The Rematerialization of the Book


The last thing that many of us would have expected as a result of the advent of the Kindle and the iPad and whatever it is that that Google tablet is called is the renewed awareness of and attention to the very thing that some late-20th century literary critics have been trying for so long to argue, namely that literature is a physical object (c.f. Jerome McGann, et al.).  In fact, it may be a perfect paradox that the threat of the literal disappearance of the book was what it took for literature to once again stop being considered an entity made up of texts disembodied from all physical trappings and become once again a set of embodied, or more exactly, imprinted/objectified/media-specific, objects.  This may be a phase, just a micro-trend, something like the brief but very real rejection of cell phones on Wall Street in the late 1990s, when it was decided that the privilege of having a secretary trumped the convenience of a personal digital assistant. However, I wonder if this is not actually something different, not just a phase but a phenomenon related to the maturation of some of the technologies associated with how we read.


“I can feel it,” writes Nicholas Carr in his 2008 _New Republic_ article about how the world wide web and reading online appear to be changing his reading practices.  I, too, can feel, it, that sense of distraction from having too many browsers open at one time, from trying to read more than one thing at a time, from being “called” (by whom or what I could not say) to check my e-mail/Twitter/other social media accounts for updates.  But, more recently, I can feel too a renewed sense of concentration and relief returning to the pages of a printed book.  There, there is only one thing to pay attention to.  There are no buttons to push.  There are no updates to monitor.  There is no breaking news.  There is nothing more than a single page in front of me.  One literally cannot read the text on both facing pages of a printed book at one time.  I can try to look at both facing pages at the same time, but that is to look at some aspect of a book as a material object, not to be reading it.  Nor can one “read,” in a certain sense of the word, more than one screen at a time, but we all try to, toggling between windows, between applications, between tasks.  If I am reading a page, I must do only that.  Otherwise, I am not reading; I am involved in some other activity:  looking, observing, skimming.

However, what connects the past and the present, and the two very different experiences of reading associated with each, is the fact that how we read is intricately tied up with the technologies used to enable our reading practices.  We are thus in a unique moment in which to ask ourselves: along with all of those printed pages, is a particular experience of reading words disappearing?  Despite all appearances, this is not a lament for some imagined, simpler,  and ultimately nonexistent past.  Rather, it is a plea to those involved in the study and practice of literacies to take a firmer stand regarding the relevance of print-based literacy practices and their role and function socio-culturally and in education.  It is hard to make this argument and not sound conservative in every sense of the word.  But what I am arguing for is conservation in the ecological sense of the word.  We are and have been for some time in the midst of multiple and competing media ecologies.  As we build new environments for ourselves in which we are teaching ourselves how to read in new ways, we have a choice in the matter.  We can decide to emphasize the diversity of media environments and resuscitate, cultivate, and utilize old media and the reading practices associated with them, or, as we have tended to do to date, we can embrace a media mono-culture in which only the newest new media is attended to.  The most current educational policies and decisions being made in relation to technology are characterized by the latter, and the consequences of these are in the short term very costly and, in the longer term, both diverse and profound.

December, 2014