living hagiography 1.17 (books and e-books)

Flinging back the curtains, I open the paper-paned inner window, the one which is like a half-door, the Korean version of a Dutch door. Chill morning air pours in. This room faces west-by-northwest, with a steeply graded hill blocking the view of the West Sea and estuary. It will get no sun morning or afternoon. The chill is all there is in winter. At 8 a.m., the sky is flat gray slate. A lone bird’s falling whistle rises over the murmur of voices in the hall.

All the book blogs are talking about e-books. I won’t hyperlink to posts; you all know who you are. I am confused by e-books. No: my eyes are confused by them. I understand perfectly well that I will, at some point, begin using the electronic format. Because I want to make our translation group’s works widely available for cheap or free–and that means internet and e-distribution. Because it will cost me less to download books in files than to buy the paper versions, and I hope to be a poor graduate student someday. Not the poor bit so much as the graduate student bit, but the two go so hand-in-hand I’m already thinking ahead to biking instead of the bus, e-books instead of paper books, cheap coffee instead of the ridiculously good stuff Koreans consume and I’ve gotten used to drinking as well.

But these e-books. I had to re-learn how to read slowly after I left college. How to repeat a sentence on a page over and over in my head, to savor it if it wanted savoring and to chew it over if I didn’t understand it. To let things sink in by repetition, and to let other meanings emerge, like stirring a pot of soup and having different vegetables float up from the bottom of the broth. To let myself not attach “success” or “failure” to the number of pages read, a bad habit I picked up in junior high school when I became known as “the girl who reads thick books.” To linger and wait, to read and re-read, to physically slow my eye on the page. The paper page.

I have not been able to transfer this new lesson to the computer screen, though. Poetry is the one exception. I turn off whatever podcast or audio I may have on, and I read poetry from my computer screen out-loud. I didn’t have any poetry books for an entire year, but I wanted and needed poetry. The internet was it for access, and so I wanted to read poetry properly, with the appropriate respect, the natural relish, and the same delight I have in a paper book collection of poems. It was a struggle, since my tendency is to gulp information off the screen in hunks, finding a topic sentence and then skipping the paragraph below it, snatching the big ideas and leaving the details behind. In Korean the word for this kind of action is heo-geop-jji-geop. I’m not sure, but I think it is an onomatope. At least, it sounds like one to me. If you eat gulping, hurried, barely chewing, this is the sound you make: heo-geop-jji-geop. And that is how I read most things on the internet, and by extension, anything on a computer screen.

Why this habit with digital/internet reading, I don’t know. That I have to fix it is certain. Not only because it’s a poor reading habit, regardless of which physical format I use (because computers are as physical as books, screens as real as paper; the argument that paper books are “real” books is not one I make), but because in the coming years, my life as a reader depends on learning to slow down entirely, and not treat digital formats differently than paper ones.

Paper books have always signaled leisure to me, not in the lazy sense but in the sense that I can devote myself completely to one activity, ignoring everything else, and that activity is reading. A computer is tied by its electric umbilical cord to a socket or a wall in a room: it has a known location and you are stationary in front of it while you work or read. In a temple, this is the same as announcing you are available to be interrupted. If I want to read, I must hide: in a corner of the library, away from the ‘phone console. Out in the fields, off the path where others might walk and find me. On the verandah, out of sight around the corner. In the attic, with a flashlight, where no one thinks to look. A computer makes this very difficult, what with its fetal dependency on a power source and bulkiness and noise, keys tapping, mouse-clicks. I don’t have a Kindle, partly because until very recently, the books I read are all scholarly things that weren’t the main target of digital format and sale. I couldn’t get them on a Kindle or similar device. But now that too will change, I think, and even works on Yogacara or Korean Buddhist history will be digital someday soon.

Maybe with a pocket-sized Kindle, loaded up with my library of Indian Buddhist history, some on early Madhyamika, Ch’an in China, some Austen and some Henry James, some poetry, with me once again hiding someplace, playing hooky from availability, undistracted, able to absorb and be absorbed by the content, I wouldn’t make such a sharp distinction between paper and digital reading.

I’m not entirely convinced of this.

However, I think I’ll have no choice but to find out. Eventually.

The voices on the first floor increase in both individual volume and overall number. Outside the window, the light turns a little warmer in tone, although the sun still isn’t visible. A door creaks open, then shuts with a good thud. Time to go do whatever wants doing, that so many are moving around, working, busy.


10 comments on “living hagiography 1.17 (books and e-books)

  1. I used to be The Girl Who Read Thick Books, too, so there’s much in this post which resonates for me, for sure.

    When I was a nursing mother I fell in love with my kindle, for one simple reason: I could hold it in one hand easily, and could turn pages with a click of my thumb, without disrupting my nursing (or, sometimes, napping) passenger. This was, of course, a temporary phenomenon. (Well, I mean, all things are, but this one was temporary from the get-go.) And yet I still love the kindle for its portability. I’ve loaded mine with contemporary SF and poetry and classical Jewish texts in translation (and more than a few pdfs of manuscripts written by friends), and it fits in my purse. A miracle.

    Of course, it doesn’t replace paper books. I treasure my religious library and my poetry library. Some books, I can’t resist wanting to own, in print, so I can touch them. But there’s something democratizing about the kindle and other e-readers; they make a new kind of distribution possible, and I will never stop being grateful for that first book I was able to read, when Drew was new, when I wasn’t sure how or when I would ever read anything again.

    • seon joon says:


      I also find a lot about Kindles and Kindle-like devices attractive. Any trip, even a bus ride, means a book for me; overseas or multi-week trips have a Reading Logistics of their own trying to find a place for books to bring in my luggage, or hoping I can find a decent bookstore en route to unload and replenish if space is a priority. A Kindle solves a lot of that. For all the reasons you listed, I’m attracted to portable e-book devices…it’s just too bad a lot of the stuff I read regularly isn’t available, or I probably would have gotten one already.

      The democratizing effect has been mentioned as one of the major reasons study materials–textbooks, scholarly research, academic texts–need to be made available in e-format. Damien Keown and Charles Prebish, two leading Buddhist Studies scholars, are behind the push for this in Buddhist Studies, citing the crippling cost of textbooks for undergrad and graduate students.

      And yet. For more than simply sentimental or romantic reasons, although sentiment and romance have a presence in my overall response to paper books, like you I love my paper library. I also want to be able to touch my books. There’s a balance to be struck here between digital and paper books. Thanks for sharing your experience of finding it.

      • I just read a wonderful book on kindle, btw — Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem.” I would be curious to hear your response to it, actually, since on one level it is a book about monastic life. Though a futuristic, science-fictional monastic life. (And ultimately it winds up being a book about emotions and people and alternate universes. But still, the monastic world he creates there is quite central to the experience of the book — I found it tremendously captivating!) I believe it’s an enormous tome, in paper, so I was grateful not to have to carry it around. 🙂

        I would love to see more religious texts available in e-formats — both in your tradition and in mine — though, yeah, I can’t imagine life without a paper library. One of the things I love about having an office here at the synagogue is that now I have room for my library to expand — poetry library at home, Judaic library at the synagogue. The books are comforting. They are old friends. I hope we never lose them.

  2. Dale Favier says:

    I read more and more online, though usually not books, and I don’t yet have an e-reader. What distresses me about digital reading is that every time my attention flags — which is when the text gets challenging or uncomfortable usually, i.e., just when it’s poised to actually bring me to a new understanding — I’m right there at the beating heart of Distraction Central. “I wonder if there’s a new XKCD? I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook status? Has my blogroll updated?” I can answer any of those questions with horrible ease, click click click.

    But poetry, yes, poetry is different, for me, because I’ve always approached reading poetry as a disciplined, effortful task, as something I attend to with special care and stick with when the going gets rough. I don’t even start reading a poem unless I feel have some mental oomph.

    • seon joon says:


      Like you, I wait until I build up some energy before I read the poetry or “lit blogs” in my blogroll. Sometimes I’ll let posts back for days in my reader if I feel I don’t have the time to give them. And I also suffer from Distraction Central’s pull, although it’s usually at its worst when I’m writing and I get stuck. I should go out, take a walk, sit for five minutes breathing, even read a book–but instead I check my email (again).

      But the box is already open; can’t stuff the Jack back inside. This is the point at which I’ve arrived with reading on the computer (whether downloaded books/files or websites/blogs). I’ve realized I’ve got to place the burden of responsible, pleasurable, fruitful reading on me…difficult as that’s turning out.

  3. Kevin Kim says:

    As Bruce Lee said: Try softer. (His answer to “Try harder!”)

    • seon joon says:

      *grin* You’ve quoted that quote at me before, Kevin!

      But what are you saying needs to be tried “softer”? For me, the “soft” (rather than “hard”) approach to reading has been to slow down as a reader, to take my time (and enjoy) the books or material I read, rather than viewing books and reading as X pages to “consumed” or so much content to be “digested” (usually so it can be “spit back out” again in the form of a paper or lecture). All those metaphors of eating serve well to highlight the basic problem with reading “hard” or “fast,” which is that we actually don’t digest what we read because we rarely give it the time to sink in, or rarely give ourselves the leisure to re-read and repeat. (Hmmm, am I more cow-like in my digestion, then? Four stomachs, lots of cud?)

      The irony of my situation is that just as I’ve learned to go softer as a reader, we seem to be facing a major shift in reading and print technology, that the most available source may eventually be the electronic form. Not just the news and blogs we’ve been used to for the past ten years, but everything: you can even download an app for the entire Chinese Buddhist canon and read the sutras on your smartphone. (The app, which I’ve only seen on someone else’s smartphone and haven’t tried, even has a rudimentary search engine for finding specific characters, words, and phrases. I think it’s part of the CBETA project.) This shift toward digital formats challenges the soft approach I’ve just started hitting my stride with by striking at my worst reading habits with e-content.

  4. Leslee says:

    I just recently read an article on line length and saccades, the little hops your eyes make when you read. On lines that are long – like on a computer screen – your eyes have to make a lot of hops and then sweeps back. It’s more difficult than narrower columns and people lose focus. So maybe that heo-geop-jji-geop is a response to reading across computer screens! Poetry typically has short lengths across. And books, in paper or on an eReader, are also shorter and easier on the eye. 🙂

    I bought a Kindle last year – have been really happy with it. I like having a small collection of things to read I can take with me, plus not adding (well, not adding as much since I still occasionally buy books) to my bookshelves.

    • seon joon says:

      This is interesting; I’ve often felt that maybe it wasn’t just my attention span that was the problem, because there’s a physical discomfort to reading on a computer or web interface sometimes.

  5. seon joon says:


    Hmm. I’ll have to give “Anathem” some thought–maybe in electronic format, though. I caved in and downloaded free books (all “classics,” since it’s usually Austen, Dickens, and the like that are in the public domain and can be offered for free by dedicated free-e-book folk) to my iPhone, so it may the beginning of the end of my holdout against e-bookery. I’m on the move too much this next year to lug my books around with me, but I will of necessity take my computer and phone.

    There are a variety of projects out there for the sutras, some I knew about, some I didn’t, and so now I’m rather sheepishly realizing I just need to be better educated about internet offerings. What isn’t offered, though, is the full range of religious texts: obviously, only the ones deemed “important” enough to be digitized are up now. I’m sure that, too, will change; we used to be unable to get reliable translations of anything except a select few sutras, and even in the past ten years that landscape has changed dramatically. So I’m settling in for the long haul with digital sutras and commentaries…and maybe someday I can help contribute.

    But books will be with us so long as we continue to love them, I think.

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