from the you can't hug an ebook with digital arms or some shit like that dept
Every technological advance is greeted as some point during its life cycle (usually as it approaches ubiquity) by the disgruntled arguments of people who prefer older things or methods. Never has this been more prevalent than in the digital era. People diss mp3s for their sonic limitations, which is fine, but then they go a step further, claiming the “real” way to listen to music involves using other, older technology. There’s an emphasis on the physicality of the product, as if it were somehow more “real” simply because you can leave greasy fingerprints on it, thus lowering its resale value.
Certain authors have argued this adamantly over the recent years, proudly declaiming the superiority of the old school, dead tree book. Apparently, there’s nothing like picking up an odorous book (smells like real) whose binding glue has slowly disintegrated over the years, causing the pages to scatter across the floor and sending all those helpful book scorpions scuttling off in search of a new home. That’s real. That’s reading. This stuff you do with your eyes on screens? Your brain might tell you it’s reading, but it’s nothing of the sort.
Fortunately for those of us who believe otherwise, Andrew Piper has visited Slate to set us all back on the path of touchable righteousness. In a lengthy post that reads like a dry historical text populated with anti-tech non sequiturs, Piper decries the falseness of reading books on a screen, because if you can’t physically touch it, it’s just not real.
Amid the seemingly endless debates today about the future of reading, there remains one salient, yet often overlooked fact: Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies.
For those of you without skulls to hold your eyes (lucky bastards!), reading is an experience for the body as much as it is for the brain. There’s your hands, which will turn pages and… your torso… which holds your limbs and, by extension, your hands… never mind. Here’s more:
To think about the future of reading means, then, to think about the long history of how touch has shaped reading and, by extension, our sense of ourselves while we read.
At this point, the history lesson begins. The first witness on the stand in defense of “touching is reading” is none other than St. Augustine, whose conversion to Christianity was a defining moment in “hand-to-book” reading.
The original Kindle Fire
At this moment, he tells us, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” Augustine closes the book, marking his place with his finger, and goes to tell his friend Alypius about his experience. His conversion is complete.
Bookmarking. Completely unavailable or at the very least, not the same! Score one for St. Augustine. There’s much, much, much, much more history where that came from, weaving together a very long narrative that basically states “humans have hands and like to touch stuff.” Along the way, you’ll meet all sorts of historical figures (Eugene Delacroix! Faust! Abraham Ortelius!) It’s an essay of appropriately essay-esque length.
In between the historical musings are convoluted paragraphs like this:
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.
If I’m reading this correctly (though I suppose I am not, since I’m reading it on an LCD screen), the rise of ebooks will finally allow us to shed our uncomfortable skeletons and return, spineless and triumphant, to R’lyeh to awaken Cthulhu from his long slumber.
And there’s this, which one would think was Piper attempting to wrap things up, but actually lies somewhere near the middle of the post:
For Augustine, the book’s closedness—that it could be grasped as a totality—was integral to its success in generating transformative reading experiences. Its closedness was the condition of the reader’s conversion. Digital texts, by contrast, are radically open in their networked form. They are marked by a very weak sense of closure. Indeed, it is often hard to know what to call them (e-books, books, texts, or just documents) without any clear sense of the material differences between them.
Most people call them ebooks.
Piper’s article seems to go beyond the normal arguments about aesthetic preferences and move towards touting the moral superiority of print, simply because your hands can touch and feel paper and it’s different than touching and feeling an electronic device. E-readers are not… physical enough. And because of that lack of physicality, reading is no longer as real.
But think of all the advances made over the years that just aren’t as real as their predecessors, thanks to diminished physical interaction. We fully expect Piper to explore these in further densely unreadable screeds:
- Riding a bike today isn’t nearly as real as it was, what with not having to worry about your crotchal region and forearms being pounded mercilessly by the combination of solid rubber tires, no suspension system and a lack of decent pavement.
- Driving a car lacks the coarse physicality of driving a team of horses across dusty plains in search of a Slurpee and a pack of smokes.
- Watching a movie isn’t nearly as “real” as watching a good old fashioned play, where actors were actual, physical human beings close enough to touch and/or interrupt with an ill-timed coughing fit/incoming call.
- For that matter, making an outgoing call is simply a matter of pressing some fake buttons (or simply mashing a thumb on a fake face in the Contact list). Our forearms and dialing finger have atrophied from under-use going all the way back to the days when friends with the most 0’s in their numbers got the fewest calls.
- Today’s cold scientific medical community, with its beeping machinery and wires everywhere can never be as real as it was in the past when the common cold was treated with a combination of leeches, heroin and a full frontal lobotomy.
- Firing up your local newspaper’s website will never be as real as paging through the paper version, admiring the ink stains on your fingers and the box scores informing you that the game ended after press time. The website also can’t offer you the physical pain of multiple scratches (picked up while retrieving the paper from your overgrown rose bush) or multiple bite wounds (picked up while retrieving the paper from your neighbor’s Rottweiler-infested backyard).
- Nuking a quick meal for the kids? Get over yourself. Real people start their own fires from scratch, by doing whatever it is that Boy Scouts do to earn the “Firestarter” badge. And that Healthy Choice meal? Better get right to slaughtering your own flavorless chicken and growing some equally flavorless rice to accompany it.
- Writing an email can’t possibly compare to the physical purity of placing quill to parchment and hand-scratching a lengthy URL onto it, along with “Yo, Ted. Check thiſ out.”
- Buying stuff with a credit card online vs. biting gold pieces into “bits” at the trading post, online classes vs. sleeping through Philosophy in an uncomfortable chair, and etc. ad nauseaum.
One of Piper’s closing paragraphs comes so close to getting it right, but he twists it to fit his “ebooks are intangible” narrative. He describes the “connection” the physical book makes when he reads a story to his kids at bedtime:
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.”
While I’m not sure what version of the web Piper uses (Web 0.85b?) that follows “prescribed pathways” (mine goes pretty much anywhere with very little provocation), that’s not really where the error lies. The book isn’t the “shared column of support,” Piper. It’s you! Why would you sell your own importance short? My kids like to be near me, too. It doesn’t matter if we’re reading a book, streaming something on Netflix, watching someone do something funny/stupid on YouTube or slinging Angry Birds across the screen. The important thing isn’t the physicality of the object. It’s the shared experience. To attribute this to something made of glue, paper and ink is ridiculous, and to further claim that a shift to electronics is robbing us of a part of our humanity even more so.
Filed Under: andrew piper, books, ebooks, paper, reading