It seems strange that I don't hear this more often, but I think it's important to remember that with a codex, a material printed and bound text, the work and the medium are as physical as one another, they are the same thing, bound in an unchanging dialogue within that one item. Not to say that the work and the pages it's printed on are the same thing, rather that when we talk about War and Peace being a book what we used to mean is that there is a codex which contains War and Peace that we can point at and say “that book is War and Peace.” We've grown, over centuries, to understand that this is the reading experience: to acquire a specific and unique (though replicable) thing and to work out what it means (plot, argument, etc.). The e-reader/e-book relationship is entirely different; what do we point to when we say “that book is War and Peace?”
As Katherine Hayles puts it “[a]n electronic text literally does not exist if it is not generated by the appropriate hardware running the appropriate software. Rigorously speaking, an electronic text is a process rather than an object, although objects (like hardware and software) are required to produce it” (Katherine Hayles, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep” 79).
E-readers are as physical as any codex (though they obviously have their own specificities which establish different gestures and actions during use), but the e-books that can be read on them are ephemeral, ghostly, brought to the surface to establish a bond with the tangible object, but then returning to somewhere else, leaving the physical form of the equipment to mean by itself and in other contexts, with other works. We have corollaries for this experience of course, in television, computing, cinema, and varieties of music players; these all deploy stable physical objects which can call up diverse content, and as such we should hardly be surprised by the new equipment for reading. But perhaps the surprise is to be expected: reading had always, until the advent of the moving image, meant interacting with an object which is the book (or the scroll, or the parchment). Cinema, television, and, predominantly, computing changed that arrangement and eventually brought it into our homes and to our engagement with long form texts (rather than just subtitles) like books. E-reading threatens to make this shift irrevocable, and there is, I suppose, something to be lost here. Though it might well become trivial, at least in terms of its importance to future generations of readers, it can, and maybe should seem significant to the current generation: with screen reading the book and the object are taken apart.
I'm very interested in the effects that this has on readers, and I'm fascinated with the language people use to talk about their experiences of reading on screen as it seems like a constant outpouring of valuable data. In the same way that folk psychology has become a recognised discourse, we can see the various reports of reading on screen's “unnaturalness,” and ergonomic inadequacies as a kind of folk phenomenology - a description, stemming from first person analysis, of experience which the creator often feels can be exported, with limited modification, to other experiencers of the same or similar phenomena. Thomas Metzinger, in one of the few available classifications of the term, describes folk phenomenology as “a naïve, prescientific way of speaking about the contents of our own minds - folk-phenomenology is a way of referring specifically to the contents of conscious experience, as experienced from the first-person perspective...and is characterized by an almost all-pervading naïve realism.” But as folk psychology can often demonstrate useful examples, methods, and states to its more academic counterpart, I would like to argue that the folk phenomenology of intuitive report, at least when it comes to e-reading, has a lot to offer us in terms of prompting us toward the issues that are central to negotiating what is qualitatively different about reading on a screen with its capacity to present an infinite array of texts.
For example, Lynne Truss, in her punctuation pedant's handbook Eats Shoots and Leaves, offers an illustrative folk phenomenological experience which seems to support this attitude: “Scrolling documents is the opposite of reading: your eyes remain static, while the material flows past” (181). Now, I don't agree with Truss' claim here, that the eyes don't move during reading where the material is scrolled rather than paginated, indeed all physiological data about eye movement during reading runs counter to it (see, for example, Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain), but there is certainly value to the report - fluid scrolling, to Truss, doesn't feel like reading at all, in fact seems its 'opposite,' where the eyes do no work and the experience seems passive in comparison to the warp and woof of the machinery.
Christine Shaw Roome, a professional fundraiser for an academic library in Canada, writing this year about her first experience of reading from an iPad for the blog Life as a Human, reports a similar position to Truss: she wonders if she's now reading a book at all, the feel of the activity has completely altered.
I noticed many things about my e-reading experience. First and foremost, my eyes grew tired faster. This was particularly true of the days that I spent in front of the computer screen only to take a “break” from my work in order to look at yet another screen. This did not feel like reading a book...[her husband interrupts her] “I’m reading a book!” But, was I? I was missing the tactile features of the book, which often comfort me. The smell and feel of the book and the way you can see how far you’ve read by measuring the thickness of the pages. When I buy a book, I always take time to look at its design - the type face, the page weight and colour, the way the ends appear to be torn or are cut precisely. The texture of the cover and the photography or illustration that accompanies the title all draw me in and are part of the experience of enjoying a book. Sometimes, I buy a book just because I like how it feels in my hands.
Roome offers us a good survey, here, of the most familiar elements of the folk phenomenological debate surrounding reading on screen: eye strain; too much time spent reading on screen; it no longer seeming to be a book; it not feeling like a book; it not smelling like a book; the wedge of remaining pages being a consistent indicator; and the object as aesthetic artefact.
The scent of physical books, old and new, has become such a shorthand for the deprivations of reading on screen compared to codex reading that a spoof range of aerosols (SmellofBooks.com) did the rounds in various discussions of the subject. The appeal to smell might seem an odd reason to cling to a medium, but, if nothing else, it shows how deeply passions run in this regard, or just how far appeals will go to demonstrate the sanctity of the old form - everything about it is 'comforting.'
What really comes through in this report from Roome, however, is the importance of haptic experience: the feel of the book in the hands is an essential part of grounding the experience as what it is. When this aspect is missing the effect is so profound, the cognitive dissonance so great, that seemingly unintuitive questions arise: “is this even a book?” “Is this reading?”
When, in Print is Dead, Jeff Gomez suggests that “there is one area of knowledge that is sacrosanct, seen to be both untouchable in terms of its utility and unimpeachable by its very nature. I’m talking about the words found in books” (12), and when when Lucien X Polastron suggests that “the sole difference a paper book carries - in addition to the clearly superior epidermal pleasure it provides over that produced by touching plastic…is that the total weight of the text is constantly felt by the reader. This sensation perhaps gives the reader an impression...of possessing the whole of its meaning, an illusion whose loss could panic fragile souls” (The Great Digitization, footnote 35), then we start to close in on some of the detail motivating the folk phenomenological reports of resistance to reading on screen rooted in tactile experience of the technology of reading. A paper book represents knowledge, rather than just containing it, and its fixed and physical coherence, completed and separated from the world by its covers, assumes the projection of a definitive truth. The acquisition of knowledge and the “perfect” form of the bound and printed book are intimately associated.
An expression of this might be found in Sven Birkerts' work on the subject, work which also seems to have a folk phenomenology of codex reading underpinning its assertions:
Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer - a skeptic if not a downright resister?...I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it - the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly (“Resisting the Kindle”).
This quotation shows a distinct attitude towards the embodiment of the text: to touch a book is to experience a unique history of evolutionary dynamics. For Birkerts there is a history of haptic engagement which comes into play with every turn of the page, a kinesthetics (and, as we also saw with Roome, a kinaesthetics) which acts as a physical reminder of the forces and efforts which go, and have gone into understanding. From the reports of the skeptics it is clear that when we turn pages we engage with the systematic pursuit of knowledge, but it's not enough just to look, we have to become, for Birkerts, for Roome, and for Truss, involved, to physically engage. And can we find that involvement in a Kindle? Or a touchscreen reader? I know that if I want to understand and persuasively support reading on screen then this is what the folk reports suggest I must find.