The End of Total Immersion?

Steven Johnson just wrote an article about how the e-book will change the way we read. He reports that he started to read an e-book about business and technology on a Kindle, then got bored and started to read Zadie Smith's On Beauty as an e-book instead. Apparently, this means there has been a massive sociocultural paradigm shift, and that the era of paying attention is over, yada yada yada. "I fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, of the author's ideas -- will be compromised."

This makes no sense. The reason Steven Johnson stopped reading the business and technology e-book was precisely that he wasn't totally immersed in it. Whoever's fault that is, it's not the Kindle's fault.

From a letter Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Anne Stevenson -- "What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration." Perhaps this capacity for concentration evolved because our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and subsequently became useful or useless for other tasks, as in W.H. Auden's paean

"to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,"

"the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate."

We've inherited this capacity -- not from the sea-shell collector, but from the other guy! -- and we won't lose it just because of some new gadgetry. That I was completely immersed in On Beauty when I read it had something to do with the text and something to do with my brain, but very little to do with the ink and paper involved. Wouldn't a more logical conclusion to draw from Steven Johnson's experience be that e-books will facilitate getting away from texts that don't suck us in, and facilitate finding texts that do suck us in? Why not deduce that e-books will make it easier to achieve the state of total literary immersion, helping people to achieve such states more frequently?

Steven Johnson goes on to raise the horrifying possibility that "entire books will be written with search engines in mind." I can't see this happening, since anyone could figure out that such books would be unreadable. And anyway, changes as to which search engine phrases are popular occur too quickly.

A best-selling author did tell me recently that word of mouth nowadays boils down to "which books your book is next to electronically," i.e. on Amazon's "customers who bought this item also bought" feature, but that's another topic.

4 thoughts on “The End of Total Immersion?”

  1. i generally agree with you, but, i do think there is something to be said about the way we read when we are lying in bed with a book in our hands. i think when we are in front of a computer we are there for other reasons other than to read a book. usually, we are at work, and bored by our work, and need a quick and easy distraction. sometimes we are waiting for something to download (i suppose the argument can be made that we are waiting for a book to download, but stay with me). sometimes literature is quick and easy; most of the time it’s not. in this sense, i think that if authors start writing for the electronic reader exclusively, literature will suffer.

  2. The human mind is a tremendously plastic thing. Just as most humans learned in the 20th century not to be scared shitless by large metal items that moved faster than animals, most humans in the 21st century will learn how to manage to adjust mental depth perception such that we can be single-minded when we want to.

  3. The e-reader that emerges (whether Kindle-like or i-phone-like) will be awesome for bedtime reading. Light weight (don't you hate hardbacks bonking you in the face when you nod off?), back lit, and searchable (who was that character?) with live links (benefit for nonfiction more than fiction) etc … so, yeah, the medium is getting way more press than it deserves. Just leave the tech to the engineers. The issue is how finding the books we want to read will change. The "readers who bought <..> also bought <..>" is a trivial approximation to sophisticated targeted marketing. The sophistication of algorithms that predict what you'll like depends on the information that the marketers are allowed to collect. Right now, ATT can collect nearly every click of your mouse and with that kind of power, could develop really powerful algorithms.
    Long term, literature will benefit from the technology. Short term, it's sort of chaotic. Until the next gen' "publisher" emerges, existing publishers will continue their paranoid content stranglehold. This is when literature suffers, not when the lid comes off and there's a huge swamp of many mediocre manuscripts plus all the truly great ones that publishers spurn because (a) they're too original, (b) they're not original enough, (c) they appeal to too wide/narrow and audience, (d) because people of given race/ethnicity/religion/gender don't read/buy books etc.
    In a content explosion the issue of finding what you want becomes a very interesting preference-model problem.
    And, by the way, none of this means that books as bound matter will disappear, except for maybe the mass-media/pulp paperback.

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