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How Kindle Promotes Bad Book-Reading Hygiene

To buy Stephen King’s latest novel, Joyland, you’ll have to go to an actual bookstore in an actual place. He’s not e-publishing it.


I got my first Kindle 18 months ago, as a gift. Since then I’ve read 82 e-books on it, depending on how expansively you define “read” and “book.”

I’ll get the positive things about my e-reader experience out of the way first:  Kindle allows me to take trips without lugging several books. This leaves more space in my suitcase to lug several dresses, instead.

E-readers might also slowly be resuscitating an endangered genre that I cherish: the long-form essay. E-readers allow a piece to be its organic, natural length, rather than grossly fattened up into a book when it was supposed to be an article, or brutally slashed into an article when it was supposed to be a book. Kindle frees pieces from generic distortion in the economy of conventional publishing.

On the down side, it’s my impression as a non-technophile that Kindle is promoting bad book-reading hygiene. 

Racing to the Finish, and Reading Linearly for the Plot. Morphologically, my Kindle belongs to the genus of handheld devices and tablets more than that of books or libraries. And it’s almost Pavlovian by now to consume on-screen information by briskly clicking, scrolling, or otherwise refreshing a screen when we’re in front of one. It’s what we do during screen time, after all. With my Kindle, this inclination toward novelty and rapid clicking informs my reading. I have a sense of rushing forward in a straight line toward the end.

A mystery or thriller, even by an author I admire such as Laura Lippman, tends to get read on Kindle.  This makes sense. Given its bias toward linearity and efficient movement from point A to endpoint B, the Kindle works best for me with plot-driven works, or when I’m reading for the plot, and I have lower expectations for intellectual provocation.

True, nothing prevents me from lingering on Loc. 3274, where I currently find myself in an e-book. In reality, however, it doesn’t happen. My Kindle screen is a cold, ascetic place. I’d no more linger on its page than I’d hang out at an airport security gate, or a dentist’s waiting room. The Kindle’s form invites a more linear reading experience for me than reading a book in hand, which more richly engages all of my senses.

Paper-Worthy versus Kindle-Fodder: New Book Hierarchies. I usually have multiple books going on at once and, post-Kindle, they seem to have sorted themselves through literary triage into a revealing hierarchy.

Books that feel timely and perishable—those related to current affairs—get triaged to Kindle.  Right now I’m reading Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe on Kindle, and enjoying it, although I’m only 44% through, as Kindle lets me know with… not the “turn” of the page but the thumb flick of the screen. The book is about the profoundly troubled creation of the DSM-5. 

Keyed as the book is to current affairs, I wasn’t as invested in having it in my permanent collection, rubbing elbows with Moby Dick.  I have 1,574 books in our home, and need to be judicious about new acquisitions, because I refuse to cull my book herd. The minute I wrest an obscure, surely irrelevant book from my cold dead hands, I discover the next week that it is precisely the obscure, suddenly relevant book that I need.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a few paper books, including Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. This book on the craft of writing nonfiction achieves the rare feat of being pragmatically valuable as well as a thoroughly charming portrait of an exemplary editor-writer collaboration and friendship, sure to produce editor-envy in all writers who read it. I knew that I’d want this book in my library, and that it would provide many non-perishable, insightful moments that I’d savor and revisit, so it was paper-worthy.

Other books are Kindle fodder in my new reification of book inequality. I worry that Kindle has done the literary equivalent of introducing Doritos into my pantry. The e-reader beckons me with the latest book on debonair serial killers, or cats. I know that I should be consuming the rest of Robert Caro’s Johnson biography, but the Doritos are irresistible, and Kindle allows my guilty reading pleasures to be pursued illicitly, and with no shelf space apportioned.

No Talking Back to the Book. Kindle has a note-taking function. I can even make my marginalia public. Kindle recommends this for “thought leaders.” In another example of technology ennobling ephemera and throwaway comments–the Bullshit Turd on a Pedestal effect—people can even “follow” someone’s margin notes, and read whatever it is that they would have scribbled in the real margins of a real book, as if these comments had intellectual gravitas. What’s next, publicly-shared grocery lists?

Perhaps over time, I’d learn to use the note-taking function, but in the first 18 months, I haven’t used it once. There have been moments when I wanted to talk back to my e-book. Reading is a contact sport for me. It’s interactive. Maybe my Kindle doesn’t actually support note-taking functions, although it does allow me to highlight, a more passive activity. I’ve yet to see the note-taking option pop up when I need it, despite my liberal touching of the screen. All the inappropriate touches like as not get me jumped to a whole new chapter, or another random location. And the note-making moment is gone.

Its inelegant note-taking design makes my e-reading a more passive experience. It has more kinship than a book with the realm of watching, and consuming.

More Trees, Less Forest. I’ve also noticed that e-reading has diminished my attention to a book’s inner logic and recursive qualities, the ways that a book builds on itself, has its own order, and is self-referential. Certainly, I could thumb back screen by screen to try to find earlier passages, but realistically, the paging-through ease of a hard copy is missing. The ungainliness of back-browsing means that my e-reading is more superficial, attuned mostly to the Loc I’m on. Because it’s harder to browse, I don’t appreciate e-books as much for their architectonics, or their recurrent motifs and intra-textual allusions and echoes.  

A Troubling Quantification of Reading. Speaking of Loc, I’m unnerved by the data in the lower left corner of my Kindle. It informs me of the hours of reading time remaining in the book, as well as the minutes of reading time still left in the chapter. I don’t need to be the object of a literary time-motion study. The data assumes that we read each page mechanically, at the same rate, as if no passage is more challenging, demanding, or enticing than another. Ideally, reading is a meander, with fits and detours. Kindle’s data imagines it like a goose-step military march through the pages at a perfectly-paced rate.

Over time, to a mildly Type A sort like myself, it could even become tempting to out-race the proposed “minutes left of reading time,” to see if I could nudge it down. Over time, the data could become prescriptive; to wit, “spend five more hours on this book, then you’re done, unless you’re suffering from early onset dementia that’s slowed down your usual comprehension rate.”

In another move toward the quantification of the reading experience, I’m also informed of the percent of reading material I’ve consumed. To say I’m “32% done with it” doesn’t have the quaint charm of saying, “I’m absorbed in a great novel.” Certainly, people get anxious to know where they are in the wilds of a book. But the update as to your percent consumed suggests that reading is about the finish. Reading isn’t best done—or the best reading done—when it’s timed.

The Book Deracinated. Kindle lacks the small touches that make me feel in communion with the author—especially her photograph on the jacket—so the reading experience feels deracinated, or less intimate. It may be weird, but I like to be able to easily flip back to the author’s photograph while I’m reading, perhaps to remind myself of her human presence.

Or, consider a book’s size, dimensions, font, and design. All these elements signal what sort of book the author thinks hers is. When I proposed a new book idea a writer friend made a gap with her thumb and index finger to indicate thickness, and asked, “is it a THIS size book you have in mind?” Size signals content: Is a book a small, light thing to be sold at the register, or a serious tome? How the book looks, in font and design, informs the contract that we forge with the author before we even start reading.

The Kindle has given me some reading satisfaction, but I’m doing a reverse commute on the information superhighway. I’m gravitating back to books, but will choose scrupulously.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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