Between the Lines: January-February 2010

In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Sven Birkerts writes about reading as "a dynamic condition." Readers look for plot and character, but what they really want, he argues, is to be transported to what he calls "the reading state."

What does the reading state—or the literary culture—look like in an electronic age? That was a central concern at this fall's Duke Magazine Forum. Birkerts was part of the program; highlights of all the speakers' remarks appear in this issue. The moderator was Deborah Jakubs, Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and vice provost for library affairs.

Jakubs consults e-books as a research tool, and she has experimented with a Kindle. For her own leisure reading—which she says is 90 percent fiction—she prefers traditional books. "Even though the words may be the same when the content of a book is displayed on a Kindle or another device, and that content can be carried around conveniently, I am still drawn to books as individual, self-contained, differentiated worlds.

"I like to pick them up and open them and pack them in my suitcase, matching the book to the length of the trip. I like to know physically, by checking the bookmark, how much farther I have to read. I like the sensation of holding a book and turning the pages, the feeling of the paper."

Bookcases invite the spontaneous choice of something to read, or reread, or share with a friend. And can you know a book by its cover?  Imagine how boring it would be, she says, if all our books were covered in plain brown jackets.

A single e-reader is capable of holding many books. But convenience isn't the main avenue into the reading state. To Jakubs, the physical presence of books is important; it's an aspect of her identity. "And," she adds, "I like to be confronted by that presence."

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