Are Books Better?

I love books. I love the smell and texture of a fresh page. I love picking out a title from the library just as much as buying a new paperback from Barnes and Noble. I love the art on the covers and the satisfaction of turning page after page until there are none left to turn. And while some may disagree, according to recent science, I am not alone. While at it’s surface reading seems to be only a visual and imaginative process, the physical relationship of a reader to their book is important in many ways. 

According to recent research, there is a “tactile sense of progress” we experience as we read. To put it simply, as we read, we track our progress with the pile of growing pages under our left thumb. To test this, researchers had NorReading_in_Practice_MAwegian teens read from paper and PDFs. The students were dived into separate groups and then they were tested on plot summary. Guess who did better? Of course, it was the paper readers! The use of paper gave them a sense of progress, and although it was unconscious, it helped them map the plot better than those reading from a screen. 

In addition to the tactile benefits of a book, books also tend to elicit a more emotional response in the reader. However, kindle reading has its own benefits. You save space and money by downloading these digital books. Both are perks which I think would persuade Thoreau to be a digital reader himself, had he been given the option. While plot summary may be more difficult coming from a PDF, the same study showed the medium for leisure reading had little to no impact on text digesting ability. Most don’t endorse reading Ulysses on your kindle, but encourage you to download Gone Girl when you’ve got the chance.

While he battle of superior reading experiences seems centered around paper and kindle, there are other contenders. iPads are equipped with an iBooks app, and there are websites dedicated to digitalizing literature. Digital literature is undoubtedly important in immortalizing texts and making them accessible  to everyone. However, reading from a computer screen or a device with a backlight-such as an iPad-can have consequences.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 1.59.05 PMThis observation is by no means a cry to end the digitalization of literature, rather a caution on how and when you use your device to read. Reading in the 2 hours before bed, as 90% of Americans do, is a terrible idea. The backlight on iPads and computers is blue, which we are very sensitive to. Overdosing on this light, which the digital world forces us to do on a daily basis, can decrease our melatonin levels and harm our sleeping cycle, particularly in these hours before bed. Rather than prescribing patients to put down their devices, doctors have started endorsing the use of orange lens glasses while utilizing a backlight screen. The complementary colors supposedly cancel out and minimize the effect of blue backlights. Instead of limiting computer time, we go and get glasses. Progress.

While unlimited titles available online is amazing progress, the health risks are are real step back. In addition to endangered melatonin levels, cortisol levels spike. Risk for obesity, diabetes, and other disorders jump as well. This is, of course, in the extreme case of computer use. I don’t believe digitalizing literature is going to make everyone sick, but considering the time we already spend on our computers, we need to be wary.

Reading, regardless of the platform, is an enriching experience. If you choose to reap the benefits of a digital library, be sure to do so in short bursts of time and carefully monitor your comprehension. Or, you could go old school, and just enjoy a good old book. (x)

The Transcendentalist Bible: Thoreau, Walden and Religion

When going through ideas for this blog post, one must first consider what immediately jumps out to them specifically about Thoreau’s Walden. To me, it was clear that Thoreau’s main message was one of philosophy: if you should live simply, you will become enlightened. This message that is reiterated throughout Walden is an idea that has been similarly recycled in many religious doctrines since the beginning of time.

This idea is vital to understanding Thoreau as an author and as a human being. Thoreau, like many great thinkers throughout history, was fascinated with the idea of religion and the effect which it had on his fellow man. Thoreau, a radical progressive in many ways, was obsessed with the way people treated each other and how it was comparable to religious dogma. In 1859,  John Brown, a radical abolitionist, attempted to take over a military arsenal in Virginia with the help of armed slaves. After the raid failed and Brown was arrested, Thoreau, one of the most outspoken abolitionists of his time, was one of Brown’s most vocal supporters.

In his essay A Plea for Captain Brown, Thoreau attacks Christians in the United States for being hypocritical: Christ preached justice and tolerance, and slave-owning Christians defied these orders whilst continuing to preach Christ’s words:

The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward. All his prayers begin with “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and he is forever looking forward to the time when he shall go to his “long rest.” He has consented to perform certain old-established charities, too, after a fashion, but he does not wish to hear of any new-fangled ones; he doesn’t wish to have any supplementary articles added to the contract, to fit it to the present time.

Thoreau would later go on to draw parallels between Brown and Christ, as well as the United States government and Pontius Pilate. It is clear that Thoreau’s fascination with religion and followers of religion had an enormous effect on his political views. This world view seems to have developed during the writing of Walden, some ten years prior.

It is my belief that, throughout Walden, Thoreau is describing his exodus as a religious experience. As Walden progresses, Thoreau begins to slip more and more biblical references into his work. Thoreau compares the beginning of spring to the creation of the universe, as well as claiming that God “patented a leaf.” Thoreau’s eventual ascent into enlightenment is treated much in the same way Christ’s ascension to heaven is treated in the New Testament: a gradual, unfolding plotline which paints its protagonist as an enlightened figure who grinds against the norms of society only to be cast away, until he eventually becomes greater than all.

Thoreau’s experiences in Walden could be summed up in the biblical verse James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the lord, and he will lift you up.” Thoreau left everything he knew and every luxury he was accustomed to in order to live on the shores of Walden pond, humbling himself before the Lord in nature, where he felt most connected to God. Thoreau’s Christ-like journey to enlightenment provides a fantastic and intriguing subtext to the classic Walden storyline of simple living and spiritual discovery.