Reading Books vs. Reading Screens

The latest blogpost at the excellent blog  A Working Library, written by Brooklyn-based Mandy Brown, contains the following interesting observation:

[W]hile I…think the printed book has more to recommend it than the digital one, I’m also aware of how much time I spend reading on the screen. So much good writing happens on the web these days that my desire to read as much as I can has grown from buying two to three books a week to subscribing to two or three new sites. My feed reader has come to resemble my nightstand, stacked high with books I have yet to attend to.

And yet, those two sights—the stack of books and the unread count in my feed reader—evoke dramatically different responses. To the books, I feel excitement, eagerness; I look forward to the hours I will spend lazily in bed, flipping from one to the other. I dread the unlikely event that I will ever read them all, that I will ever finish a book and not have another ready to turn to that very second. The act of reading is always unfinished, and unapologetically so—within a library, there is no concept of completion.

Yet my feed reader—also always unfinished—evokes within me a dread surpassed only by that most loathsome of places—the inbox. I grow weary as the unread count increases, as it fills up with new articles before I can skim the old ones. In it’s timeliness—most blog posts have short half-lives and so must be read now—and the mathematical precision with which the reader measures its contents, I am stripped of my eagerness to read and filled, instead, with despair. Instead of a thing to enjoy, it makes reading a thing to get done with.

It’s reading made efficient. But I have no lack of efficiency in my life; what I lack is leisure, quiet, and space. The feed reader is the fast food joint of the reading experience, but I want the farmer’s market, the slow-cooked greens, the home-baked bread. I don’t want to feed, I want to eat, with all the attendant history that word evokes—the flavor, the company, the time.

…I wonder if the very slowness of books makes them more valuable in the face of all the quickness around us, if their singular nature will prove to be their saving grace. And if so, can that inspire the design of a reading experience on the web that strives for the same lack of haste? Can we envision a future where leisure has its place?

And from one of Brown’s previous blogposts:

The web cannot replace the printed text any more than the car can replace the bicycle. Rather, they each have their place, and with the ascendancy of reading on the web, the virtues of reading on paper have come into relief.

Of course, badly designed text was not invented along with the internet. It has a long, storied history, running neatly in parallel with the history of print itself. A printed book can be maligned by design on paper just as easily as it can be abused on the screen; the difference is the screen serves other purposes and can survive without reading. The printed book cannot.

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