The book as a “memory palace”: alternative approach to the e-book experience

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In my last post, I defended e-book reading as immersive and highly pleasurable. I stand by this argument, and have supported e-book reading since I bought my first kindle two years ago.

After my post went on the blog, I read a fascinating response to Tim Parks’ NYRBlog article at The Millions (“Confessions of a Reluctant Fetishist: Keep Books Adulterated” by Tom Nissley). In it, Nissley critiques Parks’ idea that the e-book can strip away the physical aspects of reading, allowing the reader to focus on text alone. Instead, Nissley argues that part of what we take from reading is the memory of the experience, not just the content. In reading, “We make sensory associations — arbitrary but meaningful — to our reading that house the mental images it creates.” Part of this experience is the sensory experience of reading:

Memories survive longer, and are easier to access, when they are connected to other senses, to images, sounds, smells, tastes, and especially, as memory artists — Joshua Foer and Tony Judt most recently among them— have known for centuries, to spaces, to “memory palaces” that can house and organize them. Memory, in other words, thrives on fetishes, on objects that carry meaning less by essence than association. It covers the walls of its palaces with them.

This idea of “memory palaces” has prompted many recent writers – Jonathan Franzen being one of the most prominent – to declare that e-books strip away the pleasures of reading.

While Nissley points out the physical book’s connection to experiencing literature, he admits that it is possible to connect with e-books in a powerful way:

Maybe all I ask is that digital books be designed in ways that give them character, that help them live and survive individually in your mind, rather than being translated into a common, anonymous display that passes through your memory as quickly as you scroll. Or maybe I suggest that you read your digital books in a way that embeds them in your life and in your sensory memory: on a newly mown lawn, or in the stale surroundings of a passenger train, or with a cup of tea and a small cake for dipping, or while sitting with someone you love.

So even though the experience with a book might be better than with an e-book, it’s still possible for the e-book to have some character. This is possible…if the e-book can be designed to bring in new sensory experiences, which is still a work –in-progress.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,