The Power of the Pen: Books and Reading in the 21st Century


As an avid reader of just about everything, I have been struggling with the notion that e-books may soon displace the printed word. I know that I’m not alone in my fears, as many other people lament the closing of book shops around the country. Though books will probably end up being a hybrid of traditional print and new media, it’s very likely that there will be less physical copies to go around in the near future.

From a business perspective, e-books make sense. It’s a lot cheaper and much less complex to create an electronic version of a book and stream it around the world. But what about the experience of actually sitting down with a good book and engaging in that deep interaction that only comes from the tactile, physical pages of a book?

These were the thoughts that troubled my mind until I read an article about creativity and John Cleese – yes, that John Cleese, from Monty Python fame.

In the article by Rae Ann Fera, Cleese refers to the “Tortoise Brain” and the “Hare Brain.” The tortoise brain is the part of the mind that takes time to contemplate, while the hare brain is all about action and decision-making. The author points out that:

“The tension between impulsive action and contemplative thinking is a very real one, particularly in this real time, over connected world. But, says Cleese, don’t let that get in the way of giving yourself time for deeper, unconscious thought.

“Now I want to explain about getting into tortoise mind. The enemies of tortoise mind are anxiety and interruptions. The moment you get anxious or interrupted you go back into hare brain. What you have to do is give yourself a place where you’re not going to be interrupted for about an hour, because it takes time for your thoughts to settle. You have to create boundaries of space and then you have to create boundaries of time. You need to give yourself the time to let these ideas come up because it deals in the confusion and images and very subtle things.”

So, back to the books…

My theory is that maybe the dual media of electronic books and traditional print could work together to support both our tortoise and hare brains.

E-books can feed our need for quick access to information, data, and reading that requires less introspection. Information, articles, and stories are at our immediate disposal through the convenience and speed of technology.

Traditional books can feed our tortoise brains, allowing for the full sensory experience of book reading and the deeper contemplation that often goes along with it. Physical books allow us to create the barriers and boundaries we need for contemplative thought. There is a much greater investment in time and resources to engage with traditional print, with a much different payoff.

Maybe this will be a new common ground for bridging the gap between high-tech and hearthside reading.

At least it’s something you can both Google or pick up off of your nightstand.