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In Defense of Nostalgia

This is in response to Jordan’s post from yesterday, which was written in response to my post from last week. I hope it goes without saying that though Jordan and I disagree about the merits of e-Readers – see, for example, the title of his blog post, in which he summarized my position in all caps and multiple exclamation marks – there is more that unites us than divides us. He’s one of my best friends, one of the smartest guys I know, and I respect the hell out of him. Even though I’m clearly on the losing side of history on the issue of e-books, I think it’s important to have a vigorous discussion about any new technology, especially a technology with the potential to change things so profoundly. All that being said, I just found out a few minutes ago that our book is available for Kindle. You should buy it if you’re into that sort of thing.

Jordan mentioned in yesterday’s post that he used to think the Kindle was stupid until he actually got to mess around with one. I’ll never own an e-reader, but I don’t think they are stupid. In fact, I’ve never been anything but amazed at what the Kindle and iPad can do. But I think its important for each one of us to set personal thresholds of usefulness that a new technology has to clear before we adopt it. e-Readers don’t pass the test for me. And my threshold is pretty low: I blog, post the occasional tweet at @BesidesTheBible, download music, and listen to music on my iPod. I’m not on Facebook anymore but I am on Goodreads. I think I’d like to own an iPhone someday, mainly because it seems to have a great camera.

The Kindle doesn’t allow me to do anything I want to do that I’m not doing already. I like to read, and I have books and magazines for that. I’m reminded a little of the new Bank of America commercial for the ATMs that don’t require envelopes. The people in the commercial are gushing about how relieved they are that they don’t have to search for an envelope or count to $100 on their own. Here’s the connection: e-Readers propose to be a solution to mostly made-up problems. (How did we get by for hundreds of years relying only on printed books?)

If in fact e-Readers are meant to address real problems, I suggest they are thoroughly modern problems, ushered in at least in part by the pervasiveness of computer technology. I also suggest it’s unreasonable to expect technology to offer viable, long-term solutions to problems it helped create.

One of those modern problems is our diminishing ability to process information. Research is confirming that new technology, especially the Internet, is rewiring our brains and changing the way we think and act (see recent books by Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, and John Freeman). We are raising a generation of kids who know how to access and sift through vast amounts of data, but don’t know how to think deeply about what they’re reading.

My admission is that I lump e-Readers together with other computers. I don’t think it’s healthy for us to spend so many hours in front of screens. I’ll use myself as an example. I spend ten hours a day on my laptop for work – writing, doing research on the web, communicating over e-mail – and I can feel myself getting shallower and my attention span getting shorter. I sense the change in my posture and heartbeat as I click, scroll, type; cut, paste, type. If I have time away from my computer, I settle into myself and find an equilibrium. But that equilibrium is taking longer and longer to reach.

Reading for me is an alternative to the screen – it’s a commitment to the present, to a certain place and a certain pace. There is a fine line between convenience and distraction. (Convenience is not a virtue and should be low on our priority lists.) Having hundreds of books available to me at the click of a button qualifies as a distraction. I read three or four books at a time, and that is plenty. Shoving a book or two into my bag as I head out for the day is a sign of commitment, and I take it seriously. I’ll spend a half hour or more  in front of my bookshelves choosing my next book. If I owned a Kindle, I’m sure I’d have at least a dozen books in progress.

Obviously I think it’s important that people read, and I’ll admit that there has been some evidence (as in a recent Wall Street Journal article) that people who read e-books read more often than people who read books. I haven’t seen any evidence that there is a significant number of people out who weren’t reading books before but are, all of a sudden, now that they have an iPhone. I’m not saying the research isn’t out there – I just haven’t seen it.

I have seen some compelling data that e-Readers are better for the environment than books. They obviously use fewer trees, which means they use less water, and they require almost nothing to “transport” except energy costs. On the other hand, trees are renewable resources; the petroleum-based plastic and precious minerals in e-readers and cell phones are not. The environmental impact argument is ultimately not convincing for me. We’re not destroying our planet by buying too many books. We destroy the planet by reading too few. If more of us slowed down long enough to read an entire book (e-book or otherwise) – preferably at home – that would go a long way toward living responsibly on the earth.

Jordan seemed to dismiss as quaint and naïve my desire to pass my books on to my daughter. Whatever. I want Molly to grow up in a landscape that is partially comprised of books, books that don’t have to be accessed through a hard-drive, books that won’t have compatibility issues five, ten, or twenty years down the road. On a cold winter’s night, when the family makes a decision to turn off the computer and the TV, curl up on the couch with hot chocolate and soft music, I want Molly to be able to read a book that isn’t on a screen. I want her to pull a new book off the shelf and get lost in it.

Jordan said in his post that my thoughts on this fall somewhere between nostalgic or pretentious. I choose nostalgia. I’ve never lived in a time that revered the book, but some of my fondest memories from childhood were the hours spent curled up with Robinson Crusoe, the legends of King Arthur, or Beau Geste. I remember sneaking a flashlight into bed and reading the Chronicles of Narnia, Bruno and Boots, My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, The War with Grandpa, and the Hardy Boys. Those nights turned into me a reader, which turned me into a writer. Nostalgia is useful. It can center us, and bring us back to what is elemental about who we are. It’s possible Molly’s generation will feel the same nostalgia for the Kindle as I feel for books, but I doubt it. She’ll probably feel about the Kindle the way I feel about the quirky old Apple computer we had when I was little. Which is to say, she won’t feel anything.

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2 comments on “In Defense of Nostalgia

  1. Well said, John.

    I do want to mention those Bank of America ATMs, though…I’ve used them and they make the process of depositing checks and cash simpler by leaps and bounds. That gushing? I don’t think I went that far, but I was highly impressed and even a little thankful two years ago when I used one of those ATMs for the first time. There’s really no contest, and since I’d like to spend as little time in front of ATMs trying to find missing pens as possible, I think B of A’s attempt to make the lives of their customers simpler should be lauded.

  2. […] Lastly, I’d like to point you to a conversation Jordan and I had about e-readers several months ago on this blog. Here is my initial post, then Jordan’s response, and then my response to Jordan. […]

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