"War and Peace" on the subway: How your iPhone is saving literature

Let pundits blame technology for distracting us from great books. Ordinary readers are rediscovering the classics

Published May 14, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Stephen King           (Reuters/Mike Segar)
Stephen King (Reuters/Mike Segar)

A couple of years ago, the critic Maud Newton was sitting in a New York City subway train peering at her iPhone. A fellow passenger standing nearby began ranting to his companion about how, instead of reading books, all anyone ever does anymore is waste time with their smartphones. "I was reading Bertrand Russell's 'The History of Western Philosophy' on my phone at the time," Newton told me. "It was soooo annoying but also so funny."

Although you'd never know it from the media attention devoted to tablet computers like the iPad and dedicated e-reader devices like the Kindle, a third of all cellphone owners choose to read e-books on their phones -- which is a lot of people, given that over 90 percent of American adults have cellphones. Those who enjoy wringing their hands in Spenglerian despair whenever they see heads bent over glossy black rectangles in public might want to check their pessimism. For all you know, those smartphone devotees are reveling in the fruits of Western Civilization -- rather than playing Flappy Bird while it crumbles around them.

Smartphones, even more than tablets and e-readers, have fostered a new type of reading, sometimes called "interstitial" reading. It's the chapters, pages and paragraphs snatched up during those scraps of time that might once have been squandered on People magazine or just staring off into space. Interstitial reading happens while people are sitting in waiting rooms and the backs of taxis or standing at bus stops and in line for movie tickets or at the DMV.

As un-ideal as such circumstances sound for absorbing a serious or challenging book, many smartphone owners are choosing to spend this salvaged time on literary classics. Books by such authors as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are in the public domain and therefore free, tempting the harried and time-strapped with the opportunity to catch up on the books they missed in college. The journalist Clive Thompson, author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better," was an English major, but one so preoccupied with drama and poetry that he reached his early 40s without reading many classic novels. Several years ago, his wife suggested he attempt "Middlemarch," but when he picked up a copy in a bookstore, "I knew exactly what would happen. It's a mammoth book. I'd buy it, I'd read two chapters and it would be such pain in the butt to carry it around I'd stop reading it."

So Thompson decided to read a copy of George Eliot's sweeping novel of provincial English life that he'd downloaded onto his phone from Project Gutenberg, figuring that way, he'd always have it with him. "What I discovered is that if it's a really amazing book, it doesn't really matter what I'm reading it on. I get sucked into it. And 'Middlemarch' is just fantastic." The ability to read without having to turn on a light proved a particular boon. An insomniac, Thompson can take in a chapter or two in the middle of the night without waking his wife and, when his children were small, "they wanted me to lie down next to them as they fell asleep, so I'd read in the dark next to them. They'd fall asleep and I'd go on reading for an hour." So far, Thompson has read, among other titles, "War and Peace," "Moby-Dick," "Paradise Lost" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" on his phone. He's reading Proust now, and plans to try "Infinite Jest" after that. "There's no way I would have read these works of literature without having the phone," he told me.

Several Salon readers offered to share with me their experiences of reading books on their phones. Like Thompson, most of them say it's the convenience, portability and constant accessibility of their phones that makes interstitial reading possible. Catelyn May of Atlanta, Georgia, works in sales and often finds herself unexpectedly stuck in waiting rooms and in need of something good to read, preferably a classic. Another Atlantean, Will Young, used to carry two books with him when taking the train to work, in case he finished one before he arrived at his destination. "That could be quite a lot of extra weight before I bought my smartphone."

Emory King, a business analyst, belongs to four (!) book groups, a commitment that makes it essential to read whenever he can: "during breaks at work, over lunch, when riding in cars and so on. At first I tried to carry copies of the books around with me. That was quite cumbersome, and I’d occasionally forget to bring the books. Next, I tried purchasing several copies of the books and leaving a copy in every location where I may get an opportunity to read; so, one copy at home, one in my car, one at my desk at work. This got a little expensive."

King, like most of the readers I communicated with, loves print books and isn't about to give them up, yet he now estimates that at least three-quarters of the books he reads are on his phone. Others reported reading anywhere from 25 percent to all of the books they read on their phones, with the average being a little more than half. The titles they read include Dante's "The Divine Comedy," Shakespeare's "Henry V," and books by Dickens, Immanuel Kant, Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as contemporary titles like Adam Begley's new biography of John Updike. Donna Tartt's Pulitzer-winning "The Goldfinch," published last year, was mentioned more than once, perhaps because, at 755 pages in hardcover, it's a particularly cumbersome book to carry around. Salon's own Andrew O'Hehir has read "Bleak House," "Anna Karenina" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" on his iPad Touch, mostly while riding the subway. He's now reading George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss."

Some of the advantages of smartphone reading are common to all e-books: The ability to store many titles in a single device, to borrow e-books from the library without worrying about returning them on time and to get the book you want in an instant. Most of my respondents also own tablets or e-readers, as well, but these devices get left at home a lot. (One man described his tablet as the "helpless prisoner of my children.") Most people have to carry their phones everywhere as it is, so why bother with a separate, and bulkier, device? Because it's such an essential tool, they also say they're far less like to lose their phone than they are to misplace a print book or e-reader.

Many partisans of the book consider the image of modern Americans transfixed by their smartphones to represent the antithesis of a literate culture. But that's all it is: an image, and as Maud Newton's anecdote testifies, appearances can be deceiving. As a literary critic, I frequently hear the wistful confessions of people who say they "don't have the time" to read books anymore. If the only way to read a book is to don a smoking jacket and settle into a leather armchair for the entire evening with a hardcover and a snifter of brandy, well, then few of us do. But for all the (not unfounded) fretting over the way electronic devices have chipped away at our attention spans and distracted us from deep thoughts, there has also been this quiet resurgence of interest in and enthusiasm for some of our culture's most treasured literary works.

Smartphone reading has one downside that particularly irritates Thompson, however. He likes to take his kids to the park, find a bench and read while they play. "I'm aware that people around me are probably thinking that I'm ignoring my kids to check my corporate email or play Angry Birds or something else culturally unvaluable," he said, keenly aware that they would not judge him so harshly if he opened a hardcover book. "So I'm thinking of getting a T-shirt that says, "Piss off: I'm reading 'War and Peace.'"

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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