Your brain on ebooks

Turns out reading on screens does affect your brain, but not in the way you might think. I find I can now read magazines articles and blog posts on my phone, but can’t do sustained narratives. Fits the research below. That said, my son who is 17 is reading my novel in progress as the chapters are written and has so far read 360+ pages on his phone. Boggles my mind. Generational thing? I would guess. Ironically, this is the kid who is also writing his own novel at the same time, but is doing it long hand in a notebook. These Gen Z types are weird, man.

As it turns out, the research so far suggests that although the prevalence of screens has yet to “rot our brains” or turn us into zombies, this development has changed the way we read. Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has written extensively about how the reading brain is changing in the digital age. In a 2018 interview for The Verge, she explained that the literacy circuits in our brains have a high degree of plasticity, meaning our reading processes—the way our brains interact with written material—are constantly shaped by the kind of reading we do on a daily basis. In our modern world, this plasticity is both good and bad. On the one hand, our brains need to be adaptable enough to keep up with the times and sift through the vast amounts of information available to us through the internet. But at the same time, this rapid adaptation to screens seems to be weakening other reading skills and processes: namely, what Wolf refers to as “deep learning” and “cognitive patience.” She claims that digital reading teaches our brains to skim and that if we don’t balance this skimming with enough deep, focused reading—the kind we’re more inclined to do with printed texts—we begin to lose our ability to read critically and empathetically.

What will happen to travel writing?

Bookninja pal and reader Bert Archer (and his allied tradespeople) might be clutching at pearls right now, but this guy says to not worry. Travel writing might also go local. Not sure that’s really a don’t-worry scenario for people who are addicted to globe-hopping, but it’s good enough for me.

By the time I finished my editorial work on this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing—about five weeks into my state’s mandatory stay-at-home order—I’d had plenty of time to think about the future of the form. During the first few weeks of lockdown, I was invited on to a podcast with several other travel writers to discuss “Coronavirus and Predictions on the Future of Travel Writing.” With gloom and doom, I speculated about magazines suspending publication, compared this to how travel had “irrevocably” changed after 9/11, and declared that this was “the extinction event” for a certain type of travel publishing. To be honest, I had no more idea of what might happen than anyone else, and I still don’t. But I held forth anyway, and I am aware that whatever I write now, in the spring of 2020, may seem naïve, hysterical, or wildly inaccurate by the fall, when the anthology is published, never mind a year or five from now.

New Rowling story is free

Children’s author and noted TERF supporter JK Rowling is releasing a free serialized story for kids called The Ickabog (<<read at this link). Free is exactly the right price point for Rowling, so far as I’m concerned. She’s a billionaire and for as much good as she does, she also does stupid shit like back TERFs, so I’m not willing to shoot her any more money than I already have (all four kids read the same copies of the Potter books — at least until Book 5 when things got so bloated and unedited that even the kids were like, “When will this fucking thing end?”) Anyway, here’s hoping the chapter a day buys you some time to yourself under the guise of educating your children on reading.

The Ickabog, which is set in an imaginary land unrelated to any of Rowling’s other works, will be serialised online from Tuesday afternoon, in 34 daily, free instalments. It will then be published as a book, ebook and audiobook in November, with Rowling’s royalties to go to projects assisting groups impacted by the pandemic.

Rowling described The Ickabog as “a story about truth and the abuse of power”. It came to her “well over a decade ago”, so she stressed that it “isn’t intended to be read as a response to anything that’s happening in the world right now”.

Hump day dump

Halfway there, folks. It’s just up ahead, that Friday, waiting; lens flares shining on its shoulders like sunlight glinting off the dew on a cold bottle of beer. Look, it’s waving at you! “Come sit with me and have a drink, pal,” it says. You don’t have to wear a mask with me… Power through, people. Don’t let the end of the world ruin this for you.

Bookstore roundup

Here are a few articles on bookstores and the times in which we live and die. Just a reminder that you should be trying to patronize indie shops during this time (and all times, really). Though have some patience as they deal with things, please.

Don’t, like, try to pigeon-hole me, man

Is the way we categorize books out of touch? Tim Parks says in the NYRB that a careful eye can come up with a different way of grouping books that is perhaps more fruitful. This all sounds great in theory, but do I really want to enter a bookstore organized this way? I’m not really a browser anymore. I’m a more of a “Oh, Danine said to read NK Jesimin, so I’ll just go right to the SciFi section and grab all three books of the series and GTFO of this overpriced housewares store that also has books” type shopper. But I suppose everyone is free to arrange as they like at home. Or, you know, guerrilla styles in store.

Why do we categorize novels? Fantasy, Chick Lit, Crime, Romance, Literary, Gothic, Feminist… Is it the better to find what we want, on the carefully labelled shelves of our bookshops? So that the reading experience won’t, after all, be too novel.

Or is it simply for the pleasure of putting the world in order? French Literature, German Literature, American, South American, Korean. Or again, Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, Postwar. In line with the notion of a body of knowledge—such that the more you read from one area, the more you can claim to be an expert, or at least a buff. There is even World Literature, which is not quite the catch-all it seems; rather, those novels that have appealed to many nations over the centuries, or that do so today. One chooses them to be a citizen of the world, perhaps, suggesting that behind the category is the desire to categorize oneself, the pursuit of identity.

In any event, I want to propose a different way of categorizing novels, or at least arranging the ones you have read on your shelves: something that came to me after reading Dickens and Chekhov in quick succession.