From blind poets to e-books, the experience of stories and information (publishing in the twilight of the printed word)

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.”
― Joyce Carol Oates

by John MacBeath Watkins

Scientists speculate that there is a link between brain size in mammals and the size of a social group. Humans, who tend to have social circles comprising about 150 people, need to keep track of a lot of who's doing what for and to whom, so they need large brains.

And part of that outsized brain is the ability to empathize with the experiences of others. Our brains contain mirror neurons, which allow us to feel for others -- we sometimes flinch when we see someone stub their toe, for example. There's a funny story about how mirror neurons were discovered:
In the early 1990s, Italian researchers made an astonishing and quite unexpected discovery. They had implanted electrodes in the brains of several macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain activity during different motor actions, including the clutching of food. One day, as a researcher reached for his own food, he noticed neurons begin to fire in the monkeys’ premotor cortex—the same area that showed activity when the animals made a similar hand movement. How could this be happening when the monkeys were sitting still and merely watching him?
 Researchers found that certain cells in the brain are devoted to this. Further research shows that when someone tells a story, our brains can react in the same way the story teller's brain does, as we explored in this post. The written word makes it possible for us to lose ourselves in the experiences of people we've never met, who may have been dead for millennia or may never have existed at all.

And we value this immersion in worlds we'll never walk, which is why there are stories that are the length of a novel going back to the oral traditions of many cultures all over the world, from the Greek Iliad and Welsh Mabinogion to the African Sundiata (Wikipedia provides a convenient list here.)

These stories exist regardless of the way they are transmitted, whether by a blind poet (Greek tribes used to blind their poets so they wouldn't wander off,) or an iPad.  What is required is an immersion into the story.

But what media are suitable for such immersion? Those old poets had to sing out the entire epic, and did so on special occasions when the whole tribe gathered. Scrolls allowed for time-shifting the experience, and freed us from reliance on human memory (the reason the Iliad is written in dactylic hexameter and heroic couplets is generally thought to be that these aided memory -- if you got the line wrong, it wouldn't scan.)

But scrolls are awkward things to handle, and books were more compact and easier to handle. Books, more so than scrolls, provide one essential element: They have a geography, that is, we can find our place in them. The reason this is essential is that we evolved our brains to navigate the savanna, and locating ourselves in books acts in much the same way as a memory palace.

Reading on a computer or pad connected to the internet raises the difficulty that anything connected in such a way is a distraction machine, making it harder to lose ourselves in the story. It's like the difference between watching a movie in a darkened theater where people are asked to keep quiet, and watching the same movie on a television with other people around. In theory, you might ignore the distractions, but in fact, you cannot. They also fail to provide us with a geography; an e-book is a book without places. It is an ethereal thing, which makes it hard to develop an interface that allows us to find our way in them.

But non-connected e-books, such as the Kindle or Kobo, provide the immersive reading experience without the geography of the book. For reading fiction, this is probably not a problem. But one of the great hopes for e-books is that they can reduce the cost and the weight of books that students need to carry.

And indeed, many school districts are buying e-books in preference to paper books. Unfortunately, students have found it harder to learn using e-books. The lack of geography makes it harder to locate information, which a student must do in order to refer back to something as the concepts they are studying become clearer. Immersion is only part of the experience we expect of books, if we want to learn information, we want to find it in a way similar to the way our ancestors found a water hole.

A few years ago, the forecast was that e-books would take over as much as 80% of the book market. For the last four years, according to the Book Industry Study Group, e-books have plateaued at about 30% of the market by units and about 15% by value. That's nothing to sniff at, but it seems people are finding that e-books are suitable for certain kinds of reading but not all kinds of reading.

From the standpoint of a seller of books rather than bytes, that's great news. As a reader and a person interested in how our minds work, it's interesting news. I had thought that the major bar to the popularity of e-books was the screens, and that the Kindle showed this problem could  be solved, but it now appears that the real problem is with other aspects of the experience they offer.

They seem to allow us to do what Joyce Carol Oates was talking about -- to slip into the skin of another person. But that isn't enough with some kinds of books. And the books I spend the most time with are not fiction, although I love so many fiction books and re-read my favorite authors. Non-fiction books like American Small Sailing Craft invite me to compare things on one page to those on another, to voyage from one place in the book to another, and the experience of such books requires the geography a real paper book provides.