The Ghost of a Book, part two

“The reality and reliability of the human world,” wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt, “rests primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced.” This is, indeed, the reason why human creativity becomes human culture. Insights, thoughts, ideas, and explanations come and go in the fragile and finite minds of men and women. So we seek to give them a life beyond life. And for millennia in our civilization, books have proven to be the most fitting and enduring repository of our mental, spiritual, and practical activity. But is this just a phase that can be casually left behind? Can e-books replace the function and place of books? Part one of this article suggests that the non-physicality of e-books, which limits popular ownership of books as well as making access to them arbitrarily contingent, is a sign that they cannot.

But to fully understand the inferiority of e-books, we need to ask ourselves why reading has become—relatively recently in human history—an effective way for humans to learn, know, understand, experience, and feel. In many ways, it should not be. Humans have a hard-wired, genetically-produced ability to distinguish objects we see and sounds we hear and to form speech with our mouths. But reading is a modern feat of neurological re-wiring which takes from all these innate abilities and re-organizes them for an extra purpose. This is why, for example, learning to hear and speak a new language you are consistently exposed to will often come more easily than learning to read it.

Yet particularly over the last 400 years, we have taken the time, in cognition expert Steven Pinker’s metaphor, to bolt this accessory onto our brains because it has proven so effective. But, again, why are our brains able to adjust and thrive so well through reading, if it is unnatural? It turns out that it took the advent of the e-book and the undermining of the power of reading to help us grasp it. As Scientific American contributor Ferris Jabr writes, “we often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract.” But “as far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit.”

In other words, it is the physicality, tactility, and tangibility of the written and printed word that makes it such meat and drink to our brains. First, as Tufts University neurological researcher Maryanne Wolf has explained, you can partly thank the object recognition ability of your brain—which humans have always used to identify and differentiate such shapely necessities as fruit and animal-tracks—for your ability to develop the means of translating the jots and tittles of script into meaning. In some ways, when you read, your brain is observing and interpreting an environment of learned and remembered objects: trees bursting with letters and hedgerows full of words.

Second, because we can pick up and hold the book on which these words are strewn, feeling the shifting weight of progress down the book’s path as we turn over the leaves, books correspond with the natural phenomenon of life and, in so doing, aid the connection between words on the page and all the emotional and intellectual stimulation for which we read. The physicality, tactility, and tangibility of the printed word on paper is an essential part of what makes reading work. Divorcing the object-oriented brain-work of reading from a corresponding tactile experience actually makes it harder to read well. Your eyebrows may be arching by this point; after all, you have been moved and informed by what you read on a screen. But the connection between the physicality of books and their benefits has been demonstrated in many studies.

Reading_iStock_Hüseyin-Bostancı_Sm / Hüseyin Bostancı

For example, psychologist Anne Mangen found in 2013 that her test subjects who read a text on paper outperformed those who read the same text in digital form on a subsequent comprehension test. In Mangen’s words, “the fixity of text printed on paper supports a reader’s construction of the spatial representation of the text by providing unequivocal and fixed spatial cues for text memory and recall.” In 2014, Mangen conducted another experiment in which she found, according to The Guardian, that “readers using a Kindle were ‘significantly’ worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story.” Mangen crucially added that she found “that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers.”

These are not isolated findings. In the Student Research Journal of the School of Information, author M.J. Tanner summarizes, “print books are still the best suited to the optical, cognitive, and metacognitive requirements of the reading brain.” Just as sentences are like trees full of fruit that our brain latches onto, identifying and interpreting, books are the pathways that orient us through this semantic canopy. To put it another way, the tactile feedback that books give us are pleasing to our senses and this aids us in understanding and feeling what the words communicate. To quote Jabr again, “When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure…likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain.” In contrast, he continues, “the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes.” This disorients the reading brain and often prevents it from the deep connection between it and the text that will imprint itself on both long- and short-term memory.

We would not give credence to a Google Street View user who insisted that his experience virtually moving down a distant path was equal to the rambler’s who had pressed his footprints into it step by step. But we submit to this bold claim of the e-book because we forget that words are written to make things tangible, not abstract. A book is a prime example of what Hannah Arendt called the “transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things.” But the e-book mitigates this process at every step. The very act of reading on a Kindle or another similar device is a reversal of the book’s journey to tangibility, exposing it to the vulnerable and formless contingency of a screen.

As we saw in part one of this article, this literal intangibility is mirrored by the helplessness we discover when the legal sand of e-books slip through our fingers. The retreat from physicality represented by the e-book turns out to matter very much indeed. When we take one in exchange for a physical book, we are left empty-handed. It’s a different and inferior phenomenon. “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot,” Marshall McLuhan insisted. “For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” The effect of the medium on your perceptions and senses, he was explaining, was that it altered them while distracting you from the alteration. We are in the process of falling for the same bait and switch with the e-book.