Keeping a promise I made to myself when I was down with pneumonia over the holidays, I have been reading again. On one level, I never stopped reading. I read all the time: newspapers online and off, blogs, scholarly and popular journal articles, tweets, reports, more blogs, more articles. I read books and portions of books that touch on topics I’m writing about. I will even admit to reading a copy of “Lucky” magazine now and then, although you wouldn’t know that from my wardrobe.
Much of my day is consumed by reading. What I’m talking about, though, is the kind of sink-into-a-book reading I used to do a lot more of, the kind you do just because you feel like it, not because your teacher or your job expects it of you or because you have 10 idle minutes to fill.
At Christmastime I read George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a book that would probably have destroyed any illusions I had left about the life of the literati if I had any illusions left to destroy. Right now I’m about 400 pages in to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which has far more heart than Gissing’s novel but still has scorching things to say about literary striving and about many other things, including commercial greed, romantic indecision, and the self-defeating snobbery and shallowness of English aristocrats.
It’s a Big Book, in every sense. And here’s the thing: Part of the pleasure of reading it is the public pleasure of toting around a Big Book. I like pulling out my 842-page paperback edition on the Metro. It makes me feel…serious. It’s a private experience that I want other people to recognize. Shallow? Yes. But I must acknowledge it. (There’s a case for voyeurism to be made here too. Admit it: It’s fun to see what other people are reading.)
Would I feel this way if I were reading in on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad? I don’t think so. I’d still be enjoying the heck out of the story. But there would be very little in the way of satisfying public display involved in the reading of it. A flat gray screen in an anonymous case tells you precisely nothing about the book being read.
I had a taste of this when I began reading The Way We Live Now. The second-hand bookshop near my office didn’t have a copy of the novel and I didn’t have time to get to another store for a few days, so I downloaded a free Kindle edition onto my smartphone. As far as my fellow Metro riders were concerned, I could have been reading almost anything–email, Twitter, the weather report. (When I reported on Twitter than I was reading Trollope on my Android, someone made a good gag about trollops with smartphones.)
A paragraph of Trollope on a 4-inch screen has no obvious gravitas. Nor did it make me appreciate the novel in all its heft. I had no idea how long it was, how much space it filled, until I laid hands on a physical copy. The heft pleases me. Its presence is a reminder that there are big stories to read and to tell and that some things can’t be reduced to a paragraph or two on a screen.
This is not an anti-ebook rant. I like the hybrid book environment that’s developing, and it makes sense to me that a lot of what’s published should exist in e-versions. I don’t own an ereader yet; I’ve been waiting for the market to shake out a little, and there’s always something else that the money could be spent on. I expect that before long, though, I will be toting around a digital reading device somewhat larger than my phone. I expect that I’ll enjoy the experience of reading on whatever device ultimately gets the bid. Maybe bookish app designers will come up with holographic book-jacket projections so we can advertise our reading choices to the world, even when we’re reading on screens. Maybe that would satisfy the same private-but-public impulse that my 842-page edition satisfies. Maybe.
Do you want the world to know what you’re reading? Why? If you use an e-reader, how does the experience feel different from reading the same book in paper? What’s better and what’s worse? Tell me.