Books Are Not Immersive—And That Might Be a Good Thing

Immersiveness” is something of a buzzword in the electronic media industry. In video games, for instance, it has become a veritable criterion, a measure for how well a title succeeds: the best video games are the ones that wash over and wholly absorb the player.

Similarly, “binge” has attained the status of a marketing term where content on-demand outfits like Netflix and Hulu are concerned: “Come, sit and watch Parks and Recreation or Game of Thrones for four straight hours. We can make that possible.” Even if “immersiveness” isn’t a word bandied about by film and television reviewers as often as in software criticism, anyone who has marathoned through 120 episodes of Lost in the span of thirty days is nothing if not immersed.

Is fiction immersive? It can be. Which of us hasn’t found ourselves wholly drawn into the world of a novel? “It was a real page turner,” we might say. “I couldn’t put it down.” “I read it all in one night, I just had to know how it ended.” And so on.

But there’s a fundamental difference between the ways in which fiction and electronic media affect us. The armchair scientist would point out that static words on a page don’t tickle the brain’s orienting reflex like the constantly-changing images on a glowing screen or twist the endorphin spigot with nearly as much liberality.

The thoughtful nonscientist might draw an anology between fiction and conversation: you lose yourself in a book the same way the rest of the world slips your mind during a fascinating conversation with a close friend or compelling stranger. (In some respects, reading is a cooperative effort, much like a conversation: the writer supplies the words, but it’s up to the reader to contribute the apperception which is ultimately the substance of the reading.) Nevertheless, all of us have found ourselves at one time or another distracted from a conversation, no matter how engaging, the moment a television is switched on in the vicinity. And therein is illustrated the unmatched immersive power of electronic media.

Again, fiction can be immersive—but it is simply isn’t as viscerally compelling as electronic media. Stories can manipulate emotion as well as any TV show, film, or game, but print fiction can’t play with the reptile brain (for lack of a more precise term) to the extent that a screen does. It is much easier to put a book down than to turn your attention away from an LCD display. And although this basic fact surely contributes to such phenomena as the outstanding success of Netflix and the continued decline of book sales, we might actually count the lower immersive potential of print media one of its advantages.

A simple thought experiment:

Question #1: Would you bring a novel to read on the beach?

Question #2: Would you bring a laptop or tablet to the beach to watch four episodes of Mad Men?

The epicurean with disposable income does not wish to play games on an iPhone or watch movies on a tablet if it can be avoided. If you want the full experience, you need the crystalline visual perfection of a widescreen HD TV. You need the three-dimensional auditory experience of the surround sound system. And you want shades over the windows, the lights switched off, and the doors shut to restrict your visual input to the light from the screen and to prevent interruptions that would yank you out of the world you’re immersed in. The aim is to drown out all stimuli that don’t pertain to the viewing experience.

You wouldn’t watch Mad Men on the beach. Viewing a TV show on the beach takes you off of the beach; the environment of the beach interferes with the viewing experience.

Reading a book on the beach is entirely different. There is no interference. The sun, the hissing percussion of the surf, and the scent of saltwater enhances the pleasure of reading, just as reading contributes a deeper richness to the act of sitting on the beach.

In former years, I played video games maybe two to five hours a day. I can’t say I now spend the same amount of time reading, but I can be found with my nose in a book much more often than before. If I had to briefly sum up the difference between the two activities, I’d say that playing a game is an act of withdrawal, of removing oneself from life, while reading is something that occurs as a part of life.

Well: what is life?

Life is what exists on the periphery of our attention and independently of our intent. Life is a car passing by on the street with a subwoofer in the trunk and a reggaeton album in the CD player. Life is an unexpected call from your mother. Life is a mosquito buzzing in your ear and the blunt, irregular tap-tapping of a moth hurling itself against a lampshade. Life is a roommate passing through and wanting to make small talk. Life is a snow-covered driveway that needs to be shoveled. Life is a noisy barbecue in the neighbors’ backyard. Life is the thunderstorm that catches you in the hammock. Life is your partner coming home after a rough day and just wanting to make out with you. Life is an off-leash dog racing in your direction. Life is the robins singing before you’re ready for the night to be over.

When I play games, when I sit in bed with a laptop and watch Justice League Unlimited and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (what can I say, I like cartoons), I insulate myself from the things that constitute life, and their intrusion becomes an aggressive nuisance.

I can’t find any scientific studies detailing what occurs in the brain in the seconds directly following the instant when one’s attention is diverted from a television or computer screen, but we might posit (with some caution) that the endorphins stop flowing. Hence the overpowering urge to immediatel move on to the next episode of Orange Is the New Black. Hence the child launching into a temper tantrum when the parent switches of the TV. Hence my irritability when my friend keeps trying to talk to me while I’m playing ranked matches in Street Fighter IV on his PlayStation 3.

But when we are engaged in reading, there is no cloud nine to be toppled from; we never left terra firma to begin with. The external events around the act of reading are additions, not detractions, just as how the clanking of dishes and silverware, the song on the jukebox, the chatter of the people in the next booth, and the approach of the waitress with your meal don’t subtract from the conversation you’re having with an old friend at the 24-hour diner downtown; they become part of it.

In the first pages of On Reading,Marcel Proust touches on this property of the reading experience, describing how the interruptions and incidents surrounding the act of reading can become, in hindsight, as valuable to us as the book itself:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the uninterrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist. [Translation: Jean Autret and William Burford]

Would it be wild conjecture to suggest that one of the supreme values of reading is its capability to take us out of and beyond ourselves while keeping us in this world—on our smaller, hotter, and increasingly complicated Planet Earth?