Words on the page are different from words on the screen. As any writer will tell you: if you’re writing something substantial: type on your laptop, but edit on a print-out.
When one reads what one has written on paper, it looks and feels significantly different from what it did on the computer. Odd words, phrases and sentence constructions leap out at you. The word processor comes loaded with aids for writers, but it doesn’t really help fiction writers. These virtual tools can help if you are drafting an office email or perhaps at a later editing stage, but the revision of drafts of fiction are best done on the page, with a pencil.
When mp3s came in it was quite the revolution. The same music could be shared, was portable. The listener could make personalised lists without having to go through the album. The album was pronounced dead. Album sales are stagnant even now, something Bjork is trying to change with her Block Chain experiment.
The book, on the other hand, has survived. Kindle sales are down again for the fourth Christmas running; stores that had cleared bookshelves for the reading device, have stocked those shelves with books again.
There’s an argument that readers like books as physical objects. For listeners of music the object is sound –something abstract– consumed across formats. Sound is not a physical three-dimensional object. The deep analogue sound of LPs has survived for purists, but it’s just that: a collector’s item for connoisseurs.
But more than a love for the physical, there is something about words on a page that changes the way we read and write words. It’s like two parallel universes. The same entity occupies different realities on two separate planes. The real avatar is on the page, something that has not escaped readers and writers alike.
I was recently asked to review a book by a newspaper. By the time I responded to the email, the book had been misplaced. The editor said: ‘I could send you a PDF if that works’. I managed to write the review and meet my deadline, but I didn’t enjoy the experience at all.
We have become used to reading on our phones and tablets. We read articles and pieces on it all the time. We start scrolling our social media feeds from when we wake up until we go to bed. Since there is interminable information, and we want to consume all of it, we read differently now.
Earlier, you had one newspaper that you read from start to finish. Only journalists would get all the day’s papers. They would wade through the stack quickly. As a child who loved newspapers this was one reason I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. Then I could have all the papers in the world at my doorstep.
Now that most of us have access to reams of information, none of us are reading that carefully. In addition to what we see in our personal feed, we have friends and acquaintances sharing links on email, WhatsApp and WhatNot. One often reads in the middle of whatever it is one is doing.
With this kind of onslaught, no one is reading each and every sentence. No wonder then that on many English news websites, where speed of news is paramount, stories are uploaded at great speed but are very poorly edited. If the reader is skimming information then editing becomes a redundant art.
So does writing carefully. Long-form journalism is the in-thing but how many of us will read long-form on our phones carefully. The fear of being left out means that you will skim over twenty pieces in a day. But is it really reading?
This is what I missed reading the PDF. No matter how carefully you read, you end up scrolling up, down, skipping. It’s the way we read on electronic devices. When I read this same book in print, it was an entirely different experience: Lingering on pages and sentences, rustling back and forth—and the indescribable thoughtful pauses in between, in which the reader absorbs what she is reading, and which cannot be put in words either on the page or on the screen.
(The writer is the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India)