the e-reading experience

This past weekend I found myself participating in a lively (and at times heated) discussion about the future of the book and the value of the written word on paper vs. online.  The characters nestled around the table at which the discussion ensued included a professor of medieval literature, a poet/writing teacher, a fiction writer/rare book salesperson, an aspiring writer, and a college composition teacher (myself).

The discussion began when the medieval literature professor said she was troubled by students asking if they could read ebook versions of the assigned texts in her course.  She knew her answer to the students was no, but she said she also knew she had to think more about why that was her immediate answer.  Certainly, she said, it’s important for literature students to read the specific edition she chose (because she chose it for a particular purpose), and certainly students need shared editions so when the class performs a close reading of a particular passage, they are all looking at the same text and can easily find it with the same pagination.  But she knew there was another reason she said no to ebooks and it was more about the value of reading printed texts as opposed to etexts–about the different reading experiences students would have whether they read the text in print or online.

I quickly snapped in points about the cost of books and how ebooks could cut down on students’ expenses (a good thing, I believe) and also the changing nature of our students’ reading experiences and processes.  Many of our students are now growing up reading online and reading etexts, so I tried to argue perhaps students could have valuable reading experiences reading online the same texts we first encountered in a hardbound book.

The medievalist and the poet disagreed, and the poet added that she will not submit her poems to a publication that exists only online.  She doesn’t want her poems read in an electronic version, she said.  She wants them read on paper.

And this got me thinking about Harlot, and about our readers’ reading experiences.  All of us sitting around the table agreed that online publications can contain multi-media texts that can’t be reproduced in print journals, but a few at the table insisted that the same written text printed in an online publication could not possible be read the same way as it could be on paper.  Agreeing that the reading experiences would certainly be different (as of course the reading experience depends on so many factors, not just the form in which it appears), I was a bit concerned by the undertone of a value judgment being attached to those differences.  The woman who works in the rare books department of a well-known book store added to the conversation the issue of how “valuable texts” can only be bought by those with the proper resources, and how hard it is for her to observe people buying rare books solely for the purpose of owning them, rather than for an appreciation of the text itself.

All this is to say that I’d like to participate in and hear more discussion of people’s reading experiences with publications like Harlot. What do our readers gain and lose by experiencing our submissions solely online?

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2 thoughts on “the e-reading experience

  1. Kelly, I completely agree that we need to be having these discussions more often! I have moved my whole class online, aside from the textbook that our program requires our students to buy, and that I do assign for some readings. But I have found that my students (most of whom were born between the years of 1990-1991) are completely comfortable with keeping everything on the screen and in fact prefer it. As do I–it is much quicker and more convenient to comment on their drafts electronically, using the word comment function, and then typing in a paragraph or two at the beginning, explaining how I read their papers and outlining possibilities for global revisions. Having them write blog posts and have class discussions in online forums outside of class seems to make them more engaged with the ideas, and it carries over into the classroom (and it saves paper and ink, during a time when our natural and economic resources are both increasingly squeezed).

    I just got a Kindle for a present, and I’m blown away by how much less expensive it is to buy books, by how much less my school bag weighs because I’m not lugging books around, and I’m especially impressed by the “My Clippings” function, which enables me to highlight and make notes on portions of text that I find compelling–it then stores the highlighted text and notes in one place, so I don’t have to go thumbing through my book to find that place [what page was that on again?} that I wanted to remember and squint to read my ridiculous margin notes that I squeezed in… Instead, they are all easily accessible, organized, and even searchable. Their special “ink” means that the screen isn’t backlit and reads like normal paper.

    Sure, sometimes it bothers me to read long portions of text on my laptop, and the Kindle technology could be better. And I definitely get that it might be preferable to have a standardized pagination for class, but I think it’s time to re-think our classroom practices so that they adapt to the new possibilities. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people are nostalgic for the time before the internets and e-readers, but it does seem to me that many of these concerns are simply rooted in nostalgia alone. And nostalgia places value on the older technology–it longs for what used to be (and probably most often longs for the myth of what used to be, what never existed in the first place).

    I doubt that printed material will cease to exist. The written word, books, poetry, scholarship, etc. will continue both in print and digitally, and I would argue that it has already been improved by this diversification.

    We will be gaining so many benefits when we finally move all scholarship online! We can make it free and more easily accessible, and thus involve more people in the discussion. It seems to me that the more cynical reasons for the “nostalgic” perspective might involve a desire to “protect” the institution of the academy, intellectual conservatism rooted in an anxiety about not being able to adapt to novelty (and thereby becoming irrelevant), and concerns related to money and the desire for ideas to remain exclusive, all of which I think undermine our expressed values about the liberating power of education, the quest for knowledge/learning, social justice, and the public service mission of the academy. Granted, increased reliance on new technologies in many cases can exacerbate the gap between rich and poor, city and rural, and school resources. But there are a lot of complex inputs to factor in, and it seems to me that we should have deeper, more open (and less nostalgic discussions) about both the benefits and costs when it comes to the available reading technologies.

    Even though I believe that printed books will still continue to be a part of our lives, it seems like we’re moving everything into an electronic format. So I think that we should embrace the new possibilities that weren’t there before. For example, I think it would be great if all of the archives scanned in or took digital pictures of their materials and then put these items into an online database so that we could save travel money and time, thereby gaining access to more materials. Nostalgia has a place, but it shouldn’t make one thing inherently more valuable than another.

    • Heather, I love the points you raise and I agree wholeheartedly with you as a teacher. In fact, this semester I am officially using no textbooks for both my undergraduate and graduate class. Students will be accessing their materials via the web, the university library databases, and articles uploaded to our course Blackboard sites. It’s interesting to me upon reflection, though, that last semester, as a new (and first-time) faculty member at a new university I instinctively had my composition students buy books. Despite the fact that I’ll be teaching my undergraduate course very similarly this semester, I can do so without having them buy two books. But my instinct was that it would make me look like a professional to order books. (Please note, I’m very aware of intellectual property issues, so I’m not condoning betraying that. Almost all the readings are available through the school’s library system or on the web.). The poet/writing teacher in the conversation the other night, though, did mention that she teaches at a college with a non-traditional adult student population, 80% of whom do not have a computer and/or the internet at home. This complicated our discussion of how technology can provide MORE access. Obviously, as you say, it’s not that simple.

      Your mention of the Kindle is interesting also, and it surfaced in our discussion the other night. One of my new colleagues gave his wife a Kindle for Christmas–an extremely appropriate gift for someone who spends about 3 hours a day on NYC transit getting to and from work. Even she was struck, though, when she made the hand gesture required to flip pages on the Kindle when she referenced reading a book. And having easily dismissed even the idea of the Kindle previous to seeing hers, I became very interested in owning one once I got to play around with one.

      The issue of scanning archival documents also surfaced the other night. The medieval literature professor agreed that it’s not always easy to get the funding to travel to see the documents in person, so making them available electronically is a great asset to academic research. Interestingly, though, a friend of one of the women at the table who is a Classics professor had previously made the argument to this friend that it is wrong to make such documents accessible to a wide audience. His belief, it seems, is that by getting his PhD in Classics, he had earned (unlike others) the right to have access to those documents. Of course, we all chimed in saying that what he earned was the knowledge to interpret and read those documents in a particular context. In our opinion, he was not–in fact–more deserving of access to the documents.

      I appreciate your response, Heather, and look forward to continuing such a discussion!

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