Neil Gaiman

Review: Words Onscreen

Words Onscreen

Naomi S. Baron

On Feb. 6, I waited in the cold for 7.5 hours to meet author Neil Gaiman at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo. An estimated 2,000 fans bravedWords Onscreen the elements to have the author of The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline and American Gods autograph his new hardcover collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.

Despite the wait (and the fact that I was terribly under-dressed), everyone was jovial, and it felt more like a bibliophile block party than a reception line. Any weariness I may have felt was quickly (and repeatedly) dismissed with an idealistic sentiment voiced by many in attendance, “Isn’t it great to see this many people waiting in line for a book?”

Indeed, it was this very love of books that compelled me to read Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an impressive work of scholarship and social commentary by this professor of linguistics at American University.

One of Baron’s professed interests is “electronically mediated communication,” and Words Onscreen combines research, anecdote and history to explore the differences between the printed and digitized word. This isn’t a trend piece, but a wide-reaching study on reading, beginning with the inquiry that “if eReading is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought, what happens to reading if we shift from print to screens?”

Baron takes us to some expected places (studies on digital vs. print reading habits; the effect technology has on our brains; the digital democratization of information; emerging social norms for electronic devices) and some unexpected ones (the history of anthologies and abridged editions; the slow reading movement; the impact of the scroll bar on reading habits).

Scrolling and reading, if you’re curious, leads to “worse comprehension” of content.

Though Baron’s scope is wide, she never loses sight of her target. She successfully threads each narrative sojourn into the conversation of how we engage with text. One of her deeper philosophical meanderings concerns the definition of reading itself. Is the act of reading simply scanning our eyes across the page? What about those passages whose complexity or sheer beauty cause the reader to set down the book and meditate on those words? What about re-reading? Studies show that pausing while reading and re-reading leads to better comprehension of the material (not surprisingly).

Research is important, as it informs best practices for teaching and learning, but Baron admits the difficulties with measuring reading comprehension. Mere content recall provides only plot summary, and deep understanding takes both time and contemplation. Take, for instance, Gogol’s classic novel, Dead Souls.

“Some of the benefits of literature come from discussions with others or personal reflection at quiet moments. Payoffs may not surface until years later when, having lived and experienced more, we discover the relevance of Gogol’s world to ours. Try measuring that.”

Indeed.

Like many academic books (as opposed to general nonfiction), Baron tends to over-support some of her conclusions, citing studies with overlapping information, but that’s to be expected. The author has many insightful things to say throughout the book, but there’s not much in the conclusion that would be news to an academic audience.

For this, I don’t blame the author, but reality. There’s no closing the barn door on the Kindle or Nook (on which I read my digital galley of Words Onscreen), and it’s hard to predict the direction of accelerated technology. Also, there are many positives to digital reading to weigh against the negative, from minor conveniences (not having to carry five books on an international flight) to those of great importance (the facilitation of increased global literacy).

Baron instead advises instructors and avid readers on how to navigate the digital-print hybrid. Her criticisms of e-reading are fair and supported by research, and her tone is never melancholic or luddite. The ultimate takeaway from Words Onscreen is that the content matters more than the container, although Baron also makes a compelling argument for the container as totem.

For the roughly 2,000 bibliophiles in line with me at the Neil Gaiman signing, the container was still something of value: a beautifully printed and16277386370_74c41c8a45_o bound edition with a personalized signature in permanent ink.

As Baron points out, it’s not just the text on the pages that matter. We fall in love with the smell of books, the crispness of the paper, unique typefaces that digital readers can’t reproduce. We can underline, highlight, write in the margins. Some keep their books in pristine condition, while others dog-ear, fold and break-in a book like they would a new baseball glove. Their utility extends beyond the reading. Bookshelves provide memories for the reader, a conversation spark for guests and ready access to favorite works.

There is something lost in the translation from print to digital.

For me, it calls to mind Harlow’s monkeys. If all they needed was food, then the monkeys wouldn’t object to curling up with a wire mother. Except, they needed the nurturing touch of the cloth mother. For the same reason, meal replacement shakes or futuristic food pills will never take the place of an actual dinner, because eating is not just about the absorption of nutrients.

With technology advancing at a bullet’s pace, who knows what will come of books in the future. It’s clear from Baron’s research that the format of what we read affects how we read, but it’s hard to predict where that will take us.

Wherever we end up, Words Onscreen should serve as an important guidebook. It’s a wonderful and important book, no matter how you read it.

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June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.

 

The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Unsettling Chapters: A Study in Emerald

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series, has to be one of the most adapted pieces of modern literature. Nearly every Holmes’ reboot begins with an updated take on this classic tale, which speaks to the brilliance of Doyle’s writing.

It’s a timeless tale of murder, deceit and the prototypical damaged investigators: the PTSD-stricken Watson and the mentally disquieted Holmes (pick your diagnoses: autism, OCD, bipolar, etc.).

For my money, the greatest adaptation of this story is “A Study in Emerald,” which appears in Shadows Over Baker Street, a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

Penned by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald” imagines the tale in a post-Lovecraftian landscape, 700 years following the epic struggle between humans and the Great Old Ones.

It shouldn’t come as a shock as to who won that inter-dimensional war, but the nature of the post-war dystopia might. As will the unexpected deviations from the original.

Is it truly unsettling? Not in the same way as most of the books we’ve previously discussed. But it is a bold venture by a gifted author, and the greatest mingling of two of my favorite mythos.

This story also appears in Gaiman’s Fragile Things, along with other favorites like “October in the Chair,” “Bitter Grounds” and “Strange Little Girls.”

For Halloween, Gaiman is offering a free audio book through All Hallows Read. It’s a program that promotes literacy by encouraging people to give someone a book for Halloween. Now through Oct. 31, in partnership with Audible.com, Gaiman is offering a free audio story of his, “Click-Clack the Rattle Bag.” Get yours at www.audible.com/ScareUs.