BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you love reading or do you love books? To be a bibliophile is, in part, to love that tangible dead-trees-be-damned packaging of language and ideas. But, ineluctably, we are all slouching towards digital, for instance, Ann Kirschner. She is a Ph.D. in English and began as a lecturer in Victorian literature at Princeton University and is currently a dean at the City University of New York. Hers has been a life steeped in books, which makes her experiment all the more intriguing.
NARRATOR: “Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kirschner set out to read the Charles Dickens classic Little Dorrit four ways, as a paperback, an audio book, on her Kindle and on her iPhone. She joins me. Ann, welcome to On the Media.
ANN KIRSCHNER: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, first of all, you are the one who asked yourself the question I started with: Do I love books or do I love reading?
ANN KIRSCHNER: Well, I'd noticed over the last couple of years that when I talked about other formats, like audio books, people sort of looked at me, you know, weirdly, as if somehow I didn't love books as much as they did. And I realized that there’s really a difference between books and reading and that, in the final analysis, it’s reading that I love.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your book group suggested Little Dorrit. You thought it was a great idea because it teems with characters and situations and has relevance to the current time. Let's begin with the basic formats. You started with your old copy of Little Dorrit, I guess, from grad school.
ANN KIRSCHNER: Yes. Well, it was right there, waiting for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you’re a book person, so obviously you’re bringing some bias into this little experiment, aren't you? Doesn't this skew the test results, however unscientific they may be?
ANN KIRSCHNER: Well, I really didn't set out to be scientific; I really set out to be practical. We don't read, or at least I don't read with the same leisure time that I did as a graduate student, when I could spend hours and hours reading a Victorian novel. I was facing a thousand pages of reading that had to be crammed in, with a day job and family responsibilities and other leisure time activities. And so, given the multitasking reading environment that I have now, how would I best read? That was really the question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's begin with the baseline, reading Little Dorrit as a book.
ANN KIRSCHNER: So, I'd go to the shelf, and there’s my orange Penguin paperback waiting for me. And I open it up, and the first thing that just washed over me was nostalgia, because there was my name and the date and my little marginalia that I had written as a graduate student. So it was like encountering myself, as well as encountering Dickens. The paperback felt absolutely wonderful in my hands. But then I left my apartment and went down into the New York City subway, and in a crowded New York City subway it’s a little hard to maneuver that paperback. And so, I started thinking, well, maybe I should look at the audio book Little Dorrit, as well, because I'm an audio book lover.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah-ha. You are an audio book lover, and yet many will dismiss this way of reading as not really reading at all.
ANN KIRSCHNER: Oh, I think that’s an ideological falsity. It’s reading. It’s just reading in a different format. When you read an audio book it’s like being read to as you were a child, and you’re sort of at the mercy of the narrator. It’s, at its best, a great theatrical performance, but you can't control it. You can't easily go back, you can't easily go forward. So you’re a relatively passive reader. But it lends itself to reading in all kinds of unusual places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I think you observed at one point that this wasn't a brilliant performance of Little Dorrit. It wasn't like Jim Dale reading the Harry Potter books, but it sufficed.
ANN KIRSCHNER: It sufficed. And if I did a pie chart of all of the hours that I spent reading Little Dorrit, I bet I spent more hours listening than I did to any of the other formats. And that, I think, is because of the flexibility of an audio book. You know, you’re having your teeth cleaned, great time to read [LAUGHS] an audio book. [BROOKE LAUGHS] You’re putting your makeup on. When I'm traveling on business, I set my iPhone for a 30-minute countdown, and usually I'm asleep by the end of the 30 minutes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's wait on the iPhone and skip over to the Kindle, which I understood you received as a gift more than a year ago. Did that change the way you took in the story, absorbed the words? ANN KIRSCHNER: You know, I think that reading electronically isn't as different as one might think. The text on the page is still the text as you saw it in the book, and you have a lot more control. If you want to make the font larger, you can. If you want to play with the margins, you can. What I didn't like about the Kindle was that I had to make a conscious decision to take it with me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. I have a friend who said she likes it better than a book because turning the virtual page is so instantaneous and effortless that she felt like a rat in a Skinner box pushing for a pellet, another pellet, another pellet -
ANN KIRSCHNER: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - in a good way.
ANN KIRSCHNER: Than she ought to try the iPhone, because one of the areas that I actually find annoying about the Kindle is that little click, click, click, because there’s a nanosecond when the screen goes black. And I found that that really sort of disturbed my sense of seamless reading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, the iPhone, which seems, on the face of it, to offer the least enjoyable experience because the screen is so small. And yet, I have a friend who reads Jane Austen on hers - hi Lynn. Is she weird?
ANN KIRSCHNER: [LAUGHS] She’s not weird [LAUGHING] at all. Go, Lynn! The iPhone was the revelation to me. The screen is brighter, crisper. You can change pages instantaneously. But the most important thing is that the iPhone is always with you, or at least always with me.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And, you know, the old Woody Allen line, 70 percent of success in life is just showing up? The iPhone showed up, and I didn't have to make a conscious decision to take another unit with me, another set of plugs. That made all the difference in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I wonder how that relates to reading in bed or in your living room. My friend reads her Jane Austen on her iPhone, in bed. Would you choose to do that?
ANN KIRSCHNER: No, I would not. That’s where good old-fashioned books really shine. But I think if Dickens were alive today, he'd be saying, let's experiment with all of these formats.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think if Dickens were alive today, he'd [LAUGHS] probably say, I don't care, as long as I'm paid.
ANN KIRSCHNER: Well, you’re absolutely right. And, of course, Dickens performed his books. You know, he'd love the audio book format because he stood in front of a stage and brought people to tears, reading his books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boy, don't you wish audio books were around when Dickens was reading his?
ANN KIRSCHNER: Oh, can you imagine, to have a recording of Dickens reading Little Dorrit? Oh, it would be quite amazing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ann, thank you very much.
ANN KIRSCHNER: Thank you. A pleasure to talk to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ann Kirschner, an avowed lifelong reader, is university dean of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, and she’s author of Sala’s Gift.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Sarah Fidelibus [?], Kasia Gladki [?] and Ethan Chiel. Ethan, thank you so much for all your hard work. Have a great time at school. OTM is edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there, or email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.