Electronic Age: Is embodied experience endangered by books?

Is your embodied experience endangered by books?

Embodiment is among the most important doctrines emphasized within the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The mortal experience central to the plan of salvation is a physical experience; matter matters — to our spirits, and to our spiritual lives. I believe and embrace this doctrine. It was driven home recently by Elder David Bednar in a Church Educational System fireside, who connected our physical selves with human relationships and divine principles: “[O]ur relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and act in accordance with truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies.” Elder Bednar expressed cautions regarding virtual experience online and the digital diversions that can damage or challenge more authentic relationships.

This is valuable counsel, and something that this digital evangelist has been pondering and trying to take to heart. As much as I am an advocate for the wonderful positive uses of the new media (which Elder Bednar allows for), I have seen up close and too frequently the destructive power of disembodied virtual experience he described. And I worry about casually slipping into a dependence upon technology, the Internet, and whatever the latest greatest gadgetry may be.

And I am wondering about the virtues of disembodied experience from a less suspect technology: books. Oh, we are fully conditioned to accept books — to embrace reading them — as a sign of intelligence, accomplishment, and refinement. But do we not endager our embodied experience through books? Wouldn’t Elder Bednar’s cautions apply as much to this older technology and its threats to our more real relationships and existence?

My youngest son has been rather antisocial lately, quietly burrowing through all seven volumes of Harry Potter. (I don’t think he is alone in this behavior, nor only with Rowling’s popuar series). He sequesters himself in order to live vicariously in an imaginative world full of things as they really are not. Had he logged as much time in Runescape or Second Life, we would have pulled the plug. But with a series of books, we go out of our way to borrow or buy the next volume to accommodate his reading habit. He reminds me of myself when I was 11 — voraciously making my way through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ virtual worlds, among others. And I fear he will fight (as I still do) to get enough physical exercise throughout his life. Now, I’m worrying about his reading habit threatening things that might be more important.

What is the difference between the disembodied and problematic virtual worlds of the Internet and the disembodied but somehow culturally condoned virtual worlds of novels? Forget the arguments about bad novels. For argument’s sake let’s say you and yours only devoted yourselves to the best literary works. Dare to count the cost of your second life in liteary land?

At other times, in defending the literary arts, I have emphasized the fact that vicarious experience is at the heart of Christian theology: the Atonement is a vicarious act, and Christ’s empathy toward our lives or our empathy toward his turn upon this capacity to imagine, to immerse oneself in things as they really are not (at least in terms of not being physically present). How is any religious belief possible without the capacity to conceptualize worlds distanced from our present physical environment? Surely salvation depends upon imagination, though the doctrines are not directly expressed in such terms. If I can’t imagine a better me, or a better existence, or a prior existence, how do I know who I am, what I have been, what I might be? And so it is an easy thing to defend aesthetics in religious terms when you find common ground in the area of vicarious experience.

But vicarious experience is not physical, embodied experience, is it? What about that priority of physical presence and physical experience emphasized by Elder Bednar? Could it be that I have spent too much of my life as Ahab’s companion pursuing a white whale of imaginative experience at the expense of real friendships or family relationships?

Virtual reality check: Have you ever hoped that a family member would go away so that you could finish a book? I have. One of the most damning moments of my life as a father was when my three year old son slapped down one of my books I was reading in grad school and said, “Yook at me, not books!” Far too often, I have yooked on at my book. As someone who did graduate studies in English literature, I live with the guilt of that for months on end I had more substantial relationships with Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth than I did with the woman I married for time and all eternity. Okay, so there were no tawdry avatars involved, no interaction like that which can happen online. But in all my quiet page turning, was I closing the book on my most profound relationships? What is ignored when I pay attention to the worlds books offer me so richly and regularly?

I’m counting the cost. It could be that books are even more threatening than the online world in some ways. At least with video games I often play these with my children and consider it a constructive parent-child experience. But books? They are deeply isolating. And they certainly deny the human body. Believe me, I have tried very hard to read while jogging on a treadmill and I just don’t think it can be done. You hear about people being distracted by text messaging while driving, but books can be just as dangerous to the real world. When a teenager I read a book while riding a bicycle home from the library and knocked a child over. Idiot me! Books have been destroying people literally and physically for centuries, hooking us on the crack cocaine of vividly rendered virtual worlds without the virtue of physical embodiment. Perhaps movies are superior morally to books, since these are more embodied (appealing to more of our senses) and generally are experienced socially in ways books are not.

Why do we aspire to immersion in literary worlds when the cost is so high? Would your life be better in all sorts of ways if you set aside that novel and got some exercise, spent time with a family member, or did something constructive like visit the sick?

How virtuous are your virtual environments — whether mediated by electrons or tree pulp?  How embodied is your day to day experience? How physically present are your relationships? How real is the world where you live?

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9 Responses to Electronic Age: Is embodied experience endangered by books?

  1. Elizabeth Chick-Burton says:

    Oh this really resonates deeply. Lots for me to ponder. My eldest daughter’s 1st complete sentence was "Stop reading Mummy!" She would put her face between me and the book. It made me laugh at the time, but in a very guilty way. She is now my most reluctant reader. I wonder if there is a link?

  2. This was wonderfully insightful! This has been a topic that I’ve felt deeply about for a long time, but you put it into words far better than I ever have. Though I’ve often seen TV and Film as the greater culprits by their easy, click-of-a-button, mentally-lulling natures, it’s very true that anything that supplants real experience with virtual experience is damning. We all need to assess the media in our lives and determine if it’s a means to an end or an end in itself. Ironically, I think I touch heavily upon this theme in my upcoming novel.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m not willing to blame books for your running someone over with a bike. This is a personality issue. (You must just be that kind of guy;-))

    No, seriously. The "problem" here maybe the classic introvert/extrovert issue. Both my husband and I are avid readers. He is an introvert and will shut the world out to read–and he isn’t reading fiction, but physics and philosophy. I, the family extrovert, read fiction and don’t have this problem. I don’t believe for a moment that there is anything wrong with being an introvert, but I do believe that introverts tend to need nudges toward additional human interactions. And many, many extroverts need to learn to live the examined life. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Awhile back someone on the AML list posted this link:

    This article does a fantastic job of arguing that reading, particularly fiction, improves human relationships because it improves empathy. Take a moment to read it.

    Back to technology. Again, sure, some personality types may lose the embodied experience because of over-dependence on technological connections. But I’ve watched my two older kids (now 20 and 18) gain confidence and move outside their retiring personalities because of social networking sites and the instant and constant contact of text messaging. For them, these inventions have improved their human contact, not detracted from it. At least I’m convinced it is so (and won’t they love to learn I said so here). So lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. Tyler says:

    Hear, hear, Lisa. You get at the heart of what I’ve been thinking since I read this earlier this morning: maybe we should focus on finding balance between the examined life (e.g. the one lived in books) and the extroverted one, between vicarious experience and lived experience, instead of throwing all the books out with the baby. (Though I suspect there’s some hyperbole at work in Gideon’s post.)

    I’ve got three things to add:

    1) If we’re worried about reading taking time away from family relationships, maybe we should read more together as families. And when I say read together, I mean read aloud together. This may not work so well with older kids, but reading aloud invokes a connection between the reader and the listener that can strengthen relationships and increase empathy (as the article Lisa references points out).

    2) If we’re worried about books endangering embodied experience, maybe we should read aloud to ourselves more often. This invokes a total response in the reader, one that binds word to sound to flesh, that ripples from the page through the body. As a poet and reader of poetry, I find this especially true: there are times when I’ve been reading poetry’s compressed language aloud and I feel the rhythms pulsing through my body, raising my heart rate, making me more aware of what my flesh has to say.

    3) I return frequently to this statement from the [i]Lectures on Faith[/i] (7;3), which seems apropos to the real, salvific power of words you seem concerned about Gideon (and I’m sure you’re familiar with this):

    "[W]hen a man works by faith he works by mental exertion instead of physical force.

    "It is by words instead of exerting his physical powers, with which every being works when he works by faith."

    Gender-exclusive pronouns notwithstanding, I think the real strength of this statement is the reminder that words are a means of communion with God, of exercising faith. And if, by expanding my language and experience through an engagement with literature, I can access greater faith and draw nearer to God; and if this engagement with literature can help me tune in to my body’s needs and help me become a better, more compassionate, more empathic person; and if I can inspire this balanced connection in others (though, I admit, it is a constant battle to remain balanced, to keep literature’s proper ends in mind), I’m there to the end and beyond. (This is one reason I turned writer, after all.)

  5. Rebecca Peterson says:


    I would urge you, if you have not already, to read Walter Benjamin’s "The Storyteller."


    His argument is similar to yours in that he expresses anxiety over the isolating effects of the modern novel: “the birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who no longer is able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns. . . and cannot council others” (Benjamin).

  6. Ed Snow says:

    Embodied experiences rarely allow for the extensive expression found in the scriptures and great literature, or even journals and letters. And writing transcends time, something not too forgiving for a personal interaction, say, with Plato. Reading aloud is a magnificent way to bridge any gap here, and great literature is almost always improved by being read out loud.

  7. Ann Best says:

    I agree that the Internet can rule our lives–if we allow it to. So can books, or anything that we become overly fixated on/obsessed with. Again, it’s the basic Word of Wisdom thing: maintaining a balance in our lives, using wisdom. I love books. It’s up to me to determine how much and when I should let myself get involved in reading.

  8. Scott Parkin says:

    I think there are a couple of different ideas here.

    Embodied experience–knowing with your own senses–cannot be replaced by much of anything. There is a reality to literally knowing a thing by your own direct experience that cannot be known by any other means.

    And while I would never advocate vicarious or imagined experience as a substitute for embodied experience, I would argue that those most likely to be beguiled by books are generally less likely to seek the real experience in the first place. In other words, is half of an experience better than none?

    In an ideal world, vicarious experience either intrigues one to seek direct tangible experience (give me a sense of the wonder or joy and to help push me to seek it on my own) or gives us the tools to successfully deal with our own experience (learn techniques for successful living).

    Admitting that my own experience may be atypical, as a young person I found the hope and wonder contained in sf books to be a goad to greater learning, and the fantastic worlds of fantasy novels to be a primary driver toward deeper exploration of how and why people think as they do. As one who still doesn’t know how to behave well in public, I can only suggest that whatever etiquette I have learned came from books–and if not for the introductions that books gave me to the real world, I might never have come out of my anti-social, reclusive shell.

    There is always a concern about substitutes for the real thing, but in my mind a better answer is to supplement the book, not replace it. To take away the only safe interface many of us have to the incomprehensible world of the real is to eliminate our only possible path to engagement with that world. In some cases shock therapy may be needed, but I suspect it’s needed far less than many of us fear. Some of us grow at different rates than others, but we are still growing.

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