Reading with the body

I found this recent article in Slate incredibly interesting, even if I didn’t agree with everything the author said. But I thought this particular passage rang true:

“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 afterthe 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 presses or 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.

Perhaps it is for this reason that we are moving away from the world of the button to that of the touch screen. From the ugly three-dimensionality of the mechanical apparatus we ascend to the fantasy of existing in only two dimensions, a world of the single, yet infinite page. Here the finger no longer converts, but conducts. With capacitive touch screens your finger alters the screen’s electrostatic field thereby conveying a command. Instead of pressing to turn the page, we now swipe. Kinesthesia, the sense of bodily movement, overrides the book’s synesthesia, its unique art of conjoining touch, sight, and thought into a unified experience. In an electronic environment, corporal action overtakes reading’s traditional inaction.”

I don’t have any particular dog in the fight between e-books and ‘traditional’ books (a sobriquet that effectively casts them into obsolescence), but one thing that does give me pause in the endless march towards a fully digitised world, where the illusion of ‘connection’ is fostered by devices (and the companies that make them) that in fact push us further and further away from each other as human beings, is the implicit idea that the body can somehow in this way be transcended. For the most part avoiding sentimentality, Andrew Piper writes well about the tactility of reading as more than just some fetishisation of books as objects, but as something inherent in the process of communicating and absorbing information. It reminded me in an odd way of Terry Eagleton’s excellent ‘After Theory’, where his means of countering the spiralling, free-wheeling, endlessly deferring universe of postmodern critical theory was to demand a return to the biggest and least avoidable political and metaphysical concerns – love, death, evil. In Eagleton’s analysis, the body, the material thing, is the one frontier that every theory must eventually come up against – the physical object that contains us, that is us, and that will inevitable die. Part of what makes me uneasy about the glee with which some people have thrown themselves into the e-book revolution is the sense that in doing so they are, consciously or unconsciously, trying to escape from that tactile, bounded, material world in which we live and in which we will die. For Piper, writing about St Augustine, the “closedness” of a book and the fact that it can be grasped as a totality is “integral to its success in generating transformative reading experiences.” The experience of reading, and the conversional possibilities inherent in the act of reading, are both made possible and enacted in the very form of the object itself. Fundamentally, a printed book comes to a coherent end, like we do. Even if that book is ‘Finnegans Wake’ …

Anyway, the piece seems like a more intelligent defence of the printed book than the usual cry of: “But they smell nice!”

(Also, any comments pointing out the inherent irony of writing about this on a website will be greatly appreciated.)


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