September 28, 2014

WALSH | The Bookworm’s Dilemma

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By CONNA WALSH

My sister taught me how to read when I was at the ripe old age of four. Throughout my entire childhood, I was hooked. I would read constantly. My mother would always be catching me reading with a flashlight under the covers far past my bedtime. When she confiscated my flashlight in a desperate attempt to make me sleep, I discovered that the hall light outside my room, left on at night to keep monsters at bay, was illumination enough to enable my literary pursuits at night.

I’m sure that many of my fellow Cornellians can relate to this kind of reading addiction. After all, it’s no secret that every single person at Cornell is a huge nerd in some way or another. However, I think that our generation of bookworms is currently facing a distressing dilemma regarding reading and modern technology.

The “paper versus screen” debate has raged on for the last two decades as the use of e-readers has skyrocketed. To many, the advent of the Nook, Kindle and other e-readers was much like the introduction of the iPod — the idea that you could take your entire library of books with you on a small electronic device was astounding and exciting.

Call me old fashioned, but the idea of reading a book on a screen was initially baffling to me.

There’s nothing like feeling the weight of written words in your hands. Turning page after page of creamy ivory paper creates simultaneous senses of accomplishment and urgency — you have read so many pages already, but you still have so far to go. There is nothing more satisfying than closing the back cover of a book with a satisfying thump as you finish yet another story.

One of my favorite things about reading is going to sound really weird, but I know that many of you will understand — there is nothing better than burying your face in a book, literally, and inhaling the intoxicating scent of ink, paper and imagination. I love the smell of books. Whether new or old, paperback or hardcover, there’s something magical about the scent of a book. According to some experts, the pleasant scent is a result of the type of glue that is used to bind books, but I would prefer to insist that it is magic.

Because a plastic electronic device lacks these wonderfully charming characteristics, using an e-reader does not provide the capacity to read a book — it provides the capacity to read a story. Some might argue, validly, that the story is the whole point of reading a book in the first place. Since you end up with the same knowledge anyway, why should it matter through which medium you choose to absorb written words?

As it turns out, it could matter quite a lot. A number of recent studies have shown that our brains behave differently when we are reading on paper and reading on a screen. While reading a paper document, our brain enacts “linear thinking.” This means that we engage in a long-term session of focus on the words in front of us.

Having grown accustomed to browsing constantly updated online mediums such as Twitter and Facebook, our brains tend to enact “non-linear thinking” while focusing on a screen. This means that our attention jumps around to different points on the screen, looking for the next new piece of information to pop up. As a result, reading on a screen leads to less retention of information. Researchers have found that people retain a story’s plot points better when they read from paper rather than from a Kindle.

This debate, however, is far from cut-and-dry. So far, you have been subjected to my case for the superiority of books over e-readers. But recently, I’ve found myself questioning my own true feelings on the debate, resulting in an intense emotional dilemma.

I borrowed my mom’s Kindle Fire in June, and I haven’t given it back yet (cue accusations of thievery). My summer job required almost constant travel, and I’m currently studying abroad in China, so my intent has been to maximize the number of books I can read while traveling without lugging around an entire suitcase full of them.

This summer, I experienced a pang of guilt every time I gleefully downloaded a new book from the 3M Cloud Library app on the Kindle (shout-out to my hometown’s public library for participating in this ingenious new free loaning system). I felt like I was betraying my younger self, who would have preferred to read a real book by flashlight rather than read one on a tablet.

Here in China, I have almost come to terms with my treasonous ways. The Kindle has served me well so far, since all of my favorite books are currently almost 7,000 miles away from me right now. Bringing hard copies of the entirety of George R. R. Martin’s enormous A Song of Ice and Fire series on a 13-hour-long flight to Beijing would have been borderline insane. Yet I have them still, packaged into neat little e-book files on my Kindle.

I still feel guilty for moving from paper to screen. I know that I will always prefer the former to the latter, but even an ardent proponent of real books cannot deny the incredible convenience provided by an e-reader. The struggle between familiarity versus convenience is nothing new for us Millennials. We stubbornly clung to our VCRs and CD players for as long as we could, but we eventually realized the overwhelming benefits of new technologies.

For now, I will continue to struggle with this dilemma. I can rest easy, however, knowing that if my Kindle ever decides to malfunction in any way, I can always pick up an old friend of a book and continue to feed my bookworm habits.

Conna Walsh is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at cwalsh@cornellsun.com. A Word with Walsh appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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