If books are ‘under threat from new media’, then these new media are undoubtedly the Internet and ebooks. You get some great writing online, and in so called long-form too, but you stumble on these things while you’re doing something else, and your mind can’t possibly know what it’s missing, and whether it’s read a given percentage (or a balanced selection) of writing on a topic.
In the market for a read
Books are different. When you pick up a book, you’re most likely in a bookshop shopping for books, or in your own home looking for a new book to start (or an old one to refer to), or in a library looking for a book to borrow. Your mind’s in book mode, and is paying attention to the book market, in whatever form it takes.
When you delve into the book itself, your attention is not being hailed by adverts, or dastardly links within the text. Adverts may be the researcher’s worst enemy as far as online reading is concerned, but even ignoring them you’re being enticed towards other articles, only a click away, as well as desperate publishers offering you other stuff you ‘might like’. If you wanted to read those things, surely you’d be reading them, yes? Or would they be directing you back here?
You have your book in front of you, and it commands your full attention. References to other related sources are in footnotes and endnotes, waiting for you to decide when you’re ready for them, depending on where your research takes you. When you put the book down, finished, then the onus is on you to decide what to read next, and perhaps you’ve already made that decision – a quality decision – hours, days or weeks ago. The next book’s on your reading pile, of course.
So your attention is on the book, and fully on the book. If you’re taking notes, you’re extracting what you need, not what the book ‘wants’ you to ‘take away’. You’re your own master. So with all this attention available, what are you going to do with it?
Well, as you’re not reading a short article online, you’re spending longer reading about the one topic. Avid readers will attest to the hours which slip by while ensconced in a good book, whether fact or fiction. And at the other end you have moments in which to soak up your knew experience and knowledge, without your eye being stolen immediately. You’ll have delved deeper into the subject, ranged wider within its boundaries, and had time to understand what the author was saying, and meaning.
The words will not be flavoured with a tone to increase page views or move you as swiftly from one topic to another. You have given the writer permission to take you on a journey, from beginning, to middle, to end. In return, you will be guided along an unfamiliar yet rewarding path, the author at your side to point out the landmarks, safe in the knowledge that your attention span extends beyond the next sidebar, the next flashing banner, and that you’re here for the long run (or walk, or stroll).
You’re also probably sitting comfortably. There is no eye strain from staring at a glowing rectangle, no wondering whether the text could be bigger, or rendered in a more attractive font should you wish it. There are no buttons; you are simply engaging with the material on which the words sit, finishing one side before moving to the other. The words remain exactly where they are, immortalised on the page in a way which the e-book reader imitates, but forever merely pretends. This is a medium which gives words their proper place and respect.
Just holding the book, working your way from front to back, your brain and fingers are constantly aware of how far you are through the page, and through the book as a whole. Your journey is laid out before you, the topic’s very size is visible in front of you, not encrypted in bits and bytes in a microchip or The Cloud.
A book is yours, in your hands, a companion on the path, marking out future time and leaving a breadcrumb trail behind. You stare at a website but you engage with a book. It moves from pristine volume to dog-eared tome, bearing the scars of love and use. A Kindle merely sits there, unchanging, wondering whether you might also like this other book, or this other one. Or this other one? A book takes you away, and keeps you there; digital type merely tries to steal your attention for as long as possible, eeking each penny and moment out the precious resource which is your attention.