Monday, February 20, 2012

Kindle This

Talisman of experience
And what is the faculty in man to which imitation is addressed?
What do you mean?
I will explain: The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance?
And the same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colours to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.

Plato, The Republic, Book X, Trans. Benjamin Jowett

Let it be rightly understood at the outset, Dear Readers, that I love books. Not just reading, not just literature: books. You remember: those physical objects fashioned out of paper, ink, glue, and board which have served as portable, semi-permanent delivery vehicles for all sorts of writing for hundreds of years. I have hundreds and hundreds of books at home; filed vertically on shelves, stacked horizontally on floors, and teetering menacingly on almost every flat surface near to hand. Mrs. Dealmaker used to complain about my compulsion, but then she succumbed to her own form of the disease. Now our read and unread books face off against each other in competing piles across the master bedroom floor. We have lots of books.

That being said, I do not qualify as a book collector in the usual sense. I have little interest in first editions, rare antique books, or expensively bound limited editions. I couldn’t care less if the author of a work autographed the frontispiece. Leather and calf bindings bore me. I am not a fetishist of books-as-valuable-objects. No, what I seek out are books which have two key criteria: content which interests me and an aesthetically pleasing design. This does not mean they must be hardcovers; in fact, by number I now own far more paperback books than hardbound. But in order for me to lay down my ill-gotten gains on a book, it must have content I reasonably expect to find challenging, interesting, and/or entertaining for more than one reading, and it must be published in a form which will not nauseate me to gaze upon. These two criteria, you may or may not be surprised to learn, prove a remarkably effective prophylactic against spendthrift behavior when I visit the average bookstore or online book vendor.

To date, I have not succumbed to the siren call of a Kindle, iPad, or other form of e-reader. I have nothing against the devices, which combine several features and conveniences which I find intriguing. The most important of which, I must say, is the ability to carry dozens if not hundreds of books in one lightweight, portable package. Given how many books I start and put down, and how many I have in various stages of reading at any one time, such a device might be a convenient alternative to my current travel routine, which normally boils down to a choice between dislocating my shoulder by lugging four or five hardcovers and paperbacks in my carryon or being reduced to leafing through the SkyMall catalog when I run out of business reading. It might also boost my consumption of newly released fiction and non-fiction, which I currently avoid because I have no interest in spending $39.95 on shoddily produced, crappily designed hardcover works which I have every expectation and intention of throwing in the trash as soon as I have finished them. (Did I mention that I think 99% of books published today aren’t worth the energy it will take to pulp their remainders?)

* * *

All of which is exculpatory preamble to a few remarks I wish to make in response to Tim Parks’ recent paean to e-readers in, of all places, The New York Review of Books. Mr. Parks does a creditable and evenhanded job enumerating the pros and cons of e-readers versus traditional books,1 but he is not content to suggest that old habits of reading and a slightly suspect fetishism around books-as-objects are tolerable losses in the face of the new medium’s conveniences. No, he contends that e-readers are better for literature:

Literature is made up of words. They can be spoken or written. If spoken, volume and speed and accent can vary. If written, the words can appear in this or that type-face on any material, with any impagination. Joyce is as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman. And we can read these words at any speed, interrupt our reading as frequently as we choose. Somebody who reads Ulysses in two weeks hasn’t read it any more or less than someone who reads it in three months, or three years.

Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end. More than any other art form it is pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. ...

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

Put aside, for a moment, Mr. Parks’ schoolboy aesthetics. Literature is more “mental material” than any other art form? Really? More than music (auditory), painting (visual), dance (kinesthetic)? Put aside his breathtakingly simplistic view of cognitive psychology. Does he really think our conscious minds function in a coherent, linear, narrative way using and reproducible by formal language? I don’t know about Mr. Parks, but I’ve tried to observe myself in thought many times and under many conditions over the years. For what it’s worth, there is nothing about my conscious thought that remotely resembles the literature of Tolstoy, Joyce, or even Danielle Steel. (I won’t even address my unconscious thought.) Everything we are beginning to learn about how humans think supports this view: conscious thought is nothing like literature. That’s part of the reason we like literature so much, in my opinion: it flatters us not only that our lives make much more sense than they do but also that we are much more in control of our thought processes than we really are.

* * *

No, my real objection to Mr. Parks’ argument has to do with the naive Platonism he attempts to sell us. His entire argument seems to boil down to the assertion that there is some sort of “pure text” at the base of every work of literature—words in inviolate sequence, to use his coinage—and that e-readers, by collapsing and standardizing our access to them, somehow make our experience of literature purer and more authentic. But this is just bullshit. The experience of literature—and reading in general—is always and everywhere a solitary interpretative act on behalf of and by the reader. Readers read literature in time, in space, and through some sort of medium. Time spent reading—pace, duration, intervals when one puts down the book—directly and ineluctably affects the reader’s experience of the text. Readers who read Ulyssess in three years may indeed have read the same text as those who read it in two weeks, but they certainly have not had the same aesthetic and cognitive experience. In addition, solitary reading involves the visual faculties and aesthetic senses, too. Font, line leading, margins, and even pagination affect a reader’s experience of a text, often subconsciously. No-one who has ever compared a cheap, cramped, badly-typeset version of a novel to a well-designed, spaciously laid out one can help but notice the difference. And noticing the difference in and of itself alters the experience of the work. Joyce may be as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman, but I dare you to find him the same author in twelve point Comic Sans.

A book, properly considered, is a recorded performance of a piece of literature, just like a CD is a recorded performance of a particular piece of music. While musicians have more artistic discretion in interpreting a piece than a book designer and publisher do, the latter are not aesthetically invisible. They subtly influence a book’s format and packaging: font, margins, page breaks, cover art, etc. The sequence, timing, pace, and even completion of the work—its interpretation—lie in the hands of a reader, but the packaging and presentation of the physical object is not. And because reading is a performance, the time and place where you read is important, too. Reading Lord Jim on a plane is not the same as reading it on a tropical beach. The former is forgettable; the latter is not, as I can personally attest.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the same music, whether it is interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boise Symphony. But nobody ever hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: they hear a performance of it. By the same token, nobody ever reads Ulysses, they read a version of it, as presented to them through the medium of some sort of delivery device at a particular time and place, and interpreted according to their own engagement, interest, aptitude, and sensitivity. A Kindle or an iPad is just another delivery device, constrained or liberated, as the case may be, by its technical and aesthetic capabilities and limitations. There are many texts where an e-reader’s ability to standardize, flatten, and minimize aesthetic variation may very well be an advantage. (I think in particular of current non-fiction, biography, history, and other trade books.) But to pretend it is therefore somehow more transparent to a work of literature than a physical book is wishful thinking.

* * *

Art is not art, in any meaningful sense of the word, if it is not interpreted by an audience. This is true of literature, too. Sure, there may be some ur-text which an author intended to publish when she wrote it, but that work cannot exist outside the physical, experiential world in which it is consumed by its readers. The same is true of painting, music, dance, or indeed any artistic medium. A shiny metal and glass tablet imposes an technological aesthetic on the works you read it with: uniform, limited, ephemeral. This may be just fine, and even preferable in certain instances. But don’t pretend reading Don Quixote on a Kindle is the same as reading it in a book. Those are two different artistic experiences. And neither one is any closer to the “true” nature of the work than the other.2

Eventually, Plato asserted, a thoughtful person may come to understand that the shadows on the wall of the cave are not the real objects making them. But even Plato knew that no-one can really free himself from his chains and turn to look at the fire.

Related reading:
Tim Parks, E-books Can’t Burn (The New York Review of Books, February 15, 2012)
Pixels Don’t Breathe (May 17, 2011)

1 Although he does rather embarrass himself in the last paragraph with naive technological utopianism. Every advantage he claims for e-readers there is either questionable, exaggerated, or untrue. I suspect e-readers burn rather nicely, given the proper fuel.
2 There is an affirmative case to be made for the superiority of a physical book, too. Given that one cannot separate the nature of the physical delivery mechanism from the experience of the underlying literature, why should one not try to enrich, gloss, and extend the aesthetic experience of the literature by enhancing the aesthetics of the mechanism? Taken to an extreme, this results in one-of-a-kind books which integrate bookmaking entirely into the artistic enterprise. In a mass-produced example, it can lead to works like Anne Carson’s facsimile of her handmade book, Nox, in which the experience of the text is inseparable from its resolutely physical embodiment. More commonly, it leads to books like my dog-eared copy of Penguin’s Lord Jim, which is a talisman of all the experiences I have had with that novel. It pleases me to look at it on the shelf, and this pleasure is itself a continuation of my literary engagement with Joseph Conrad’s creation. Try to cram all that in a wedge of plastic, glass, and metal.

© 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.