In Search of Lost Physical Experiences

Recette_pour_la_MadeleineYesterday I just happened to enter into a bookshop—not intended, pure chance. No sooner had I crossed the threshold, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses.

I suddenly recalled the joy of moments like that, the endless hours I have spent in my life wandering along shelves full of books, in search of one new pearl, an unknown author, a superb text, yet another door opening to a vast new space of knowledge…

What a moment! Like the protagonist of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”(1) biting into a madeleine dipped in tea, I was transported to an almost forgotten past:

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.


I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic


And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished.


And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days…

While I stopped to look at some recent titles, I missed the experience of buying and reading physical books, something I do only sparingly now. And I wondered: what else am I losing and how am I being changed by my deep (literary) digitization?

We have barely begun to explore how the subtle differences between print and digital texts influence the reading process. Those differences may be particularly important when readers engage narrative text, perhaps especially literary narrative(2):

When reading on paper, readers have immediate sensory access to text sequence, as well as to the entirety of the text. They can discern visually, as well as sense kinesthetically, their page by page progress through the text; the paper substrate provides physical, tactile, and spatiotemporally fixed cues to text length.

In contrast, when reading on screen, readers may see (e.g., using page numbers) but not kinesthetically sense their page by page progress through the text. Hence, overview of the text’s organization and structure— the reader’s “sense of the text”— may be diminished.

While such loss of text length overview and of location in the text may matter for reading in general, having a “sense of the text” may matter especially for narrative genres. On the one hand, because narratives are based on a chronological ordering of actions and events, a parallel kinesthetic sense of the unfolding reading event may support immersion in the narrated world.

There is evidence that readers recall where in the text (on the page; in the entire text corpus) certain passages or pieces of information appeared. Having a good spatial representation of the physical layout of the text, moreover, supports reading comprehension. (Anne Mangen & Don Kuiken, “Lost in an iPad”)

The madeleine and the books make me think how much and how fast the digitization is changing our relationship with the physical world, and how little we know about how this will transform us.

For some reason we do not understand yet, we tend to think (feel?) that our mind and body are to a large extent independent one from the other, and therefore that the mind will continue to work as it does, keeping our inner self intact even under significant changes of the surrounding physical experience.

That is very unlikely. I am with Antonio Damasio. Maybe counterintuitive, but it seems a lot more plausible that there is no discontinuity between physical experience, sensing, feeling and ultimately the self.

Now, while I am writing these lines, and I see my digital gadgets around, I cannot avoid the feeling that they are feeding the digital beast lurking in the shadows of my brain.

Fortunately we still have madeleines!


(1) Marcel Proust, “À la recherche du temps perdu”

(2) Mangen, Anne, and Don Kuiken. “Lost in an iPad: Narrative Engagement on Paper and Tablet.” Scientific Study of Literature 4, no. 2 (2014): 150–77. doi:10.1075/ssol.4.2.02man.

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