Thursday, August 6, 2009

Annals of Reading and Listening

Nicholson Baker is a writer who enlightens the reader on the most commonplace subjects. His latest article in The New Yorker had me nodding in recognition as his essays usually do. The subject of the article was the Amazon Kindle electronic book. The broader subject was the physical act of reading. Baker is decidedly critical of the Kindle, stating its effect of draining the pleasure of reading. An example he cites is a passage from Robert Benchley's "Love Conquers All" that made him laugh when reading it on the printed page. Reading the same passage on the Kindle screen did not make him laugh.

He points out specific features that he dislikes—such as the gray color of the background, the text font, and the way one “turns” the page—that undermine his reading enjoyment. The words are the same on the Kindle, but the reading experience is not.

I nodded in recognition to the article, not because I’ve shared the same experience reading the Kindle, but because I was translating his criticisms into audio terms. Baker's criticisms of the Kindle also apply to digital music. Just as the words are the same on the Kindle and a conventional book, the notes are the same on a digital recording and an analog LP, but the listening experience can be significantly different. The medium affects how engaging the experience is.

If you think of a musical note as a letter in the “text” of a song, the quality of the recording determines the shape of the note. The basic shape of the note is the same on a digital recording, so it’s recognizable as that note. But there are subtle differences between the sound of notes on a digital and analog recording that ultimately add up to creating a qualitatively different experience. Think of a note on a digital recording as a sans-serif font like Arial. It’s clean and crisp. A note on an analog recording is more like a serif font such as Georgia, each note/letter has a more elaborate shape. On an analog recording, a musical note has more of a leading transient and decay, like small aural tails trailing off the main note. These secondary “sounds” of a note give the music a better sense of flow. They make cymbals shimmer more and notes played on a saxophone breathier. The subtle transient sounds of notes are among the first things lost on a digital recording because of the limitation on information that can be transferred onto a CD or a digital file. For each avid reader such as Nicholson Baker who can appreciate the difference between reading a book with serif fonts compared to the same book printed with sans-serif fonts, there is an audiophile who can appreciate the difference between listening to an album in its analog form compared to the same album in a digital format.

Then there is the space between notes. Audiophiles talk about the air around instruments that give the impression one is listening to musicians occupying a physical space. This is additional information that is often lost on a digital recording in which notes appear to float, unconnected to any kind of physical space. The “air” around the notes is like the space on a page. The slightly creamy physicality of the pages in a high quality book will provide a different reading experience than the flimsy grays of newsprint and the Kindle screen, just as the sense of air on an analog recording will provide a different listening experience than the airless background of a digital recording.

There are also the physical similarities between a printed book and a record: the experience of holding a tactile object, reading the liner notes on the back cover of an album, and seeing the records lined up on a shelf. Although these are secondary features, they strengthen one's connection to the music.

A thought crossed my mind that the decline in sales of recorded music may not be solely attributable to illegal file-sharing, but perhaps digital music has degraded the experience of listening to music and people just aren’t aware how music has become so less enjoyable because of it. Will the printed page go the way of the vinyl record? My advice is to save the printed books that you love.

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