Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ebook Argle-Bargle. With Aristotle!

I’m reading a print book right now, and it’s rather uncomfortable.

There’s nothing wrong with the subject matter – it’s a book on Richard Nixon, who fascinates me to no end.

Problem is the spine of the book is broken, or is breaking, so the book wants to flop open oddly, hanging and slipping as gravity tugs on its weakening points. I can’t leave it to lie open on a table; because of the break, it wants to flop closed. When I read it on the bus – under the pallor of ghastly blue reading lights – I have to practically hold the book upside down in order to read it and keep its pages where it should be.

This, if I read Andrew Piper’s screed at, is how books are meant to be read. Uncomfortably. Under poor lighting conditions. And in a way that occasionally makes me just put the book down because it’s so awkward to hold open.

So I’m probably not reading Piper right. He has a paen to the printed book because only in the printed book do you get the tactile pleasure of holding and reading a printed book. I say it’s a paen, but it’s kinda hard to tell, since rather than write about how he enjoys the sight and feel of books, he writes about how St. Augustine and Aristotle felt about the senses. He tries to tie it all together this way:“Reading,” he writes, “isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely part from it.”

Yes, yes. Absolutely. That’s what I love about reading.

But Piper confuses me. He seems to be against ebooks since they lack the “tactile” pleasures of printed books – turning pages, holding the spine, the smell, the feel of embossed inks, etc. But he never really tells me why ebooks lack that tactile pleasure.

Here’s what he says:

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.

He cites some rather avant-garde examples of ebooks as examples of why all ebooks are bad, evil things, such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloqy which, as an electronic text, I have to confess is difficult to read. But how many ebooks are like that? That kind of thing is artsy, but that kind of thing has been tried in printed books as well, so to blame ebooks for the phenomenon is misguided.

He writes that ebooks have changed how we “manually interact with [books] and those change matter for how we read.” There are no longer pages to turn. There is no “density” to books, outside of the battery for the ereader. “What lies after the digital page? An abyss,” he writes. “No matter what the page number says, we have no way to corroborate this evidence with our senses, no idea where we are while we read. Instead of turning the page, we nove have the button.” There is a “repetetiveness to pressing buttons that starkly contrast with the sedate rhythms of the slowly-turned page.”

But he’s worried that all this button-pushing will give us carpal tunnel syndrome. Like trying to hold my printed Nixon book together is doing my wrists any good.

I admit to being a printed book snob – but for a different reason. I can’t, as of yet, buy used ebooks like I can printed books, so I continue to purchase more printed books than ebooks. But when I sit down to read, I get the same kinds of physical and mental exercise and pleasure from either kind of book. I just don’t feel the lack of tactility with an ebook that Piper does.

I have to go now. A button beckons.

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