Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Reports on the Changing Bodies of Books

- but ho! if only they would make some sound, / or wear a face where faces should be found! - h.p. lovecraft -


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.

6 comments:

Tim Carmody said...

I'm all about this materialist-phenomenological approach to reading. But I think you may slight the way in which reading a book has always been a complicated interplay of immanence & transcendence.

For instance, the codex book has never been the material FACT of the work of art the way that a sculpture or painting is. Likewise, the physicality of reading the paper codex is harder to ignore now that we have a very different (and on its face, less robust) physicality for reading all kinds of documents, including books.

Also, when you're working through the genuinely phenomenological (as opposed to the narrowly empirical) account of reading a book, its transcendence, the fact that it does not appear to be merely confined to that physical codex, is a genuine part of that experience.

In other words, ignoring the physicality of reading may be a mistake -- but as Wittgenstein says (and Heidegger might say), it is not a *stupid* mistake.

I've found Gerard Genette's "The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence" helpful in thinking through these issues in my own research. http://www.amazon.com/Work-Art-Immanence-Transcendence/dp/0801482720

Tim said...

I'm all about this materialist-phenomenological approach to reading. But I think you may slight the way in which reading a book has always been a complicated interplay of immanence & transcendence.

For instance, the codex book has never been the material FACT of the work of art the way that a sculpture or painting is. Likewise, the physicality of reading the paper codex is harder to ignore now that we have a very different (and on its face, less robust) physicality for reading all kinds of documents, including books.

Also, when you're working through the genuinely phenomenological (as opposed to the narrowly empirical) account of reading a book, its transcendence, the fact that it does not appear to be merely confined to that physical codex, is a genuine part of that experience.

In other words, ignoring the physicality of reading may be a mistake -- but as Wittgenstein says (and Heidegger might say), it is not a *stupid* mistake.

I've found Gerard Genette's "The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence" helpful in thinking through these issues in my own research. http://www.amazon.com/Work-Art-Immanence-Transcendence/dp/0801482720

cryurchin said...

Hi Tim,

Firstly thank you for the book recommendation, it seems to fit perfectly with some things I've been trying to work out in my third chapter, my order has been placed!

This post was taken out of some of the rewrites of the second chapter of my thesis, and I go on to address a number of the issues you mention (my fault for trying to pull a blog post out of a longer work, I know). One of the things that I'm really interested in is how changes in the technology of reading extend our day-to-day ideas about what the word "text" (as opposed to, say "script") should include (i.e. posture, environment, editions, specificities of *this particular* codex, etc.).

Maybe I take on board the language of the skeptics too much here, but I really wanted to give their position a fair crack, to see why the average reader might not like the change in technology. Reading a book is a complicated phenomenological (and empirical) experience to describe, but when someone settles down with a new novel how much of that complex interplay comes to mind...until they settle down to read it on a Kindle. Then suddenly these issues come to life. I think one of the most striking and immediate ways this manifests itself is in the sudden realisation that the book now has properties similar to television. This is not trivial, and it's certainly not stupid (in any sense!), but I think it often necessarily comes before questions of how maybe the book has always had elements of this argument embedded within it.

In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle puts forward the notion of objects-to-think-with, arguing that home computers become a way of physically working through ideas that can be found in more abstract theory and philosophy (particularly Jameson's Postmodernism). I'm not always sure of the persuasiveness of Turkle's examples, but the idea of objects-to-think with has stuck with me, and I think that maybe there is a certain degree of enacting potential, for any reader making the shift in reading technology, to open up arguments that previously they might not have considered, or not considered worth their time.

The language of transcendence that Genette describes seems persuasive, but I wonder how much of that transcendence is available to the conscious experience of the average reader (I cringe every time I write those two words, it feels like a pejorative when I really don't mean it to be, just that there are a lot of people who read for pleasure who have issues they never expected to intrude on their reading experience suddenly manifesting… and then they realise they were there all along). As you (and Wittgenstein and Heidegger (might)) say: not a stupid mistake.

Tim said...

I should point to the full quote from Wittgenstein I was thinking of (from Philosophical Investigations, section 340):

One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that. But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing this. It is not a stupid prejudice.

This comes right after section 339, which begins "Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking" -- but then goes on to ask, "in what way an incorporeal process"? The problem then becomes how to account for this mistake, not simply to note that it *is* a mistake.

You could say that both the experience of transcendence and the experience of immanence in reading a book are mistakes when we begin to look at print and digital, in the sense that both can mislead us into actually looking at what happens. But they are not "stupid" mistakes/prejudices, in both senses -- they are based in something actual, and (to anthropomorphize) they are cunning to root out.

I think this is what Heidegger's getting at in his reduction/destruction/construction methodology for phenomenology, & what the Wittgenstein in PI is getting at in his skeptical/antimethodological approach to language. Both teach us something.

cryurchin said...

Thank you, I think this gets at something that is often missing from these debates (and I think I'm guilty of it here, though I try not to be): don't just recognise the mistakes, try and get to why they came about. I like the tone that this brings to the argument because it doesn't say "you're stupid, the world's actually like *this*." Instead the discussion can be framed in terms of "the world may be like this, which would lead us all, prior to reflection/investigation, to think in this way" and then test the hypothesis. This seems an incredibly healthy way of going about that investigation.

I hope that this is, overall, what I'm attempting to do with my own project, to discover the recurring themes of folk phenomenological discourses surrounding resistance to reading on screen, and then try and find the aspects of the world (principally via cognitive and neuropsychological evidence) for why those thoughts might have come about in the first place, how things like embodiment and using the hands to read might have impacted on our perception of one set of objects so that when even subtle changes occur our reaction to a new set can be dramatic, fervent, or simply seemingly unexplainable.

Yanny'sYak said...

I actually just had this discussion with one of my students today. We were discussing the death of everything "hard copy". The discussion began, of course, with the idea of all of our work being electronically distributed and the death of "hardcopies". Our discussion then led to how upset we are at the fact that this is happening. Even in the medium of movies, we are no longer able to casually walk into a Blockbuster and stroll the aisles looking for a movie. We have evolved to a point where we must now get our movies from "Redbox" (don't get me wrong I love the convenience of it). Who's to say we will not lose our libraries next? Border's is closing down, and likewise to many other book stores. As people commonly say, history often repeats itself. Before printers everything was handwritten, and when printers were developed, there were people who threw a fit about this new typing. And just now the creation of writing on the screen is suddenly starting to replace writing on paper. History is once again repeating itself. Will we cave in and allow it, or fight the progression? No one knows what is the right answer, and only time will tell.

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