Sunday, September 12, 2010

Books and Reading

I enjoyed Lisa Jardine's latest Point of View column, even if the way it was introduced on the BBC News Web site made me a bit skeptical:

Books are a pleasure on so many different levels, but is how we consume them changing, asks Lisa Jardine in her A Point of View column.

It was that verb "consume" that set me to worrying. Was this going to be yet another market-oriented piece that reduced books to consumable products in the same category as laundry detergent?

Fortunately, there was no mention of detergent; but there was a fair amount of attention given to Oprah Winfrey and her Book Club. Furthermore, that attention was, for the most part, concentrated on the way a popular television program got its viewers interested in reading, beginning with one novel and gradually branching out into a project that may have fallen short of Mortimer Adler's Great Books of the Western World ambitions but was far from trivial. Jardine emphasized the substance of the matter with the example of one broadcast consisting of an "extended seminar" with Toni Morrison and members of the television audience (chosen by ballot) when the Book Club selection was Paradise.

This success of the Book Club led to an unexpected consequence that made it clear that a book was definitely something other than laundry detergent. Here is how Jardine described that consequence:

In the course of Oprah's animated dialogue on - and off - screen with her audience, as she promoted the reading of serious and challenging books by those who were not accustomed to reading for pleasure at all, she discovered that they not only wanted to own the books they read, they wanted to keep them, and sometimes to pass them to others as treasured gifts.

And if books were to take pride of place in their living room, they really wanted them to be properly bound, in good-looking hard covers.

One of the early titles she recommended, from the back list of a well-known author, was only available in paperback. Oprah expressed the view strongly on her show that the work ought to be made available in an inexpensive hardback, since that was what her audience wanted - a book to keep.

The publisher responded with an entire new hardback printing, at an affordable, heavily subsidised cover price (by then it was clear that here was a guaranteed sale of millions of copies).

This led to another unanticipated personal consequence for Jardine herself, regarding her relationship to electronic book technology:

At the beginning of this year I expressed the view here that I would always consider an electronic book a poor substitute for the real thing. Handling a book, enjoying the design, the binding and the illustrations, perhaps annotating its pages with my own responses to what I am reading, are, for me, and always will be, I said, a crucial part of the enjoyment of a good book.

Well, as so often in my life, I have had to reconsider. For everyday purposes I now find my electronic reader allows me to pursue a book I am enjoying wherever I go. I have to confess that I am reading Tony Blair's autobiography, purchased from my favourite online bookseller, on my iPad. Having spent much of the past week in airports and on planes, there is little doubt in my mind that this is far and away the most convenient way to read.

And even now that I am settled back at home after my wanderings, I won't, I am afraid, be purchasing a conventional copy, even though I know that in addition to there being no glossy cover, my copy is missing the accompanying, never seen before, Blair family photographs (as I noted when I looked over the shoulder of my neighbour, reading more conventionally, on a plane from Berlin to Rome).

I won't even be tempted by a special copy, in a red cloth slip cover, with handsome gold lettering, signed by the author.

Unfortunately, this is where her column ends; but my own feeling is that, where matters of books and reading are concerned, the discussion is only beginning.

Specifically, the conversational style of her column allows Jardine to migrate freely between matters of books and practices of reading, both of which involve some form of "consumption." What is lost, however, is that "consumption through reading" should not be confused with matters of consumption concerned with the book-as-product (either physical or digital). Yet it is precisely that confusion that tends to cloud most discussions concerned with the recent spate of technologies for reading digital texts.

What is missing from those discussions is the recognition that reading is an activity and, more specifically, that the activity is based on a motivated commitment to engage with a text. The nature of that engagement is highly text-dependent; and, unless we recognize that different texts require different types of engagement (without even worrying about whether or not those types can be rank-ordered by complexity), we shall fall into the trap of assuming that an electronic book must be a one-size-fits-all "technology solution." I suppose we have Jacques Derrida to thank for his insights into this engagement-based point of view. However, those of us who have read (or tried to read) his texts on this matter have discovered that he deliberately poses his own (often intimidating) challenges of engagement to readers wishing to learn what he has to say about engagement! (This is the school of thought that you have to experience the subject matter in order to understand it.) Rather than diving into the deep end of Derrida, however, let me offer a few examples of my own decisions concerning what I read digitally or physically.

First of all, I read Jardine's column "on the screen." It was part of my "morning news ritual," when I review the RSS feeds that Google Reader has harvested for me. It made for good digital reading because it was short. However, because it made a variety of points, I found that my own reading involved a fair amount of scrolling through the text itself, as I went about building my own "mental model" of what she had to say. Thus, by "short" I do not mean "read quickly;" I mean that it was on a scale that made that kind of scrolling feasible.

This is a major point that has been overlooked by just about every "electronic book" I have encountered. Very little of my reading is a matter of starting on the first page and chugging my way through until the pages have been exhausted. I am always bouncing around the text I am reading. I suspect that Jardine approaches much of her reading the same way, in which case she dropped a subtle review of Blair's book on us. Whenever I read a biography, I often find myself looking back in the text to see if some event in childhood or youth had an impact on another event at a more advanced age. I wonder whether or not Jardine decided that it was not worth taking the time to look for such connections while reading Blair's memoirs!

This raises another point, which is about why we read in the first place. I suspect that many of those who read in airports and on planes do so as an antidote for idleness. However, one does not have to commit to full-out Derrida-style engagement to keep idleness at bay. Thus, I suspect that the print version of the magazine in which Jardine's columns appear (not to mention Blair's memoir) is probably far more suited to holding off idleness on a long flight than any text by Derrida could be (although I cannot avoid confessing that I made quite a lot of progress in Speech and Phenomena on one such flight)!

So, having provided a case of a text that I did read from a screen, let me now offer an example of one I printed to have available for "physical" reading. I feel this is a useful example because I encountered it through that same morning routine of reviewing RSS feeds. The piece is an extended article from the latest issue of The New York Review of Books by Nicholas Lemann examining the recent HBO television series Treme. That adjective "extended" was intended as contrast with the adjective "short" applied to Jardine's piece. Lemann is very much in Jardine's league when it comes to thoughtful writing; but he was taking on several hours of television dealing with many different dimensions of post-Katrina New Orleans. This required far more than an exposition on Jardine's column-length scale. Most likely I shall not get through it in one sitting. More important, however, is that, again, I expect that my reading will be non-linear, refreshing my memory of earlier parts of the text as Lemann develops his argument. The Web site for this piece spreads it across three Web pages, which makes seeking out what you have already read even more difficult. There is also a single-page version; but that imposes its own problems of getting lost while scrolling.

I am willing to grant that this whole issue of engagement may have been "beyond the scope" of Jardine's column. However, I think it is important to recognize that engagement is not some arcane abstraction suitable only for those still interested in reading Derrida. Every member of Oprah's Book Club is as committed to engaging with text as I am when I read Derrida, Lemann, or Jardine. I would even venture to guess that not every Club member engages with a given text in the same way, which is why discussions about what one has read can be so fruitful. Thus, it is not the book that is threatened by electronic technology but the richness of the reading experience. Both Jardine and Book Club members appreciate that richness; but when will it be honored by those reading devices that have become the latest fad as "objects for consumption?"

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