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Could E-Books Breed Apathy?

August 3rd 2011

Last month, I read a book on a Kindle for the first time. But it wasn’t the first time I had read this particular book; I first read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood about six years ago, when I was a few years older than the book’s adolescent protagonist, Toru Watanabe. Years later, I couldn’t remember the book’s plot as well as I could remember the feeling it left behind – something of mournful nostalgia, muted emotions, angst and heartbreak. I also remembered the book itself. It was a light paperback, fluttery and vulnerable, like the book’s female characters. The cover image was a close-up likeness of a woman’s face. Her expression is woeful and distant but otherwise impossible to interpret. The colors are bright pink and bright purple and bright yellow: the contrast between this chromatic cheerfulness and the sadness of the face and the tragedy of the novel itself left an indelible impression: my memory of the book is bound with this cover image. I read the first chapters in the living room of my mom’s house during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college; I remember that bright cover in the summer sun of the glass-walled room. I read the latter part of the book upstairs, in a dark bedroom, and as the novel’s morbid plot revealed itself fully, that wraithly face on the cover changed expression in the shadows.

When I re-read this book on a Kindle last month, I disliked it. I found the writing to be simplistic, the characters flat, the plot insipid. I attribute most of this to my changing tastes as a reader. But I was surprised by the depths of my apathy toward a book I had once liked so much. I wondered if my reaction would have been different had I read from the old paperback copy. I would have disliked the writing itself, surely, but perhaps something of what I felt before would have stirred within me. The synesthetic clashing of words and smells and tastes and sounds and images that coupled the book and its cover with the story inside the book is singular; it is tied to me, my memories, the physical book, and the story. When reading Norwegian Wood on a Kindle, I was overwhelmed by a surprisingly urgent impulse to go home and find that paperback.

In a post entitled “In which, Emphatically and Forever, I Decline to Care How Books Smell,” NPR blogger Linda Holmes lampoons the army of luddites who lament the smell-less-ness of e-books. In response, Holmes lists the various perks of e-books: changeable font size; affordability; convenience. She also mistakes the obsession with olfaction as being a simple matter of olfactory preference: “I’m not offended by people who like how books smell,” she writes. “Everything can and should have fans…the problem comes when you imply that if you do not have that instinct, then there is something missing from your life as a reader.”

For me, a book’s smell falls under two categories: Smells that lead to sneezing; smells that don’t lead to sneezing. (I’m allergic to must.) I suspect that many have latched onto “smell” as the easiest way to express something more complex that they find lacking in e-books. As Holmes points out in her blog, those who complain about smell begin with the smell hypothesis, but then discuss seemingly unrelated factors, such as where they read the book or where they bought the book.

Immanent in a physical book is not just a particular smell, texture, size, color, design and weight, but also the exchange of the book, which takes place at a store, through the mail, or elsewhere as a hand-to-hand exchange. These transactions become memories, and for me, these memories become inextricable from the meaning of the story within the book. When I later recall a book’s content, I find this recollection colored by memories of where I found it, who gave it to me, its weight, its size, its look. An e-book, in contrast, is always bought onscreen, absent a conversation with a bookseller or a drive to a friend’s apartment to pick the book up. Font and format notwithstanding, its physical presence is always identical to other books viewed on the e-reader.

This is all rather self-evident, and one could easily argue that a book’s actual meaning is better off unadulterated by the sandwiching context of the book’s purchase or the oppressive influence of the book’s smell. What I’m concerned about here is the actual formation and retention of memory, which is influenced by the five senses, and retention of narrative, which is influenced by the context in which a narrative is told.

Smell, for example, indeed prompts access to stored memories – but only when a person is confronted again with the same smell. Similarly, recollection of a particular narrative is dislodged from stored memory in the brain when an individual enters the place in which the narrative was told, or is confronted with an object that provokes recollection of the narrative. For a book, this could mean picking the book up or entering the location in which the book was sold. Could the sensory void of an e-book actually diminish our ability to remember the content and meaning of the book within? And if so, might books with political or polemic ambitions be less influential if read on an e-reader?

To explore context and physicality as it relates to the influence of a particular book, let’s analyze the original editions of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a pamphlet that is often cited as inciting the Revolutionary War.

Historians contend that Common Sense was widely disseminated throughout the U.S. within months of first publication in 1776. Its power is recalled as magical, as though every American read Common Sense and then instantly hated the British. In truth, it’s possible that the pamphlet’s success was propelled by a highly publicized conflict between Paine and his publisher, Robert Bell, who released the second edition of Common Sense one week after the first edition sold out before first consulting Paine – who, irate, went to a second publisher, William and Thomas Bradford, to print a new third edition. This set off an escalating war between Bell (as the first publisher) and the Bradfords (as the second publishers) which resulted in sixteen separate editions of Common Sense that were published in Philadelphia alone. As scholar Trish Loughran writes in Disseminating Common Sense: Thomas Paine and the Problem of the Early National Bestseller,

“Paine’s commercial dispute with Bell was, in many ways, as crucial to the book’s celebrity as were its arguments for independence. Not only did this debate ensure, quite apart from the issue of demand, that twice the number of copies would be printed in Philadelphia (one set by Bell and one set by the Bradfords), but it also made the book a kind of local scandal whose fifteen minutes of fame lasted several months as Bell (at his own expense) and Bradford (at Paine’s expense) repeatedly displayed dueling full-page advertisements in opposite columns of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, each making claims not for or against independence but for or against the characters of the locally identifiable disputants.”

Loughran imagines that during this time, the politically conscious and higher class consumers of Common Sense might have bought the different editions as a type of prized commodity. She also points out that while Common Sense probably sold around 100,000-150,000 copies – astronomical for that time – many of these were purchased by the same individuals, and copies sold outside of Philadelphia would have been delivered in small and highly anticipated bundles along the King’s Highway, which ran all the way to New York City. As a physical commodity, the early editions of Common Sense were highly prized objects that would have been excitedly purchased and discussed at local bookstores all over the east coast.

The driving forces behind an e-book’s success are very different. They consist of a similarly mysterious tipping point in popular excitement – an author’s blog explodes overnight; clicks on Amazon increase exponentially; a review is written; clicks explode again – yet this all occurs onscreen, as does the reading of the book. Since our memories are influenced by context and physicality, will a reader feel the same visceral allegiance to a popular e-book as to a highly anticipated paper book? And when the book is polemical and requests action born of passion on the part of the reader, does the author’s task become more difficult when the finished product is not something that can be traded and held, but words in electronic typeface that with the pressing of a button will be replaced with different words from a different book? When the commodity is the e-reader itself, does the content of one particular book, held fleetingly onscreen, somehow get filed away as ‘less important’ during the context-sensitive process of memory storage and retrieval?

Loughran wrote of the influence of Common Sense:

“To the degree that printed texts—like Paine’s pamphlet, or later, the Constitution—are able to solve key problems in modern political economy (and ideologically there can be no doubt that they do just this), it is not solely because they emanate from no place, or no one, in particular, but because they have the peculiar ability to be both particular and non-particular at once. We might say that every book has, like the King before it, two bodies—one that is present in the form of a reliably fixed, real, and always self-identical material text and the other that is promised by its endlessly reproducible, presumably identical, counterparts.”

With an e-book, the body of the “endlessly reproducible, presumably identical, counterparts” becomes the sole body of the text. Books read on an e-reader are peculiarly non-particular. As for the possibility that this renders them peculiarly ineffective in evoking certain stripes of passion, or conversely deepening particular shades of apathy, I don’t know, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.


  1. Mike says:

    I don’t have strong memories of buying most books, unless it was really a special store, or the feel or smell of the book. I have intense memories of where I was when I read. My Nook has not changed that at all. Be it the coolness of shade in my back yard, or the sterile smell of the doctor’s office, or the hum of an airplane or the distracting flickers of light on the river near the trail, those sense memories continue to embed themselves with the text as they always have.

    As for scarcity and anticipation, I think Apple and J.K. Rowling have both shown how possible this is to achieve in the digital age. And as for our passions, I would hope the words have played, and continue to play, the key role in stirring them.

  2. Katherine says:

    Well put, MHumph. I read a lot of bloggers who wrote that they’re unaffected by the change to e-book. It felt very different for me, and I was curious about how the process of memory retention might be related. I also sense that it has a lot to do with the way my mind works spatially, and I wonder if this has something to do with differences in male/female spatial thinking (ya know, the typical example of looking at a map versus saying, “turn left at that tree with the red leaves.”) At this point it’s very conjectural on my part :)