Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Here we just sell small rectangular objects. They're called books. They require a little effort on your part, and make no bee-bee-bee-bee-beeps.

It's just possible that the 'Nothing', the dreadful thing that was about to consume Fantasia in the enchanting classic The Neverending Story, may be the computer.

I'm not saying this as a kind of Luddite, because I'm anything but that. And I rarely hanker for 'the old days' where things were better—which some may have been, but a great many really weren't—and we didn't have this and that which screws up our lives now; mainly because there were other things that did the same job, or an even better one, instead of what we have now. But in this instance things are different. In this instance what is being phased out—or at least people are attempting to do so; in the name of everything under the sun, from imagination to conservation of natural resources—is the book as a medium of story telling; to be replaced either by books on the screens of computers or digital reading devices like the Kindle.

The question as to why we should continue to read stories in books, as opposed to doing it on the screens of electronic devices, has been discussed by many people and in many contexts. So far, it has always appeared that any preferences either way were mainly a matter of taste or just habit.

Well, it now appears that there may be more to it...

Storybooks On Paper Better For Children Than Reading Fiction On Computer Screen

Clicking and scrolling interrupt our attentional focus. Turning and touching the pages instead of clicking on the screen influence our ability for experience and attention. The physical manipulations we have to do with a computer, not related to the reading itself, disturb our mental appreciation...

...reading on a screen generates a new form of mental orientation. The reader loses both the completeness and constituent parts of the physical appearance of the reading material. The physical substance of a book offers tranquility. The text does not move on the page like it does on a screen.

"Several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory. We should include this in our evaluation of digital teaching aids. The technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but we know little about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that," ...

"We experience to day a one-sided admiration for the potentials in the technology. ICT is now introduced in kindergarten without much empirical research on how it influences children’s learning and development. The whole field is characterized by an easy acceptance and a less subtle view of the technology,"...

"Critical perspectives on new technologies are often brushed aside as a result of moral panic and doomsday prophecies. ...there is generally little reflection around digital teaching material. What we need, is a more nuanced view on the potentials and limitations of all technologies – even of the book. Very often important discussions about technology and learning have a tendency to reduce a complex field to a question about being for or against," ...

The development of digital media leads to a need for more sophisticated concepts of reading and writing and a new understanding of these activities.

...

Even if children and young people do not read as many novels in book form any more, one may still argue that they actually read more than before. Most of what they do on a computer or on their cell phones, is exactly reading and writing.

"...we understand more and better when reading on paper than when we read the same text on a screen. We avoid navigating and the small things we don't think about, but which subconsciously takes attention away from the reading. Also texts on a screen are often not adapted to the screen format. The most important difference is when the text becomes digital. Then it loses its physical dimension, which is special to the book, and the reader loses his feeling of totality."

...hypertext stories... exploit the multimedia possibilities of a computer and use both hypertext, video, sound, pictures and text. They are constructed in such a way that clicking one's way around them comes close to a literary computer game.

...

"The digital hypertext technology and its use of multimedia are not open to the experience of a fictional universe where the experience consists of creating your own mental images. The reader gets distracted by the opportunities for doing something else."...

The last paragraph may be the most significant, because it folds into the consideration the factor of 'distance' between reader and fictional world and its importance to not only involvement in a particular story, but also to overall mental development. It appears that this involvement may be a critical factor in the development of a number of human faculties; and, unsurprisingly, it has to do with our relationship to 'narrative'.

Interesting pointers at the significance of all this may be found, inter alia, in research such as this:

Researcher Links Storytelling And Mathematical Ability

Two-thirds Of School-age Children Have An Imaginary Companion By Age 7

Imaginary Friendships Could Boost Child Development

Children Better Prepared For School If Their Parents Read Aloud To Them

Very Young Children Can Step Into The Minds Of Storybook Characters

I don't know if you ever had that experience: you walk into an office, the one you work in (you do, don't you?) or maybe a bank of whatever, and you see a whole bunch of people sitting before rectangular screens. I tend to take note of this. Once you've done it, the sense of the surreal tends to linger and draw your attention to the unnaturalness of itall.

Well, this is just one example of humans being put into situations for which they are cognitively unprepared. The results of extended exposure to such things range from the mild to the severe, from low-level chronic cognitive dysfunctionality at all levels of cognition, decision making, 'thought', emotion and action, to acute and obvious mental 'problems' that can become seriously destructive. I've been a software developer for many years, and I can assure you, from personal observation of my own self, as well as others surrounding me who worked in similar roles, that the effects are real and not anything to joke about. I still spend a shitload of hours behind a computer—as a tech writer as well as doing things like writing novels, laying out books, designing covers, editing video etc etc—and getting away from it and to a book, instead of glueing my eyes to the TV, another rectangular screen, for the remainder of my day, or just to some views of things that aren't rectangular and glowing, like trees and grass, and such like...that's tonic on my human perceptions. The same goes for the things one does. Like physical exercise. Training of of body coordination—martial arts are great for that, though they're on the back-burner right now. And so on.

We're not necessarily—well, we aren't, period!—evolutionarily adapted to reading books either, but in the context of narrative delivery, and with the social backdrop of having been read to from a book (Like that's going to happen with a Kindle! Mum reading to the kid from the screen. Ha!) and the whole-sense associations we have coming from that...a book is so much closer to something we can relate to. Thing is, books don't stand alone and without context against electronic media for narrative delivery. They have a historical/social context, and this actually matters, because humans are social/historical creatures. We can't exist without that. Books also are physical entities. A novel in a book is a 'package' of sorts, a whole, a unity. We close a book and take the story with us. Complete union of the object and its content. You cannot get that in a laptop, PDA or Kindle.

This isn't atavism, but connectedness to our nature; the fabric of our being.

Books also don't require electricity to run, nor are they likely to fail delivering if hit by power surges or cosmic rays. There is a sense of comforting security about them, and that, too, must be taken into account when considering such things. There'a s profound difference between a 'library' of e-books—an abominable misnomer, insulting every books in sight—and one of books. You just can't develop the same relationship them. You can't just pick one up, open it and just read a page, or two or one here and one there, or a chapter, or flick forth and back, stick your finger into the book to keep the page you're reading and flick back to something you've read before. The e-book is hidden on a medium unreadable by you, but requires an intermediate, very complex and fragile mechanism, whose functioning, though many of us are using it routinely, is basically incomprehensible to all but those who actually know this or that and preferably more about the technology.

If you want to do the finger-in-between-pages trick and try to look back to confirm maybe that a plot point makes indeed sense, or just because there was a scene there that relates to what one reads now, but which is somehow particularly interesting, enticing and/or thrilling...try that with an e-book and see if it can come in any way close to the 'book'-experience.

I know, many people claim they're just as happy reading from a screen as a real book—and there are those who love audio-books, something I've written about not so long ago; without much 'liking' involved—but I think the Bastian experience in the store is unrepeatable by e-book and will be so forever:

Mr. Koreander: Your books are safe. While you're reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.
Bastian: But that's what I like about 'em.
Mr. Koreander: Ahh, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.
Bastian: Wh-what do you mean?
Mr. Koreander: Listen. Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?
Bastian: Yes.
Mr. Koreander: Weren't you afraid you couldn't escape?
Bastian: But it's only a story.
Mr. Koreander: That's what I'm talking about. The ones you read are safe.
Bastian: And that one isn't?

We live in a world where "It's only a story." is part of our civilization's fabric; an insidiously pervasive and obviously truth, whose obviousness hides its contextual decrepitude. As if this truth were virtuous in some way. As if it helped us become better, wiser, more loving, more passionate, more intelligent and able to cope with what the world throws at us...and so on, and so on.

It's never "just a story", because everything that happens to us, everything we think about, we think about in narrative terms and sequences. Everything we hear said in the English language—unless its some pretentious avant-garde random linguistic abomination crap passing for 'art', probably!—is ultimately narrative. Every sentence is a more or less explicit mini or micro narrative; even those relating to the most abstract and obtuse kinds of subjects.

"It's just a story" may be the most existentially unperceptive thing anybody can say about...

...about our stories. But to actually understand that, you may just need—books.

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