Books, E-Readers, & Masturbation

There have been a couple of laments written recently about the demise of the printed word, as it appears that, the online seller of books (among other things), now sells more ebooks than printed ones.  The rise of e-reader devices such as Kindle, Nook, the iPad and other such technical instruments have seemingly made books obsolete, and it seems pretty sure that printed books as a mass phenomenon are a thing of the past.   This does not mean of course that they might not survive into the future as novelty items, but the days of there being a “print market” are pretty much numbered. I have to say, my feelings about this, being someone who writes a blog dedicated to viewing the world sub specie aeternitatis are not very sad.  This is partly because, whatever else may happen, it is not as if books are going to disappear; they will become rarer, but then this may improve their appeal, when they are no longer vehicles for information but special repositories for those works we wish to have a slightly more “embodied” relationship to than in the virtual lines of Kindle or iPad.  My thoughts on the subject are much the same of those as Amy Welborn, who noted that the main difference between the reading experience of e-texts and books was that reading bound books seemed to be more of an individual experience, with their physically distinct pages, their different bindings, page textures and so forth. This seems basically correct to me, and I think it has to do with the way that codex makes for combining individual texts into one single artifact which gives it this appeal.   Books in that sense are very individual, despite the uniformity that print as a technology brought to them, and this might be something that will be lost with the coming of e-readers, but I don’t think so.   This is because the e-readers are merely a different technology, meant to serve a different purpose; they cannot by definition serve the same purpose that books did.  Let me explain what I mean by first enunciating what I think are the virtues of these e-readers.

I received a Kindle last Christmas, when the one which my mother had purchased for my father stopped working, and he, being resolutely Luddite, gave it to me.  It promptly started working again, and I have been using it ever since.  It is not nearly as annoying to read as a computer screen, its screen being formatted to look as much like paper as possible, and it is lightweight, so it is perfect for plane flights (packing books and carrying them around is one of those things I like to think of as penance for the unchecked riot of my intellectual appetites).  And, for a graduate student, the space-saving element of such readers cannot be overestimated:  I have way too many real books, and very little space to store anymore.  The virtues of ease and convenience that such readers present are not negligible, to say nothing of the ease of downloading books instantly when you want them, which is also very convenient as well.  Probably my favorite feature of the Kindle is the fact that I can eat and read at the same time, switching pages with one hand, in a way that I can’t with bound books, which requires the use of two hands.  This feature of the Kindle brings to mind Rousseau’s naughty remark in his Confessions, about books that even fashionable ladies could only read “with one hand,” as e-readers allow their users to “multi-task” while they are using them.

This indeed might be fodder for a Luddite’s complaint against such e-readers:  they are better at filling a flat, two-dimensional screen with “information,” and allow their readers engage, in a scatter-brained sort of way, in several activities at once, rather than focusing primarily on the content of what they are reading.  One could see such e-readers as continuing a trend of modern devices which distract us from focusing on our task at hand, or from otherwise escaping from our selves into a larger world, a complaint I hear frequently about the iPod (I run in pretty Luddite circles, obviously).  And no doubt, technology such as the Kindle and other devices can facilitate such scatter-brained “information overload.”  And the ability to indulge oneself by acquiring texts instantaneously might not be the healthiest thing in the world in moral terms.   But though it makes such things easier, it is well to remember that it is not a cause of such activities; what I have called the “ease and convenience” of the kindle is not something that appeals to a natural desire for such qualities, but is the result of complex cultural relations which make those things desirable.  So also were the cultural elements which made the printed book so powerful a tool for the last several hundred years.

My point is that one can get too caught up in technological change that is going on, and attribute too much to it.  It is certainly the case that e-readers will constitute the normal way people read in the future, but the book as we have known it will not disappear.  Or I should rather say the codex, for that is the real innovation here, as e-readers (as I mentioned above with regards to the color of the Kindle screen) can mimic features of print in a way that they cannot with the codex.   It was, historically speaking, the spread of the Christian faith that made what we know as “books”; before this, they had been scrolls, mostly of papyri, or written on tablets.  In fact, the e-reader is almost more like a virtual tablet than it is anything else, and so interestingly takes us back, in a certain sense, technologically speaking, as much as it does forward.  The codex was perfectly suited to the Christian faith, of course, since it allowed many different texts to be fitted into one single text, something that was necessary for the Christian Bible to exist as one “book.”  The switch to the codex (which took a very long time) helped produce a major intellectual shift in late Antiquity, but my point is that the only reason that the shift occurred was that the profound change in beliefs that the coming of Christianity produced ultimately drove such change.  In my dissertation, I partly addressed the role of print in fostering a “public sphere” in seventeenth century England, and concluded that it did no such thing, precisely because Englishmen of the period were still thinking of public and private life in terms inherited from classical antiquity, and that anything like Habermas’ public sphere would have to wait till the late eighteenth century to find expression, as those terms were slowly replaced by more modern ideas about politics and the state.  I am, of course, taking sides with Adrian Johns over Elizabeth Eisenstein in this matter, and I do not wish to minimize unnecessarily the difference such technologies can make; my only point is that they epiphenomenal, and they only have the impact that they do because they are responses to some change in human relations, serve some sort of purpose in human terms, however exalted or trivial.

Thus, e-readers, iPads, iPods and other such devices may indeed shorten our attention spans and make us more scatter-brained, but this is hardly the fault of the those technologies.  One of the commenters on Megan McCardle’s site that I linked to above remarked that the Kindle allowed them to read several books at once; one might be tempted to blame this on technology, but I was doing the same thing with real books for years before I received mine.   Mostly this was because I had to read 60-70 books for graduate courses, but then that is my point:  it was the system of relations I entered into, which forced me to cram as much crap into my brain as possible per class whether I actually learned anything or not (whether for true intellectual reasons or merely to prove, as I suspect, that you really wanted to be part of the “guild”) which shaped my reading habits, not the technology that I used to read with.   This does not mean I am totally indifferent to the effects of such relations, nor will I sing praises to our allegedly shortened attention spans as if it were a good thing.   I am at teacher, after all; but then students have always had short attention spans.   One only has to read St. Augustine’s Confessions to realize that bad students are not the product of innovations in technology.   If many people no longer have the desire to patiently read through long, difficult works, this is probably the result of a shift in human ways of living; but then I doubt it is really as big a shift as was the change from scrolls to the codex, and if we are merely using such technologies in order to mentally “jerk-off” all day long, this merely means the practice will be more widespread than before, not that it will be universal.  Books we have with us always:  human life is never lacking for the types of tragedies, large and small, that will force us to focus and concentrate more closely, tempt us to contemplation of higher realities rather than mere information gorging when we read.  The dominance of e-readers will not change this, nor, for those who desire more than information, will they make it more difficult.

But then a contemplative like myself would say that, wouldn’t I?


~ by Alypius on May 21, 2011.

One Response to “Books, E-Readers, & Masturbation”

  1. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day.
    It’s always helpful to read content from other authors and practice something from their sites.

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