So, I received a Kindle Keyboard (WiFi & Free 3G) as an early birthday gift from my parents. Unfortunately this is the stock photo from Amazon and I have not in fact been enjoying it beach side (it’s finally rather cold in Maryland, I have to say), but I have been enjoying it for some morning reading in my sunny bedroom, warm and curled under the duvet with the morning’s cool air around me. This new gadget is as good a reason as any to indulge in a formerly common lazy morning ritual (rather than feel guilty about my reluctance to get out of bed).
Like many readers and writers, I hesitated to buy an e-reader for myself because I wondered how it might change my reading experience. When I read to study I always have a pen (or, these days, more likely a pencil) in hand and scribble ample notes in the margins, stars, and underlines. I feel a kinship with the physical object; I love the smell of the pages, the way the binding starts to wear after I’ve carried the book around for a while, and the accomplishment of seeing a bookmark move forward as I read my way through it. I think always of Whitman, who demands his readers to see the act of reading as intimate (to the point of sexual), as we literally touch him and his words and have a physical and visceral relationship with the book object itself. I think also of Elizabeth Willis, who has said in an interview that identity is as much about who we’ve read as it is about our family background or where we’re from geographically (I’m pretty sure this interview is online but I can’t find it at the moment… if any reader is particularly curious I can find it for you). Although I have Whitman and Willis to give an image to what I feel for the act of reading and the book object itself, I know many others share or have similar sentiments.
The habit of marking, though, is not just a habit left over from my days as a student. It’s one way I remember what I’m taking in, and it keeps the language itself material. I’m more tuned in to how an author USES language to achieve his or her means when I take the time to mark the instances where such use is particularly poignant. My poems, too, in the last several years, are an excessive example of this. They’ve become extended notes and marginalia in response to a source text. I’m not only making use of another’s language as material for my own poems (collage), I do it as an act of response. I am concerned with Olmsted’s argument, with Hawkes’s relationship to he land (more on this new project soon, I promise).
Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve already compartmentalized my reading experiences. The texts I’ll read through Kindle are simply not the texts I want to have that raw (if not obsessive) intimacy with. I immediately downloaded several free classics to my Kindle, including Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which is my guilty pleasure read this winter (for whatever reason I tend to return to Austen during my winter break each year around this time…), some random word games, and The Primal Blueprint (I am curious about the argument behind primal eating, though I’ve intuitively been eating fairly primal for a while now, especially since I’ve had the luxury of being a loco-vore here on the Eastern Shore).
These are all readings where the material quality of language is not important. While I am grateful for the ability to make easy notes with the physical keyboard, I am less inclined to do so for books like these. The language is transparent; Austen sweeps me into another time and into the minds of her characters. Sisson educates me on his own research into “primal” behaviors that can serve us now. The language is a vehicle I don’t care to look at too closely; I’m not concerned with how the sentences are structured, I just want to read through it. In this way reading through an e-reader is a little like reading on the internet — I want it to be immediate and it is. I did, though, have to remind myself to slow down and not skim as I might with a web page. Once I did, the page disappeared. It no longer matters that I am reading on a digital page instead of a physical one. For these kinds of texts, there is little to no difference in how I consume them.
As soon as I start to type that my own shorthand is only possible through interacting with the physical object of the book, I quickly hit the “Back Space” key and revise that sentiment. I can just as easily type in an asterisk instead of a star, highlight (underline) language, and make “marginal” notes in my Kindle as I can in a book. So it’s not about the short-hand, it’s about the physical and visceral nature inherent in the act of marking up a text. There is an intention with it, some connection between the motion and my mind as it is working through a text.
I record these observations about my reading process not because I have anything profound to say in conclusion, but because I think we’re at a really interesting intersection of reading and writing that has to acknowledge that the digital format changes the way we read and think (see “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and all subsequent articles, popular and otherwise, on this topic). This post is just a marker in my own understanding of those changes, and feeling them shift as all of my work with texts of all kinds is increasingly digitized. I wonder how other writers feel about their relationships to digital texts. Anyone care to leave your mark here?