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.
In addition to a fascinating book about library design entitled Library Planning, Bookstacks, and Shelving (1911), I’ve been reading some cookbooks recently, namely Diana Kennedy’s _The Cuisines of Mexico_ (1972) and Ottolenghi’s _Plenty_ (2011). Both are excellent cookbooks and each very much of its time. To read Kennedy’s book is to be transported back to New York City in the early 1970s (she makes it a point to test her recipes both in Mexico and in New York City, where she must make due with the limitations of the ingredients commonly available). Somewhat surprisingly, she recommends cooking with rock salt available from the hardware store for icing sidewalks. I’m not sure that anyone continues doing this, but I thought it was interesting that that was even possible. I have also recently finished re-reading Reyner Banham’s _Theory and Design in the First Machine Age_, which I can’t recommend highly enough for anyone interested in the history of architecture and technology in the first half of the twentieth century, and E. T. A. Hoffman’s _The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr_ (1820), which is a novel that I’m really embarrassed to say I had not read in the past. The book, which is incredibly experimental in its structure, is composed of two separate narratives, one written by the cat Murr, and the other made up of a biography of Hoffman’s alter ego, Johannes Kriesler, which is included only because the pages of that book were, when not being used by Murr as blotting paper, mistakenly incorporated into his manuscript. Needless to say, the novel recalls the work of both Sterne and Swift and looks forward to many postmodern works. I definitely recommend reading it.
For the last two years, I have been very troubled by this word media and its many uses and applications. I’ve also been increasingly interested in the materialities of various forms of expression. The “material affordances of a medium,” as Charles Bazerman puts it, are always of interest to those who study literacies and literacy practices. But what is writing as a medium? Is it possible to approach the subject of writing and the practice of the teaching of writing from such a perspective? I think it may be. Furthermore, I believe there may be some very interesting insights produced as a result of this approach.
Communication in writing involves not just the production of a message, but the distribution and reception of this message. In some cases when there is more than one recipient, there is actually an additional step–the reproduction of a message. If we think about the various technologies used in the production, reproduction, distribution and reception in relation to one another–ink/handwriting, printing presses, typewriters, word processing programs, networked word processing programs, authoring software applications–some interesting observations can be made with regard to the technologies and languages involved in the process, as well as with regard to the existence and status of various remediations that take place.
Handwriting/Handwriting/Physical/Original or Handwritten Reproduction
Handwriting/Printing Press/Physical/Printed Reproduction
Typewriter/Printing Press/Physical/Printed Reproduction
Word Processor/Printing Press/Physical/Printed Reproduction
Word Processor/Printer/Physical/Network/Printed Reproduction
Word Processor/Word Processor/Network/Word Processor
Networked WP/ Networked WP/ Network/Networked WP
Authoring Software/Authoring Software/Physical/Viewing Software
Authoring Software/Authoring Software/Network/Viewing Software
I have been thinking a lot lately about reading: about how much I love reading and how pleasurable it is, not just as a pastime 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 write with desire, I’ve written, as has Roland Barthes long before me. Must one read with desire also? 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 the pleasure I find in it 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 information, in an age of technology, 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 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.
And 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 relationship to narrative, but we are still in the process of figuring out how the time and space of reading change in relation to the specific technologies that we are using in the 21st century.
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. We each grew up with our own technologies of reading. Each generation has its own technologies of reading, and I am very much a product of my own generational technologies. My mother’s were slightly different. But one 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 primary technology of reading for the next generation. It will be something else. And I am not the best person to explain how this next generation’s reading technology will function. But I can act as an intermediary and 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 (see “On Reading” in The Rustle of Language). Are we writing reading in new ways now? Is this an age of a new kind of concision, as well as one of collaboration? (See Charles Bernstein on wreading experiments)
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?