That would be Andrew Piper whose book, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, was excerpted in Slate today. Actually I wouldn’t recommend reading it. So let me save you the trouble by commenting on it.
Piper’s point is this: electronic reading sucks compared to physical book reading because with out the touch of a real book you can’t really get in touch with your feelings. Really? Well, I was apparently able to have a number of feelings while reading Piper’s article on a cold hard computer screen, sitting upright at a desk with a bowl of muesli between my hands and the text. One was irony. Yes, ironic, in much the same way as rain on a wedding day isn’t. Because he was communicating all this digitally and also was happy to link to Amazon to buy the full book on a Kindle for $9.99.
Another feeling was rage. It was real rage. So much so that I decided not to blog about the article but to read it again when I got to work and see if the rage had dispelled itself. As you might have guessed, it hadn’t.
Nothing is more suspect today than the book’s continued identity of being “at hand.” The spines, gatherings, threads, boards, and folds that once gave a book its shapeliness, that fit it to our hands, are being supplanted by the increasingly fine strata of new reading devices, integrated into vast woven systems of connection. If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense. What this means for how we read—and how we are taken hold of by what we read—is still far from clear.
I can’t make head or tails of this. “Vertebral” is a word which here means having a spine but if I pick up a frigging book it it kind of sloppy compared with the rigidity of an iPad. Does he mean if I could hold the bits? Apparently so,
Digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden. We cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen’s letters, the electromagnetically charged “hard drive,” without destroying it. Unlike books, we cannot feel the impressions of the digital. The touch of the page brings us into the world, while the screen keeps us out. All that remains of the hand is a ghostly remnant of its having been there at the time of scanning, like the chance encounters with scanners’ hands from Google Books, accidental traces of the birth of the digital record. The hand no longer points, like the typographic manicule; rather, it covers over or gets in the way. Hand was there, we might say.
I agree that what makes reading a good experience is hard to grasp but an iPad is darn easy to hold. Look at Apple’s ads for the iPad mini, there is a damn hand there. And notice there, right in the text of the quote. A hyperlink. What is this author doing with a hyperlink?
My rage shifted back to irony as I realised that with the article in my browser I couldn’t vent my rage the same way I would if this article had been in a magazine. In that case, what I would have done is taken the page out, ripped from the vertebral spine if you will, crumpled it up and tossed it into my bin with a satisfying clink. Hold on a second, I’m going to do that anyway. I’ll print it out and destroy it ….
…. There I’m back. A little calmer. But now I read on.
However much electronic books may try to look like their printed brethren, they still change how we manually interact with them and those changes matter for how we read. There are, for starters, no longer any pages to turn. There is no density to the e-book (all is battery), which is incidentally one of its greatest selling points. Open books can be measured by the sliding scale of pages past and future, like steps, just off to the side of the page. What lies after the digital page? An abyss. No matter what the page number says (and depending on which screen you’re reading it will say different things), we have no way to corroborate this evidence with our senses, no idea where we are while we read. Instead of turning the page, we now have the button, at least for a little while longer. The hand no longer points, and thus cognitively and emotionally reaches for something it cannot have (like Michelangelo’s famous finger), it pressesor squeezes. The mechanical pressure that gave birth to the printed book in the form of the wooden handpress is today both vastly reduced in scale and multiplied in number through our interactions with the digital. There is a punctuatedness, a suddenness, but also a repetitiveness to pressing buttons that starkly contrast with the sedate rhythms of the slowly turned page. Buttons convert human motion into an electrical effect. In this, they preserve the idea of “conversion” that was at the core of reading books for Augustine. But in their incessant repetitiveness the meaning of conversion is gradually hollowed out. It is made less transformative.
Buttons also resist. Over time, their use causes stress to the human body, known as carpal tunnel syndrome. Like its related postural malady, “text neck,” these syndromes are signs of how computation is beginning to stretch us, both cognitively and corporally. The resistance of the button is an intimation of the way technology increasingly seems to be pushing back.
Again I’m lost. Yes it is true that some eReaders don’t have the skeuomorphic experience of page turning but the stuff on my iPad does and I routinely hold the page as I read just as I would a book. And I seem to know where I am, more so in iBooks than Kindle as it literally tells me the number of pages left in the chapter. To be sure, there is more that can be done. Consider this new book app or “eLume” put out by Orson & Co. It seems pretty book like to me. Or the app, The Silent History that I only wish I had more time to explore. It is a book where the authors care deeply about the reading experience.
And “carpal tunnel syndrome”? Really? The eReaders are lighter than books. I don’t know about you but the physical condition of my hand is all the more better for digitisation.
Then Piper brings the children into it:
As I begin to read, the kids begin to lean into me. Our bodies assume positions of rest, the book our shared column of support. No matter what advertisers say, this could never be true of the acrobatic screen. As we gradually sink into the floor, and each other, our minds are freed to follow their own pathways, unlike the prescribed pathways of the Web. We read and we drift. “The words of my book nothing,” writes Walt Whitman, “the drift of it everything.”
Yes, the old “you are destroying childhood trick.” Back again to irony for me. Just last night, my three children (yes, one as old as 14!) gathered on the couch next to me to hear me read Lemony Snicket’s “Who could that be at this hour?” (All the wrong questions) to them. We don’t have the physical book. We have the iPad Mini. The kids want to look at the text while we all read. Previously that was a challenge as my eyesight required the book to be close enough to my face for me to read. But this time around, I can put it at a discrete distance and simply enlarge the font! And what do you know, we get more pages to turn lovingly as a result. Exactly what were we missing by not having a physical book?
And as I pause for a moment to consider the book I was reading to my children I wonder if perhaps here I am asking all the wrong questions. Part of me wonders if perhaps Piper is just joking; making fun of people holding onto the past with flowery language, vague assertions and complete lapses of logic. But no, there are just no clues to that here. Perhaps the biggest question is: why do I read such drivel?