On Reading

November, 2012

On Reading

Johannah Rodgers

I have been thinking a lot lately about reading:  about how much I love reading and how pleasurable it is, not just as a pasttime or for entertainment–though these are important parts of it as well–but as something more significant and ultimately more important than entertainment.  You must read with desire, I’ve written, as has Roland Barthes long before me.  I keep turning to Barthes in my quest to understand more about reading, why it is so important to me, and how I might share this desire, this pleasure with my students.  I have not yet located any one piece of writing by Barthes that succinctly communicates this, which is part of the reason that I am writing this now.  

 

In an age of widespread access to information, we are all reading a lot.  But we are reading differently.  We are also experiencing time differently.  I think about myself and all of the time I once had to read.  Do people have that kind of time anymore?  They could, in theory, but perhaps they simply don’t.  I still have the time, but I use it differently.  I can now look at twenty books at a time in the space of an afternoon on Google Books.  Reading technologies are not new, of course, and it is worth thinking about the bookwheel and the reading easel as some examples of reading technologies from another time.  (Perhaps just as much as time and space are essential to understanding novels, the time and space of reading itself is important.  Many literary theorists have written about the time of reading and its relationships with narrative time, but we are still figuring out how the time and space of reading change with changes in actual time.)    

 

In my studies of reading and in my thinking about teaching writing, I’ve come to learn that writing well really is–at least in part–a question of reading well.  It is also about reading a lot.  It is about developing a fluency in reading.  It is internalizing a textual language.  To become comfortable with writing is, in some ways, to learn a new language.  

 

There are a lot of steps involved in this metaphor I’ve thrown out there, and I hope at some point to break them all down.  For now, what I want to focus on is this question of technology and reading.  Each generation grows up with its own technologies of reading. I am very much a product of my own generational reading technologies.  My mother’s generation was slightly different from mine.  But the technology we shared was the printed book.  Mine may have been paperbacks and hers hardcovers, mine may have had different covers and included more graphics and colors than hers, but she and I both sat with a bound codex in our laps or on our desks to learn things.  The printed codex will not be the technology of reading for the next generation.  It will be something else.  Although I am not the best person to explain how this next generation’s reading technologies will function, I can act as an intermediary and as a witness to the pleasures of my generation’s reading technologies.  

 

Back to Barthes, who has always been interested most in writing and–he claims–only secondarily in reading.  Are we writing and reading in new ways now?  Is this an age of a new kind of concision in communication, as well as one of collaboration in composition?  

 

My sense is that all that anyone needs to get started with reading is a door.  But what does that door look like for this generation?  My door looked like this:  some small books that my mother told me were must reads:  Kafka, ee cummings’ six non-lectures, some poems by Yeats.  This door opened a bit more in high school when I was introduced to various French existentialist writers.  This door was then blown off its hinges when I took a class on Proust in college, and it has been wide open ever since.  But if, for my generation, the clues were in footnotes and references and bibliographies, where are they for this generation?

Adapted from What Is Writing?: An Introduction to Writing as an Act and Medium of Communication (2015).


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Engineering Language: Writing Machines, Labor, and Public Education in the U.S. and Britain

Engineering Language is the title of a research project that I am currently working on that investigates the interconnections amongst the history and development of information and communications technologies, linguistic and literary critical definitions of language, writing instruction in public higher education, and commercial publishing in order to better understand the  definitions, roles and functions of verbal language in twenty-first century media economies.

Since the widespread adoption of the printing press, we have been writing with and for machines.  However, the ways in which and the extent to which machines could participate in acts of writing have changed over time.  We have now reached a point where machines play an active role not only in the reproduction and distribution of writing, but in its production and, even, at times, in its creation and composition.  As we find ourselves increasingly writing with and for machines, there is the possibility that functions once assigned uniquely to humans can be automated.  In this project, I am exploring the interconnections amongst the history and development of information and communications technologies, linguistic and literary critical definitions of language, writing instruction in public higher education, and commercial publishing in order to better understand the production and functions of verbal language, or what was once referred to as “writing,” in twentieth and twenty-first century media economies.

Here Is One More Question to Add to the Growing List of Things to Talk About Regarding the Court’s Decision to Revoke Martin Shkreli’s Bail: Was It Primarily Intended to Protect Clinton’s Safety or her DNA?

Regardless of what you think of Martin Shkreli, and it is frankly hard not to have strong opinions about the guy, a Brooklyn judge’s decision on September 13, 2017 to revoke his bail privileges based on a Facebook post raises a whole host of issues.  While most of the discussion will be focused on what counts as protected speech, particularly if the original post was intended as satire, a less pressing though nonetheless interesting question regarding just what the judge intended to protect also needs to be discussed.

While Brooklyn-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg has undoubtedly received less press than Shkreli and his antics, her DNA-based portraits  , have left many of us thinking about the very real issues related to identity theft in an age of mechanized biological reproduction.

 

 

 

Science and/as Fiction

Science and Fiction – A New Series from Springer Nature

This collection of entertaining and thought-provoking books will appeal equally to science buffs, scientists and science-fiction fans. It was born out of the recognition that scientific discovery and the creation of plausible fictional scenarios are often two sides of the same coin. Each relies on an understanding of the way the world works, coupled with the imaginative ability to invent new or alternative explanations – and even other worlds. Authored by practicing scientists as well as writers of hard science fiction, these books explore and exploit the borderlands between accepted science and its fictional counterpart. Uncovering mutual influences, promoting fruitful interaction, narrating and analyzing fictional scenarios, together they serve as a reaction vessel for inspired new ideas in science, technology, and beyond. Whether fiction, fact, or forever undecidable: the Springer Series “Science and Fiction” intends to go where no one has gone before!

For more information about the series: http://www.springer.com/series/11657

To read Paul Nahin’s recent contribution to the series, Time Travel Tales:

https://archive.org/details/28dec1

Re: Portraiture as a Site of Many Meetings

The following is excerpted from the Afterword(s) to Portraits and Conversations, my recent collection of fictional essays:

One thing that I find interesting about portraits as a genre of painting is that they are most often considered to be a unique combination of an objective documentation of an individual and the painter’s subjective description of the same individual; another unique attribute of many portraits is that they are assumed to serve as representations of both the physical and psychological characteristics of the individual being portrayed.  The extent to which a specific portrait is interpreted by a viewer to be primarily an objective or subjective description varies depending on a number of factors: the context in which the portrait is presented, the biographies of the artist and sitter, the media selected for the portrait, and the artist’s use of that media.  Whether photographic portraits exist in the same way is open to question since the photograph is usually perceived to have a different relationship to objects and their potentially objective representation than a drawing or painting or verbal description.  Conversations are likewise a unique meeting place of subjective and objective interpretations.  The perspective from which one hears, or overhears, a conversation affects the meanings of the verbal statements in a variety of ways.  “To say nothing of her” is, for instance, an utterance that can be interpreted differently depending on how, why, and in what context it is received.  

About Portraits and Conversations

Why Do You Read Science Fiction?

Johannah Rodgers
February 11, 2017

I read science fiction for reasons that change on an almost daily basis. Initially, and not all that long ago, I started reading science fiction because I quite unexpectedly found myself working on a fiction project related to the genre of science fiction. Before that time (2008?), I did not think that I had ever read science fiction. This was, of course, not true. However, it was what I believed.

I study, write about, and write prose, both fiction and nonfiction, which are part of what we call, generally, literature. Having studied and been educated in the history of Western literature, I tended to draw distinct lines between “literature” and “non-literature” (whatever that is?!). [In the 80s, it was possible to make a distinction between two categories that were related to one another by capitalizing the first letter of one and not capitalizing the first letter of the other. I believe this practice in some way related to Lacan’s work, but I’m not sure.] Anyway, in the past, I made a clear distinction between Literature (capital L) and literature (lower case l). What literature was did not concern me. However, over time, it increasingly interested me, for various reasons, all of which related in some way to this question: why is it that given the choice to read works of Literature would anyone choose to read works of literature instead? I still don’t have a complete answer to this question, but having spent some time and energy investigating it, I have more of an understanding of what is involved in formulating answers to that question.

Here is the very short version of the answer: literature (lower case l) is a living genre; Literature is not. This fact has mostly to do with economics and economies, but it also has to do with educational systems (defined broadly) and nation states. In other words, the reasons behind how and why and which books are studied and what their import is perceived to be. Literature and literature exist in some relation to one another and sometimes overlap. However how and why these two categories meet is dependent on numerous factors. In particular, the medial environment and affordances of a given culture in any one point in time.

My research and writing are increasingly focused on writing as a medium and as media and on thinking about writing as a set of and systems of technologies. It is these interests, along with the fact that I wrote a writing textbook entitled Technology: A Reader for Writers, that have led me to read more science fiction. What I have learned in the process is that I always read science fiction. However, I did not always know that I was reading science fiction.

Like most people, I read science fiction because I enjoy it and I am interested in it, both as a creative writer and as someone who thinks and writes about technologies and societies. However, I also read and study science fiction because I think it is important socially, culturally, and in the context of literary studies generally.

Some Worries: October 3, 2016

Should I say what I really think? If I were a German media theorist, I certainly would do that, but I am not. I am an American writer who wonders often whether there shouldn’t be another way of introducing herself since American seems so incredibly presumptuous and is, in fact, simply wrong. I am a United States-based writer, so I am called an American one because, in English, the United States does not have an adjectival form. It could, of course, but it doesn’t.

In addition to worrying about what adjective to use to describe myself, I also worry about how much is being written and if anyone is reading anything anymore. I, myself, have been tending to read only the first sentence of paragraphs. To some extent, this is how one is taught to read in graduate school, assuming one is not a comparative literature major, in which case, you are taught to read very, very carefully and slowly.  The geographer and Marx scholar David Harvey once said that when he offered his seminar on Marx’s Capital to a group of comparative literature faculty and graduate students at Johns Hopkins they never got past the first page of the introduction. For the whole semester, they just read one page. That anecdote, to me, offers a pretty accurate synopsis of what it means to read as a comparative literature major. Of course, even comparative literature majors cannot read in such a way today, when an estimated “3.4 trillion words, roughly the equivalent to the entire contents of the Library of Congress” are posted globally each day on the web (Clive Thompson, “Write from the Start” (2015)).

As of May, 2015, according to Caitlin Dewey’s calculations at _The Washington Post_, printing out the internet would amount to the same number of pages as 212 million copies of Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_. She does not specify the specific edition of _War and Peace_ that would need to be reproduced 212 million times (there are thousands of editions of the book in print and online). Dewey uses _War and Peace_ to illustrate her point because it is generally considered to be a long book, which it is, particularly the ebook version on my iPhone 4, which comes in at a whopping 8,588 “pages,” i.e. iPhone 4 screens. However, Dewey does cite the importance of Maurice de Kunder’s work to her calculations.  Kunder, though not as well known as Kenny Goldsmith, but who undoubtedly should be, wrote a master’s thesis documenting his development of a tool for dynamically calculating the number of web pages indexed on the World Wide Web. You can still access it at http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/ . How many of these are dedicated to the estimated eleven English translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, five of which are currently in the public domain (Bell, Dole, Wiener, Garnett, Maude), I do not know.

In his 1999 article “The Analog Experience of Digital Culture,” Stuart Moulthrop writes that in all writing about digital media, and particularly with writing published in print, “subject and media are radically misaligned. The first is inherently dynamic, the second necessarily static, and no amount of being-digital rhetoric can overcome this disparity.” While I like to think that Moulthrop’s comment can apply to writing about any subject–the real, even in its non-digital forms, is, after all, also a moving target–I must concur that when writing about topics related to the use of digital tools and technologies, we may experience this distance more acutely. I’d like Moulthrop to write more about what the experience of that distance is like. Is it akin to not trusting a writer when s/he writes about a topic that is well known to the reader? Is it akin to reading a document that is simply wrong or out of date, rather like reading a press release for an event that has already taken place?

In the same article, Moulthrop describes a web-based application that, in 1999, collected and tracked search engine activity  (there used to be more than one search engine! … oh, sorry, Bing user! Two search engines!) and enabled the user of the application to read the search terms that were being entered into various search engines in real time. Since this application no longer exists, it is hard to imagine what today’s snap-shot of any one millisecond of search terms being entered into Google might look like. I have to imagine that it would no longer be a “ticker-tape,” as it was in 1999, but more like a giant word-blob/cloud in a constant state of forming and reforming itself.  Of course, if one were to write such an application for today’s search engine(s), one would also get to decide on the shape and form of its output and, with that, shape, or at least influence, the associations and interpretations attached to it.

Textual Circulation and the Production of Common Knowledge (Robert Frost Edition)

As my work takes me ever deeper into thinking about the exchange and circulation of textual information and its currency under different technological regimes, I’ve become interested in looking a bit more at the importance of misquoted texts in the production of common knowledge.  Robert Frost’s oft-(mis)quoted line, “poetry is what gets lost in translation” is just one example of this phenomenon.   What Frost actually said, was, “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” (Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (1959))  

In a July 14, 2016 Tweet, the translator Michael Cole offers an interpretation of Frost’s line that is in some senses much closer to what Frost said in 1959 than to what we now commonly believe he said.  Cole writes, “Poetry isn’t lost in translation.  Poetry is translation.”  If you have any thoughts to share regarding Cole’s statement and/or the genealogy of the misquoted Frost line, please let me know.  Thanks!