Reading Technologies

There’s been some drama afoot about Amazon’s new Kindle 2 – a portable device for people to download and read digitalized books. Most of the angst is about the gadget’s text-to-speech function. Roy Blount, Jr., president of the Authors Guild, claims in his NY Times op-ed that Kindle should pay authors for the audio rights. The rebuttals have been amusingly hyperbolic – “Are you going to charge parents for reading aloud to their children?” “Is reading only legal when it’s silent?” And there are more serious points about reading methods for the blind. But the Guild’s pressure prompted Amazon to announce on Friday that it would offer an option for publishers to turn off this robotic voice feature.

This is all riveting, of course, but I’m more interested in the fact that this technology offers so many alternative forms of reading. Most people spend hours a day in front of a computer, and this has reached into every part of our lives, including literature. I know we’re greening everything up and that offices, classrooms, and even literary magazines are working toward a paper-free world to save those trees. But. There’s something important in the simple act of turning a real tree-killing paper page in a physical book-shaped book.

I’ve listened to one book on tape, on my hour-long drive to intern at an environmental group (yes, it was a contradictory and guild-ridden commute). I was unnerved and bothered that I couldn’t re-read that sentence, dog-ear a page or underline that phrase. I do enjoy going to readings, but usually not for the reading itself. I love hearing writers talk about their work, and hearing it in their voice. But after a writer reads a story aloud, I don’t feel that I’ve really read or experienced it. I need the relationship to the page and the physical text.

Technology’s the future, sure, and literature and reading need to grow and change with the times. I know that audio and digital books are massively popular and used all the time. My sister listens to books on tape while simultaneously reading the text. Last year my mom asked if I wanted this Kindle-thing, insisting that the computerized pages “look like real book pages!” But reading the news online, and the One Story submissions on-screen, is about as far as I can go. And now there are not just blogs and Google Books and Kindle, but also hypertexts, in which many different narratives are possible depending on how the reader follows the hyperlinks. I recently read Michael Joyce’s Reach, and while I appreciate the innovation, it was also a stressful experience. The entire internet is right there with you as you read, and the order of pages seems as arbitrary as clicking randomly through the web. It feels technological and mathematical, not literary.

Occasionally a recent One Story subscriber will ask why they can’t find our current story on the website, or when they’ll get the PDF. When I began interning here, my mom (always environmental) asked why it wasn’t published online. I retorted with an odd defensiveness that the printed format is “so important!” and “part of the reading experience.” But it matters to me. When I spend an hour wandering a bookstore, it’s as much for the books as objects, the delicious squareness of them, as it is for all those “ideas.” Something is lost when in the next tab over from a book your e-mail is a click away, when you can Wikipedia every word you read, as you read it.

And this is what makes One Story so appealing. They are great stories, of course, and they would still be great on a computer screen. But because they come in such clean, simple booklets, with their skinny spines and array of colors, and because they line up on the shelf so nicely, aren’t they just a little more great?