reading is dead; long live reading

Steven Johnson writes for the Wall Street Journal on "How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write." Nick Carbone posts about this to the WPA list and a brief but instructive discussion ensues, particularly over this passage from Johnson about putting books online.

Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will
know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the
paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read
alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private
activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a
community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a

conversation with strangers around the world.

What is seemingly lost here is that familiar, media-ideological experience of "intimacy" between the author and the reader. It is an intimacy that Kittler describes when observes that before the development of mechanical media, "handwriting alone could guarantee the perfect securing of traces… And what applied to writing also applied to reading. Even if the alphabetized individual known as the 'author' finally had to fall from the private exteriority of handwriting into the anonymous exteriority of print in order to secure 'all that's left of him, as well as his self-propagation'–alphabetized individuals known as 'readers' were able to reverse this exteriorization."

Perhaps it is too much to say, as Johnson does, that "Nobody will read alone anymore," except in the sense that no one has ever read alone, that reading has always been a social/cultural activity, that in order "to be a reader" one must enter into an ideological relationship with a text. At the same time, I think Johnson has a good point in suggesting that the user experience of the book has been forever changed by one's encounter with networks. Even if the words on a page are not literally linked, we can turn them into points of conduction with the flick of a Google search. In six months maybe you will be reading Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter. You will read the passage I quoted above. Perhaps it will spark a brief flicker in your memory, leading you to type the phrase into Google. And maybe this post comes up. Who knows? But something will come up.

But of course no one really worries about such things for theory or scholarship or even most nonfiction. We all seem to realize that such texts are about community conversations. But somehow with novels, and maybe creative nonfiction, we fantisize a more intimate relationship. In some respects the novel is founded on this fantasy. We imagine intimate relationships with the author's mind, with the fictional minds of the characters. Is this something we will no longer imagine? Perhaps it will be as Ulmer suggests when he writes that "the ethical dilemma of self/other will not be solved in an electronic apparatus but simply that it will become irrelevant, just as 'appeasing' the gods, which was the problem addressed by ritual, became irrelevant in literacy, even if ritual form–in theater–continued within literacy."

So we will continue to read (of course!) but for different reasons. Just as we do not lament the loss of the desire to appease the gods, we will (eventually) not lament the loss of the desire for this intimate encounter with the author.

In the end it is certainly more complicated than all of that (as it always is). Perhaps we read novels for an intimate experience, but we also read them to be part of a literate club, to reaffirm some social/intellectual identity. Sometimes the latter desire may be more in force than the former. But if we come to see ourselves as part of a network then perhaps we cease to worry so much about the self/other boundary and the desire for the intimate experience with an other fades.

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