By Julia Jackson

A response to a public conversation with Gary Shteyngart on November 10, 2011. 

Gary Shteyngart, a self-described “standard kind of agnostic,” said that the most soulful activity he engages in is reading a book. It is one of the few ways in which a person can really “live in another person’s skin.”

Religion or spirituality (or whatever word you prefer) gives us another way to inhabit a person’s perspective. As much as religion is about connection to God (or whatever word you prefer), it is also about forging a connection to other human beings—how to act in a socially responsible way, how to discuss things that are Real or True, how to feel we are not doomed to die alone—which is why Shteyngart likened reading to a “quasi-spiritual experience.” What better way can we put aside our selfish, petty, insecure, hubristic selves and let our minds and our emotions inhabit those of someone completely unlike us than by reading a book?

At the talk, Shteyngart gave us such an example: He was reading a book told from the perspective of a Pakistani cab driver who had “abhorrent views,” and yet he was able to feel for this man. As he put it, “I am not him, and I am not me, but there is a connection, an empathy.” Setting aside one’s perspective and understanding another person’s condition, truly feeling what his lived existence is like, would normally require days, months, or years of close proximity and intimate conversation. A book delivers this experience to us ordinarily selfish jerks for the tiny investment of a few dollars and a few hours.

But can such a quasi-spiritual experience be achieved on a Kindle or iPad? Though I do read on an iPad and enjoy it, the satisfaction I get from reading on my iPad is far different from the kind I get from reading a “real” book. When I read on my iPad, I am impressed: impressed by the fact that I can prop it up on my bed when I’m tired and then turn the pages with the touch of a single finger, that I can look up any word in the dictionary with two taps, that I can seamlessly do research on any related topic with the Wikipedia app. I can also suddenly decide to play Spider Solitare or watch Netflix or buy that new eye shadow from Sephora. I can check my e-mail, get lost on Facebook, decide to craft a 140-character version of the thought that’s been going through my head. Reading on an iPad makes it all too easy for me to completely check out of reading the book itself. As Shteyngart said, a book is a small commodity, but a screen makes a commodity out of everything.

When I read a real book, on the other hand, I leave my cell phone and laptop in the other room and sit on the couch, and suddenly it’s just me and the book and the characters in it. I am truly alone yet truly connected. When I read a real book, I am forcing myself to follow one stream of thought—that which the author committed to paper. In today’s world, this simple act is meditative, even transcendent. I am able to do something that feels very futuristic—cross space and time and peer right into the author’s mind—with a technology that has been around for thousands of years.

Reading a book should be singularly absorbing, not impressive (no matter how impressive the author’s use of language or ability to shape plot may be). “Impressed” belongs to another world, one of instant check-outs, “like” buttons, and instant gratifications. While electronic devices certainly have their place and their strengths, we still need to recognize the act of reading on an iPad or a Kindle for what it is: a convenient but far less absorbing experience than reading a printed book. As impressive as these digital devices may be, we simply cannot abandon the book.

To Shteyngart, a single physical book is a more soulful creation than the hundred that can be stored in digital devices. His exaltation of the printed word reminded me of what Patti Smith said in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, almost exactly one year ago: “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”

Julia Jackson teaches English at Brooklyn College and is an editor for Electric Literature’s blog, The Outlet. Her fiction has appeared in BlackBook,The New Ohio Review, and Pear Noir!