, isn't at the mercy of hyperlinks, footnotes (what, David Foster Wallace didn't exist?), or advertisements (Henighan's article is, itself, bordering a windowed pitch for two different books). When one is pleasantly ensconced in a story, argument, or entertainment, the medium is not the message, as Henighan says, in support of McLuhan. The media guru set that oft-venerated quote in a specific context. Radio was hot because the act of listening was intensely concentrative and reactionary. Hence, the phone-in "hot line". TV was cool because it created what we now can corroborate scientifically as brain waves inducing passive responses. And so on. Reading is active whether by internet or book. Those who worry that the internet itself is changing the wiring of the brain strike me as alarmists. It's -- again, to use McLuhan's term -- a hot medium. The reader -- or peruser, as Henighan would have it -- is in control. TV viewers strike me as quite different from those of the internet variety. In fact, I'd guess that those who watch many hours of TV a week choose passive-type pursuits on the web, as well. (After all, there's something for just about everyone on the info/entertainment highway.) So it's people's predilections, not the medium itself that matters.
Finally, people will vote, with their wallets, for whatever transmission source they wish. I do agree with Henighan that even ten years ago there were noticeably more heads buried in books in public than there were in iphone and related gadgetry. But anecdotes don't catch the whole story. Maybe many of those same people are saving the long-form reading, whether it's a historical compendium or Russian family epic, for the quiet and monklike seclusion of the home. And my belief -- and I admit it's only a belief -- is that they'll be able to do so just as well using a book, the web, or the eReader.