1st December 2011 - Emily Best
We are an absorbed nation. We have at our fingertips the means to do anything with the push of a button, wherever we are. And with e-readers that extends to books. But what happens if we approached real books with the same sense of mobility?
I blame the old tamagotchis - of course it's normal to feed a tiny dinosaur on the bus. But now, if you're playing tennis and suddenly realise that you're a bit strapped? Just wave your smartphone at the ground and if there's gold under it you'll be the first to know, digging it up might be more challenging. Sitting in your office and fancy a sneaky pint? There's an app that will simulate one for you. I don't own an e-reader but I understand that two of the biggest attractions are the convenience of their size and weight (War and Peace in rush hour on the Central Line? No problem) and the fact that people don't know what you're reading. And as with smartphones and other mobile (or, as I like to call them, magic) devices, you can use them anywhere. So what if the thing we do so readily and yet so stealthily became a little less stealthy? I decided to experiment.
Adam Levin's The Instructions is a bit like Facebook, (to refer to another of the moment public habit ) - at any moment something potentially exciting is happening and, given the opportunity, it's impossible not to check. It'll be in my bag and I'll think, I wonder what Gurion's up to today. The trouble is, being a hardback and at just over a thousand pages, it's also one of the heaviest books I have ever read. I was in a slightly less than Emily-sized space on the tube one day, knowing that there was an adventure going on between the pages of the very fat book in my bag and, like a smartphone app, the lure to have a look was too strong to resist. Reading the book increased my own width by at least a third. This was about two-thirds more room than I had and I subjected myself (and my fellow passengers) to a more-than-reasonable amount of discomfort in order to continue reading. So, granted, an e-reader might have been useful there.
A friend gave me Ethel and Ernest with the express instructions not to read it on public transport. It is a beautiful but devastatingly sad book - Raymond Briggs has a peculiar gift for reducing people to tears with a single facial expression (think of the boy at the end of The Snowman and don't try to tell me you weren't at least a little choked) and Ethel and Ernest is up there with, well, Up. So, for the good of the experiment, I read it on a bus. As it happened, I was so distracted by the dangers of crying in public that I escaped unscathed but I did have to get off the bus a couple of stops early when I came pretty close. Would I have been more emotionally removed if I'd been reading from a screen?
Currently showing in the Tate Modern's gargantuan Turbine Hall is Tacita Dean's Film, the projection of which stands at thirteen metres tall. It's beautiful, spooky and a little overwhelming, if not humbling. The Hall itself spans the entire five floors of the rest of the gallery and, in its current configuration, is in almost complete darkness save for the film. Except, as I stood on the viewing platform halfway up, I saw below me a sea of little white lights. People had come to the gallery, sat in this fairly intense situation and, for whatever reason (and I'm sure there are many), were on their phones. Alright, I thought, I'll have a go at this. So I took my Hobbes' Leviathan up to the Surrealist exhibition. In another gallery I once saw a person walking around with a camera, photographing the paintings, sitting on the bench and looking at their camera. Was that so different?
After my trip to the Tate, I headed north, which meant crossing a bridge. Of any pedestrian situation, crossing a bridge has the most singular focus. There is nothing on the bridge except bridge. Except maybe to admire the view or rather sadly end it all, the only reason to be on a bridge is to get to the other side. Stand on an ordinary pavement reading, you could be meeting a friend or waiting for a shop to open. In a gallery you might be bored. But, on a bridge, there is no excuse to stand around. So reading Paradise Lost inconspicuously, at a standstill, is not easy. I definitely felt very isolated. Which is weird, because anyone could have been walking past with an e-reader (or even an actual book), but I guess that wasn't their primary focus of being on the bridge. Also, I felt in the way.
Getting in the way is probably the worst by-product of the mobile device. I like most have bumped into people (and objects) when my eyes have been on predictive text rather than putting one foot in front of the other. Laura from our Bristol branch wrote a few weeks ago about how she got into trouble reading American Psycho walking down the street. As it turns out, she also took out two cyclists and attracted a fair few fellow pedestrians. So, again, I thought I'd see how far I could push it - I went into the shop and found the biggest book I could and ventured into the busy streets of Soho perusing Horses - a beautiful collection of equine photography - and it utterly obscured even my peripheral vision. There were a few collisions - one with a lamppost, several with pedestrians. And a lot of strange looks. I had to wonder, though, if I were walking down the road looking at my phone, would I be any less absorbed, at least mentally? Even at my most stealthy I would still be a liability.
So what have I learnt from my experiments? Whether it's an e-book or a physical book, the act of reading is always an adventure. As Laura pointed out, the risks we encounter in indulging the compulsion to read are almost always worth it, and while my forays into extreme reading might not have been the most conducive to absorbed concentration, I grew to love the books all the more because I had to work for them.
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