Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Reading about Reading Books

Having just read John Gross' review of John Updike's Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism for The New York Review, I realized that I may have more reactions to Gross' account than I might have to the 703 pages of Updike's book! This is not to criticize Gross but to appreciate the extent to which those aspects of the book that interested him are most likely the ones that would also interest me. I am not sure I shall cover all of these areas, each with a separate post; but I know that I do want to address one that struck close to my own home in the domain of reading in the digital and physical worlds.

Here is how Gross characterizes Updike's general approach to reading:

Whatever the occasional remembrance of past reading that misfires, as in the James essay, there is something admirable about his [Updike's] insistence on the act of reading as a sensuous or even a sensual experience. "The average book," he writes, "fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback." Due Consideration abounds in such reminders of the book as love object, and of the extent to which physical associations can be part of a book's elemental appeal.

This should at least suggest that Updike is not particularly keen on "electronic text delivery," as Gross puts it. Gross elaborates on this point as follows:

Unlike computers, books lend substance to "our fickle and flighty natures"; without them, "we might melt into the airwaves, and be just another set of blips.

In case this sounds like the special pleading of a professional bookman, one should add that he sees our whole society as undergoing what he calls "the dephysicalization of experience." A word that was badly needed, "dephysicalization"—and one that Updike doesn't use in connection with books, incidentally, but in the course of setting out his objections to electronic poker.

I think that Updike has some good points. I would even go so far as to say that much of the comic writing that has appeared to ridicule those who seek "a life of the mind" involve plots that hinge on what happens when aspirations of virtual experiences collide with actual physical experiences. Thus, talk about "virtuality and its discontents" (an ironic allusion to the extent to which Sigmund Freud tried to ground his psychological analyses in physical phenomena) often seems to gravitate towards a specific discontent with dephysicalization.

Nevertheless, I have gone on record as an advocate of reading in the digital domain; and, for all of my agreement with Updike, I still hold to that position. My explanation is that I do not think that Updike's reading matter has been as susceptible to that caveat lector principle as mine. I would guess that Updike can assume that what he reads has been scrupulously edited; and he may even be able to make this assumption because, in many cases, he knows who those editors are. Most of us cannot make that assumption, even when, as I recently suggested, we pick up a newspaper. When I last addressed this situation, I argued that we need "to change our reading practices from passive to active;" but this is not to suggest that Updike is a passive reader. I have read enough of his criticism to know that one cannot develop ideas like those by reading at a strictly passive level. All I was arguing when I raised the point is that, with my own limitations, I need to rely on the Internet to be an effective active reader; and I developed some guidelines dealing with what it takes to do this. Furthermore, those guidelines are such that it is much easier to pursue them in the virtual world of cyberspace than it would be to do so in the physical world of even the best of libraries. Updike, on the other hand, does not have the resource problems that I have; indeed he probably has such a broad base of experience for what he reads that I doubt that he would care a fig for my guidelines!

Having said all that, I can still confess that I much prefer reading in the physical domain. In light of my current reading, I might be willing to try reading The Mill on the Floss on a new Kindle; but my guess is that, after a few pages, my hands would be itching for me to restore that comfortable feel of my Signet Classic paperback! At the very least that physicality conveys, even if ever so slightly, a sense of the progress I am making as I read.

On the other hand, if I were reading Kant and would benefit considerably from having a diagrammatic representation of each sentence I encountered, then digital support would probably matter more to me than a subliminal sense of progress!

No comments: