I’ve tried, several times, to read on my phone, but these screen-reading experiences have always been painful.
I struggled to focus, and lost interest quickly. But, the idea of having a plethora of classics (many of which are free to download) in my pocket to pick up when I’m away from whatever physical book I’m working through is so tempting that despite my negative experiences I keep trying again and again.
Now, finally, I’ve broken my duck.
Finally, I’ve read an entire book on my phone. It wasn’t particularly long, but it’s done nonetheless, and it feels pretty good.
The book in question was Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, and despite knowing that I should be prepared for some tough moments, it absolutely destroyed me. I found the ending genuinely difficult to read, in, I suppose, a good way.
Stories about mentally disabled people, in any medium, run the risk of taking advantage of their subject to gain cheap pity from their audience.
Narrator, and protagonist, Charlie, experiences an ascent, and descent, through the intellectual range. Along the way he comes to terms with his mental and emotional deficiencies, and proficiencies. He expresses himself through a series of ‘progress reports’ which charts the impact of the experimental surgery, which is designed to raise the IQ of its patients. Charlie is the first human subject and is paired with a seemingly successful animal test subject, a mouse named Algernon.
These reports give Charlie a distinct voice, which reminds us that even before his IQ is raised, he is a human being, despite how the scientists view him. Any sadness that the story provoked in me was rooted in Charlie’s tragic journey, not just pity at his circumstance. It is profound, brilliant story telling. It is also astonishingly simple, and effective. Charlie’s journey is clearly defined. His character arc definitively pronounced. It all works. I think at some point I’d like to go back and do a deeper dive on what exactly struck such a resonant emotional chord in me.
But for now, I want to talk about what it was like to experience this story through my phone.
I’m no Luddite, but I’ve always preferred a physical book, and have attempted to read several books on my phone without success. I would say it might perhaps be the fault of the books, but I rarely fail to enjoy Jon Ronson or Neil Gaiman, whose works I have failed to finish when read through my phone.
Yet, with Flowers for Algernon, I succeeded, and I had a rather blissful time doing it. The key, I think, is that I didn’t put down my physical book that I had going at the time. Flowers became the book that I read instead of flicking through social media in the space between moments in the day. These spaces, I think because of the quality of the book, became moments when time allowed, and when they didn’t, I read to a natural conclusion and minimised the book for later.
I do believe that you should make time, considerable time, to sit and read, and do nothing else, for extended periods. I love to do exactly that, but I’m also trying to increase the number of books I read, and having a second book to fill those otherwise mindless moments – where I typically just scroll through Twitter – with the reading of something relatively short was very satisfying to me.
The digital nature of the experience allowed for customisation to the point of absolute comfort: a soft green background to lessen my eye strain, my preferred font and text size, adjustable margin widths. Again, I will never disregard the physical medium. I care too much for the sense of picking a book off the shelf, placing it back in the exact right place, admiring the cover, smelling the pages. But I want to read, a lot, and it feels fantastic to use a device, which is so often derided for its intrinsic presence in modern life, to make a noticeable improvement in my day to day.
Also, I wrote this on a phone, and that wasn’t so bad. Or, at least, it doesn’t seem so bad until I spot the embarrassing auto-correct that I fail to edit out later.
Until that inevitable embarrassment, I will content myself with browsing Project Gutenberg for my next screen-read.