What we do when we absorb words from a screen—and we haven’t yet evolved a verb for it—is not reading.
Reading a book is an act of concentration that abolishes the world. As the type on the page dissolves before the reader’s private re-creation of the people, images or ideas that the ink evokes, reality is enhanced by insights, emotions or perceptions that were not there before. This compensatory quality is the product of concentration; it arises because reading is linear, reeling us along sentence by sentence toward a series of revelations. Reading a book remakes the temporality of the physical world. The shapelessness of experience yields to a chronology whose internal symmetry feels superior to the disorder of life. Book-based transcendence fuelled the three ancient Middle Eastern monotheisms that became the core religions of the early modern period in the West and on its fringes, and which were exported to other continents; all were “religions of the book.”
The book’s sacred status survived the secularization of society. The words of the imaginative writer, particularly the novelist, invested specific social configurations with mythic resonance: Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, García Márquez’s Macondo, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo. The act of reading not only dramatized existing reality; it nourished the urge to implement alternative forms of social organization. In societies that were colonized, formally or informally, even the most fanciful tale inspired acts of rebellion simply because the story lent imaginative autonomy to reality. Fiction became the tissue of revolutionary spirituality. In the Argentine writer Liliana Heker’s novel The End of the Story, a torturer complains to a leftist guerrilla he has captured: “In every house we go into—Do you know what we find there? Books, thousands of books. You’d have to be Superman to classify them, to find out what those books did to you, why they messed up your brains like that.” The inseparability of books and revolution is axiomatic; no insurgent cell was complete without its manifesto—or its library. Linking the end of the Cold War to the advent of digital society, the French revolutionary fellow traveller Régis Debray classified the Third World Marxism of the period between 1959 and 1990 as “the last religion of the book.”
More than a decade ago, when I moved to the university town where I teach, it was common to see students reading books on municipal buses. Now, with the exception of the occasional nerd stuck into a fantasy novel, or a diligent student poring over a diagram-filled textbook on her lap, this sight has disappeared. The students travel in stooped postures, jabbing their cellphones with their thumbs. Most of this jabbing is texting, or playing solitaire; but even when the students are browsing online course readings, what they are doing is not reading, because they are not performing an act of concentration, but rather one of perpetual distraction. As Marshall McLuhan perceived, the medium is the message. Reading is an act confined to books and magazines, and, in somewhat more scattered form, newspapers; what we do when we absorb words from a screen—and we haven’t yet evolved a verb for it—is not reading.
When we read on screen, the translucent surface holds the text at a remove from our fingers, displaying it under glass like an archaic specimen. This distance blunts our immersion in the words, causing us to regard them with irony even when we are enthusiastic about what they say. By making all events equally available (and equally distant), the screen engenders a simultaneity that nullifies the words’ ability to forge an alternative chronology or a summation of what the world is like. The screen’s imposition of historical simultaneity, in which events that occurred centuries apart appear side by side in undifferentiated sameness, is accentuated by the more agitated simultaneity of the multi-window experience. Whatever I may be looking at, I feel hectored by other screens that want my attention: email, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, work-related sites. In proceeding through a book, a reader accepts a pact. She is aware of breaking that pact if her attention wanders, if she flips ahead or puts the book down; the on-screen experience, by contrast, depends on the compulsive, fidgety sampling of the individual who keeps all his options open. The term ebook, more than a misnomer, is an oxymoron: we may read a text on a screen, in between anxious jumps to other windows, but we do not read a book because we do not achieve the level of concentration necessary to experience the spiritual or artistic affects that books provide. Some software even invites the user to read the book and watch the movie at the same time. A tweet is a perfect match with the medium of the screen; approaching a book in this way is like trying to view the rings of Saturn with cheap binoculars.
The genres of the screen are diverging from those of the page. Forgettable formula fiction accounts for the largest swathe of ebook sales; most readers of literary fiction and serious non-fiction prefer print. A short story in an online journal does not aspire to the Modernist unities sought by print quarterlies. No one remembers forever characters encountered in an ebook, nor are the students on the buses deeply marked by their first encounters with Plato, Marx or Freud when these readings are downloaded onto their phones. On the screen, the magazine or newspaper’s magisterial feature article is replaced by a truncated, fragmented text studded with hyperlinks; even the opinion column is blunted and diminished when it transmutes into the blog post. The distinctive forms of the screen, along with their imaginative trivialization and social paralysis, leak back into print as newspapers shorten their features and jazz up their front pages to meet the visual expectations of online browsers. Social media may organize the committed to sign a petition or even attend a rally, but unlike books, screens cannot make converts by transforming the individual’s conception of a sacred chronology. Commitment yields to irony, concentration to distraction. Whatever we may be doing on our screens, we are not reading.