An Objection to Tim Parks’ “E-Books Can’t Burn”

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Tim Parks’ pro-ebooks argument in The New York Review of Books. I’ve still been thinking about possible objections to his thoughts (and they were excellent). This weekend, I stumbled upon a blog post by Epicurean Dealmaker (he remains anonymous on the Web) who eloquently distills his objections:

[M]y real objection to Mr. Parks’ argument has to do with the naive Platonism he attempts to sell us. His entire argument seems to boil down to the assertion that there is some sort of “pure text” at the base of every work of literature—words in inviolate sequence, to use his coinage—and that e-readers, by collapsing and standardizing our access to them, somehow make our experience of literature purer and more authentic. But this is just bullshit. The experience of literature—and reading in general—is always and everywhere a solitary interpretative act on behalf of and by the reader. Readers read literature in time, in space, and through some sort of medium. Time spent reading—pace, duration, intervals when one puts down the book—directly and ineluctably affects the reader’s experience of the text. Readers who read Ulyssess in three years may indeed have read the same text as those who read it in two weeks, but they certainly have not had the same aesthetic and cognitive experience. In addition, solitary reading involves the visual faculties and aesthetic senses, too. Font, line leading, margins, and even pagination affect a reader’s experience of a text, often subconsciously. No-one who has ever compared a cheap, cramped, badly-typeset version of a novel to a well-designed, spaciously laid out one can help but notice the difference. And noticing the difference in and of itself alters the experience of the work. Joyce may be as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman, but I dare you to find him the same author in twelve point Comic Sans.

A book, properly considered, is a recorded performance of a piece of literature, just like a CD is a recorded performance of a particular piece of music. While musicians have more artistic discretion in interpreting a piece than a book designer and publisher do, the latter are not aesthetically invisible. They subtly influence a book’s format and packaging: font, margins, page breaks, cover art, etc. The sequence, timing, pace, and even completion of the work—its interpretation—lie in the hands of a reader, but the packaging and presentation of the physical object is not. And because reading is a performance, the time and place where you read is important, too. Reading Lord Jim on a plane is not the same as reading it on a tropical beach. The former is forgettable; the latter is not, as I can personally attest.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the same music, whether it is interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boise Symphony. But nobody ever hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: they hear a performance of it. By the same token, nobody ever reads Ulysses, they read a version of it, as presented to them through the medium of some sort of delivery device at a particular time and place, and interpreted according to their own engagement, interest, aptitude, and sensitivity. A Kindle or an iPad is just another delivery device, constrained or liberated, as the case may be, by its technical and aesthetic capabilities and limitations. There are many texts where an e-reader’s ability to standardize, flatten, and minimize aesthetic variation may very well be an advantage. (I think in particular of current non-fiction, biography, history, and other trade books.) But to pretend it is therefore somehow more transparent to a work of literature than a physical book is wishful thinking.

A must-read in entirety. I especially like the strong conclusion with a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.