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On reading

Vlad

Do you enjoy reading?

Of course, literacy is still required and appreciated in the modern world, but most people limit themselves to reading newspapers and special literature (books on business, health, educational stuff etc.). Some people don’t read anything at all for years, except for signs and titles on the TV.

You are surely not among them, as you read this.

But the word “reading” itself often refers to fiction. And that’s how I mean it here, too.

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Our ability to transform simple typographic characters into images, emotions, feelings is fascinating. A text doesn’t contain any of that. Only our mind, our experience, and our agreement with others together do the trick.

Imagine that someday in the future the humanity has vanished. Alien travelers come to Earth and find only a big storage of texts, without any images or other reference objects. Are they able to decode all those texts, even having the most advanced technologies that allow them to travel from one star to another?

I doubt it. Sure, they will know instantly that the texts have some meaning, but without any reference they won’t be able to decipher the meaning. They will lack our experience and our mutual agreement.

Of course, something can be done with the help of supercomputers and superior knowledge of semantic modeling (whatever that means). But even if such a modeling is applicable, the aliens will read in our texts something completely different – something that refers to their experience. Weird, unthinkable, crazy for us.

That reminds me of the excellent SF-novel by Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon The Deep. An alien from a faraway planet tries to understand news about catastrophic events in the human sector of the galaxy. He has only text messages translated by intelligent machinery from one language to another several times (that’s how the messages travel on the galactic network). Trying to figure out why it all happens that way, the alien makes an obvious (for him) decision that humans must have eight legs, as it explains some parts that otherwise are incomprehensible.

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People that aren’t used to reading tend to believe that movies deliver far better means to experience a story. By watching a movie you see and hear what happens directly. You see wonderful landscapes, beautiful women, strong and healthy men, you hear thunder, and roar of the surf, and music, and sweet voices (or maybe the other way around). You are there, you witness the whole thing. It’s just a few steps away.

How a book can deliver anything even close to such an experience?

At this point, I should emphasize that watching a movie is quite different from participating in it (I mean the story itself, not the movie like a product of playing). You witness the thing, sure. But you are separated from it by the screen, although surround speakers greatly contribute to the “presence effect”.

Opposite to this, a book makes everything happen directly inside your head. You make it happen – by employing your own experience, imagination, text-processing skills. You can read quicker or slower, you can stop altogether and think about it for a while. However, as you stop reading and put aside the book, the story doesn’t stop itself. It continues to live in your head, to develop itself, to evolve.

That’s how people start to write books.

The trick is, of course, that with a movie you are a passive observer, while a book makes you participate in creating images and personalities. It’s just impossible to witness a novel. Chains of letters are merely a static artifact with no meaning. Even a cat can watch movies, but no cat is able to read books.

That perfectly answers another question. Why movies are generally more popular than books? Well, that’s just because they don’t require any action from their audience. You can watch a movie and empathize with its characters, or you can quietly sleep on your sofa. No need to exercise your brain by transforming chains of symbols into ideas, images, emotions. No need to turn pages. Relax and enjoy.

Now, I’m not saying that watching a movie is in some sense inferior to reading a book. Driving a car is not inferior to riding a horse, and eating is not inferior to drinking (although some people may think so). Those are simply different things.

I love watching movies, especially good ones. It’s a pleasure to see breath-taking landscapes, like those in The Lord of the Rings, to hear excellent music (Gladiator, Crimson Tide, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Time Machine and many others), to enjoy ultimate power of special effects (Star Wars, Transformers). The above things don’t have anything to do with the story itself, but they contribute to our perception of the story.

Another pleasure is to watch how actors are playing their parts. It isn’t easy to pretend being somebody else, and it’s especially difficult to mimic emotions that you have never experienced. Some do it better than others, the very best ones make your forget about movies and techniques, which is amazing.

Finally, the story itself, one of the most ancient arts of communication. We enjoy stories, but as humans we also seem to need them. It is a part of our social evolution, if you want. Stories had existed long before books and cinema appeared. Stories about dragons, mysterious places, about the neighbor that got drunk and crushed his table while trying to dance. We know thousands of them, but we always want more.

However, that’s where movies can’t compete with books. The latter invariably contain more details (more of the story), and, as I have already mentioned, from passive observers they turn us into co-creators.

***

It is often said and believed that reading will eventually disappear. Movies, computer games, virtual reality, traveling, and many other things become more available, and all of us have limited time in this world. Why bother ourselves with the archaic way of entertainment?

But then, what kind of entertainment is not archaic? Games had existed long before the written history began. Traveling is also not that new and it doesn’t really stop anybody from reading or writing (quite the contrary). Virtual reality is merely an extension pack to the real world, sooner or later it will become a part of reality, so is it that different from what we have now (cities, cars, mobile phones, GPS)? Movies continue the tradition of on-stage performance, storytelling through showing, the tradition so ancient that it existed probably thousands of years before the very first book, starting with shaman’s dancing or similar things.

Reading is in many ways close to philosophy, and to writing. It teaches to examine relations, to look for reasons and goals, to see consequences. It gives interesting insights and ideas. There is probably no other kind of activity that combines entertainment with education so effectively.

Obviously, reading is interesting for the people that value such things as self-education, self-improvement, personal development.

Which inevitably means that most people don’t care about it.

And still many people do read. Fiction, science fiction, sword and sorcery books, mysteries, fairy tales. The internet has made books even more available than before. For example, Project Gutenberg offers countless well-known works in many languages for free. You can choose from thousands of famous books without going out and inspecting nearby bookstores and libraries.

I have recently purchased a device that is somewhat similar to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s a reading device with paper-like display that uses e-ink technology. The resulting image looks pretty much like an ordinary page, which makes reading of electronic books more enjoyable. E-ink displays are considered to be good for human eyes as they don’t refresh their picture constantly (like the traditional computer displays do) and aren’t illuminated from the inside (human eyes have evolved to deal with reflected light, and modern displays are themselves sources of light).

What do I think about the device? Well, it seems to me that paper books may finally become history. The whole thing is so handy that you just can’t compare it to a book. No need to switch it on and off, just put it aside as an ordinary book. Freely adjustable font size. You can carry a whole library in your pocket and easily switch between different books. More choice: for example, in our country books in English are limited and quite expensive (say, $15 for a used book), and Project Gutenberg offers excellent classics for free. The reading device doesn’t close itself, as books tend to do, which is also convenient.

As far as I know, Kindle has even more features, as it takes advantage of online connectivity: you can purchase an electronic book directly from the device, no matter where you are (as long as there is wireless network). However, although this kind of integration is interesting, the device itself isn’t available in our country yet.

Did I say that paper books might disappear in the near future? No, they won’t. They may become rare and expensive, as electronic books may press them off the general market. But it will have nothing to do with people abandoning fiction.

In fact, I believe that the number of people that enjoy reading will grow.

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