Rothfeld: Kindling Distraction

by Becca Rothfeld | 10/3/12 10:00pm

This week, Amazon announced the release of its latest e-reader, the Kindle Paperwhite. The sophisticated device boasts a high-resolution screen, advanced backlighting, a 1,100-book capacity and up to eight weeks of battery life. A 62-percent increase in pixilation and a 25-percent increase in contrast make for superior image quality, while an expanded font selection provides readers with an extensive assortment of aesthetic options. At 7.5 ounces, Amazon's latest innovation weighs less than a hefty paperback. Gizmodo deemed the gadget "a pivotal step forward for the technology of e-readers."

As companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble approach the apotheosis of e-reader development, complaints about faulty technology fall increasingly flat. Advances in backlighting conspire to resolve lighting problems and lessen strains on the eye, while enhanced battery life allows for a leisurely and protracted period of perusal. Much to the chagrin of book lovers everywhere, accusations of technical deficiency no longer seem to present a viable argument against e-readers. In the face of such daunting digital perfection, what if anything remains to be said on behalf of the printed word?

Well, for one thing, the Kindle Paperwhite affords readers a somewhat schizophrenic literary experience: The device bombards its reader with advertisements until he or she agrees to cough up an extra $20 fee. Even then, however, the entire Internet and all its attendant entertainments are only several clicks away. Wikipedia, Gmail, email and Facebook beckon at the end of every paragraph, enmeshing the would-be engrossed reader in a web of tantalizing distractions.

In his essay "Perchance to Dream," acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen writes that fiction represents "the interior collaboration of writer and reader in building and peopling an imaginary world." Far from facilitating this magical process, the Kindle Paperwhite does its utmost to more thoroughly situate readers in the busy electronic world of the everyday. Instead of transporting them to Narnia, Tlon or Wonderland, it reminds them at every turn of the obligations and responsibilities that await them back in their bleak and uninspired realities.

In the age of StumbleUpon, Sporcle and Reddit, literature represents the final bulwark against distraction the only thing that stands between us and a host of intrusive forces, unanswered emails and Facebook notifications. The e-book phenomenon compromises the integrity of the reader's experience by exposing him or her to the perils of electronic inundation. It threatens the immersive quality of the literary encounter, whereby the devoted reader might otherwise have succeeded in escaping to an alternate universe, if only for a while.

Franzen correctly but unknowingly identifies the problem with e-books when he writes that "the saving continuity of literature itself is under electronic and academic assault." This "saving continuity" is a rare and valuable virtue in our fast-paced, discursive world: It is the virtue of concentration. E-readers transform the act of reading into an activity like any other an activity amenable to multi-tasking, an activity we half-heartedly perform between television shows and text messages.

But reading can be and should be much more. It can be an exercise in engrossment, a means of re-teaching ourselves the power of uninterrupted thought. We owe books more than a cursory glance between emails, tweets or "up-votes." We owe them our fullest attention. The passionate reader can resurface from her book with a novel understanding of a theretofore familiar world, but only if she applies herself wholly to her task. If we treat reading as yet another casual, digital pastime, we risk losing our capacity for unbroken contemplation and meditation and with it, our access to ourselves.

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