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.