Friday, September 30, 2011

Guest editor Monica Harris: The e-reader question

As Senior Editor at Kensington Publishing, Monica Harris initiated and edited Arabesque, the first African American romance series by a major publisher. There she also edited historical romances, mysteries, women’s mainstream novels and non-fiction. Harris has won a number of important honors, including Waldenbooks Special Achievement Award, New York Chapter of NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2003 Emma Trailblazers’ Award, and is listed in the Who’s Who of African Americans and the Cambridge Who's Who. Her company MHM Editorial Services provides re-writing, line-editing, manuscript critiquing and revision help for authors and publishers. 

My eldest child had to read a geography lesson for homework. He went straight to the computer. When I asked why, he answered: “To study.”

It’s hard for me to say “stop reading” in any format. One of my earliest photos was of me with a book in my hands. I taught myself to read before I entered school and have saved my favorite childhood books for my own kids to read. I love the feel of a book’s pages between my fingers, I love the weight of a book while I’m toting it around ready to read at any quiet moment, and I love what a shelf full of books symbolizes. No doubt, I love the physical book.

I also have the Kindle app on my iPhone.

I understand that Baby Boomers have embraced the e-readers and Generation X (my generation) enjoys all that the tablets and smart phones can provide. Today’s schoolchildren are learning their subjects on individual laptops. This week, Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet came out with much fanfare to compete with the Apple iPad. Having a book available electronically has several advantages: instant accessibility, convenience, and privacy are among the top. Also, the e-reader benefits for schoolchildren and others with little access to libraries, assistance for those with learning disabilities and the ability to easily retrieve global information are beyond debate.  Plus, not using paper is good for the environment. E-readers are one of the products of a Star Trek imagination that has truly been realized.

However, an e-reader does change the way we read and in my opinion, how we process information and in essence, enjoy a good story. Writers want to share their stories, their ideas. They want their own imaginations to spark others’. I wonder if passive e-readers can go beyond the words on the screen and develop their deeper thoughts about the book.

Trust me, I love a good story and I know that people who want to write will do so, no matter the method. We’ve come a long way from papyrus. And there will always be readers, no matter the medium. Even William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind on newfangled newspapers. My editorial services company works with authors to make their manuscripts into an e-books. I embrace technology professionally and personally, even if I’m a half-step behind.

Nevertheless, I am a firm believer in how physical activity adds to the retention process. I believe that by writing information on a piece of paper or turning a page,  your brain and body register the work therefore making that info more easily recalled. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence. Fortunately, experts support a connection between the physical and the brain. Dr. Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland advises to do “anything that stimulates the brain to think.” He also recommends watching less television because “your brain goes into neutral.” Is there a difference in the way the brain absorbs information when it’s presented electronically?

In October 2009, the New York Times posited similar questions to a panel of teachers and doctors. The experts thought there was nothing terrible about the medium, yet  they were unsure how e-readers worked on developing brains or if going from link to link added to a lack of attention to detail. E-Reading is not just decoding for information and entertainment. E-Readers must also fight distraction. Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine notes that people “switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g. reading email or IM) and switch projects about every 10 and a half minutes.” Not a lot of room for deep thoughts.

To read, attention is needed. Can a reader of e-books acknowledge ideas beyond the text? Will the reader ever get to what Proust once said – the heart of reading – the ability to go beyond the author’s wisdom and enter one’s own? What does that mean for writers? Do their readers love their books for the same reasons whether presented electronically or physically?

People need time to process and absorb the written word. How often have I reread beautiful passages marked by dog-eared pages? How often have I looked at a cover to be sure I envision what the author described? How often have I reread difficult pages in order be sure I really understood what was being said? How often have I used the properties of the physical book to kick-start my thoughts?

I make my children read physical books because at school they are often using e-books. I insist we go to the library for the “stumble upon” effect – to find a book or spark an interest one wasn’t expecting. I know by the time they are in college, the kids will be downloading their schoolbooks onto their tablets but they will know how to grasp meaning and do research at a library in case of a power outage.

Maybe I’m just a book lover who knows e-readers will be with us until technology evolves. Fortunately, humans have ability to multitask and ignore the unnecessary; we get what we need from our books in whatever manner we read them. However, until we figure out how to ignore the easy distractions and learn to ponder the words on screen, maybe we should practice what we do with the physical book: take a pause every few pages to review and marvel over the words.

Monica Harris
MHM Editorial Services, LLC


Charles Gramlich said...

It seems likely to me that the act of reading, whether on a page or an ereader is not that different. The key is where they are reading and the attention they are paying. If someone is kicked back on the couch reading a book or a kindle, I doubt there's any difference in how they process the material. But if they are reading and working, as in school perhaps, at the same time then the processing will be much less deep.

Lynn Emery said...

Waving "Hello" to my first editor! Welcome, Monica.

Strange, but long ago there was talk that computers would lead to people being isolated and disconnected to others. Instead the opposite happened for many. The computer is another tool that people use to meet others, and to arrange to meet face2face.

Technology, like all changes, can lead to startlingly wonderful, and unexpected, results.

Hey, Monica, the bad girl character in Night Magic (the very first book I sold, and you were the editor who bought it) is back. Thanks for helping my first novel greet the world!

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome back, Monica!

I too have deep reservations about e-books. I've started reading them but the experience of reading a paper book is far more satisfying to me.

The problem with technology is that it often seems wonderful out of the gate but later on there's that struggle to deal with negative effects and complications very few people anticipated.

Jewel Amethyst said...

It would be really nice if there was a side by side study where students were given the same books in e-book format and physical books and then tested for retention of the material. I don't know if such a study has been done, but I haven't seen one thus far.

I, like you, feel that physical activity leads to increased retention and thus the actions involved in reading a physical book may confer an advantage to retaining the material. But until scientific evidence suggests that there is an advantage of e-books over physical book on retention or vici versa, it is just a belief.

One thing I can say though, I think e-books will increase reading among youths.

Carol Mitchell said...

I agree with Jewel, e-Readers will increase reading among children. This has been a God-send for me, living in a part of the world where it is difficult and costly to get physical books.

It is an interesting suggestion that one might absorb less with an e-Reader. True, there is quite a charm attached to curling up with a book and in comparison, an electronic device seems cold. I will avoid giving my children multi-function readers, as I can only imagine the potential for distraction, but I am not sure it is much different from reading a book in a room with other electronic devices nearby.

I have not seen any evidence that they absorb any less. On the contrary, they are more likely to look up a word since they can do it right away, than they would if they had to go to another book. If they are reading a series, and something seems incongruous, they can switch to the other book in the series to check out the detail. Occasionally they highlight something to share with me later.

KeVin K. said...

My son gave me a Kindle for my birthday. I can now not only afford to subscribe to all the magazines I want (a $30 savings on Smithsonian alone), I can carry them with me wherever I go. I mention magazines specifically because I have more trouble paying attention to a physical edition, what with ads and the interesting things you run across while looking for "continued on page 83."

Reading on the web can make completing a specific task more difficult -- it is all too easy to click a link and lose hours down a rabbit hole. However, those lost hours are spent increasing and deepening my knowledge of the topic.
On the whole I think how long a person spends focused on an activity such as reading depends on how well that activity engages them; how well it rewards their investment.

folenadventures said...

I love my Kindle... I can "curl up with it" just fine, it doesn't feel cold or remote to me at all, not with my fire red leather cover!
I am one of those people that if left alone for a few minutes on a bus or out eating... I will read anything, I love having my "books" with me.
I will admit, it's a little harder to go back and find out who that one character is that you know was mentioned in the beginning of the book... but so far, that is my only complaint... and I'm old :) almost 59!

Samual James said...
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