Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Carnal Book

Tim Parks's New York Review of Books blog post in defence of electronic books is as interesting for the comments as his thoughts. Parks argues against the “fetishism” promoted by the book as we have known it for roughly 2000 years – the physical codex. (The e-book, besides being non-physical – although electricity is physical, but we'll leave that aside – is closer to a scroll to a codex despite the e-reader's “framing” of it in a way that's familiar to us from what we know as “a book.” It's a scroll disguised as a codex.) As we all know, we display books on our shelves as much to show off our taste and intelligence as for strict storage and easy access. The e-reader denies us this peripheral pleasure of being a reader, and other peripheral pleasures such as sensuous engagement with the book as a physical object (its smell, feel, and weight) and the cover design.

The most striking part of Parks's argument – and its major point – is that reading is the closest we get to a purely mental art form. My question is whether this is either true or desirable. Parks claims that e-books get us closer to this “essence of the literary experience,” and compares it to “the moment when we passed from illustrated children's books to the adult version of the page that is only text.” My first objection here is historical: in the 19th century, which everyone agrees was the Age of the Novel, novels were frequently illustrated. The novel therefore offered some of the pleasures of the not-yet-invented movie, TV show, and graphic novel; and maybe it was the advent of the movie that did away with this convention. But certainly adult readers were not considered childish for wanting some pictures in and amongst all those words; or if they were, novelists and publishers indulged that childishness. What's maybe remarkable is that the general public is willing to read novels without pictures now; although with the exception of a few phenomena – like the Harry Potter and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series – bestsellers today are a lot shorter and less wordy than bestselling 19th century novels. The 19th century reader, then, had a much higher tolerance for words but also wanted pictures. Was reading more, or less, of a purely mental experience for them?

The electronic revolution has seen the curious mixing-up of media that were previously distinct, making it difficult to say what the “essence” of an artistic medium is. Now that movies and TV shows are available on DVD, you can select the “chapter” you want to go to and possess them as discrete objects and display them on your shelves, even as books and music are heading away from that direction. Previously movies and television were the least object-like of the art forms: like a painting or sculpture, they were viewed, but unlike a painting or sculpture, there wasn't a discrete, original object that could be owned. Prints of a film are multiple, and they are not “the film.” They are even less “the film” than the multiple copies of a book are “the book,” because if you own a copy of a book you can pick it up and read it any time but if you own a film print you can't do anything unless you also have a projector and screen. And the DVD of a film is not “the film” in the way a copy of a book is “the book” either because films are intended to be projected on a cinema screen, not watched on a TV. The relationship between film and DVD is more like that between a painting and its reproduction in an art book – except, again, that there is a discrete physical object that is the painting but there is not a discrete physical object that is “the film.”

It all gets pretty philosophical. Parks reduces the literary work to “the sequence of the words.” We could say that a movie is the sequence of the shots and synchronized sounds, except that we also have to add the director's intention for it to be projected on a cinema screen. As any cinephile will point out (including famous directors like David Lynch), it makes a difference if you watch a movie on your tiny iPhone screen. Just as it makes a difference if you're standing in the Sistine Chapel looking at Michelangelo's ceiling or seeing images of it in an art book. Then again, defenders of the physical book believe that it makes a difference whether you read the sequence of words in a physical book or on an e-reader. A book, however – whether physical or electronic, scroll or codex – is simple a convenient depository for a story or poem made up of words, which could also be spoken aloud or stored inside one's head. As Parks puts it, a poem is the same poem and as much a poem if you say it in your head or read it on a page. This is not strictly true, since writers – “borrowing” from other media – can also be interested in the spatial arrangement of words on a page or even the visual impact of characters (see The Waste Land, e.g., for both). But it is relatively true.

The idea, then, is that a painting is made of paint, a film is made of film (or video, increasingly), music is made of sounds, but a work of literature is made of words – not paper and ink – and words are as much words if they are in our heads, on a page (or screen), or spoken aloud. There is a medium of paint, a medium of film, a medium of sounds... and a medium of words. There is a medium of paper and ink, but that medium is drawing or design. The nagging flaw in Parks's argument, I think, is that he is talking about the nature of the medium of literature, whereas people who are troubled by the switch to digital books are concerned about the nature of the experience of reading. You are experiencing the same work whether you read it in book or digital form, which cannot be said about watching a film on a movie screen versus watching it on your iPhone. But that doesn't mean your reading experience is the same. The things that have been lost in the switch are not intrinsic to one's experience of a work of literature, but they are all part of a certain reading experience, and as such none of them are “extraneous” to that experience. For people who love books, reading means an engagement with that kind of object, not just engagement with the words on the pages. It's comparable to the protests that accompanied the switch from vinyl to CDs and then the mp3, except for one crucial thing: recorded music had only been around for about a century before the CD replaced vinyl; the vinyl record itself had only been around for less than half a century. The codex has been around for two millennia; the printing press for over 500 years. It's little wonder that our association of both (non-dramatic) written material and reading with the book – the printed and bound codex – is so fiercely strong.

No one was ever going to confuse the end of vinyl with the end of music, but that is what we have done with the end of the book and the end of literature – or that even more precious thing, “reading,” which we culturally fetishize a great deal more than listening or viewing. It's a bit curious that we do, since in the age of electronics we can get knowledge and experience narrative by listening and viewing as well as by reading. Our reading fetish belongs to the Protestant heritage of the West: the ability to read the Bible for oneself meant not having to rely on hearsay and to undergo the private, interior, meditative process of interpretation and reliance on one's judgement. I don't think Parks would disagree that his insistence that reading be a “grown-up” activity, where “grown-up” means as divorced from the physical as possible, has something puritan and iconoclastic about it (he uses the word “austere”). The fact that I, for one, don't have the least qualm about giving up physical books disturbs me a bit about myself, and I certainly wouldn't want to congratulate myself on it, although I prefer my attitude to the one that equates the end of the book with the end of reading (and thereby culture and society). Perhaps the e-book is the final, or latest, development in a process whereby reading became increasingly mentalized, a development that may say more about one strain of our culture than it does about “the essence of literary experience.” We have to be careful when we attach the concept of “maturity” to the development of an art form; next we could find ourselves arguing that the world graduated to a new maturity when prose overtook poetry, with its more overt appeal to the senses, as the most popular form of literature.

We must, rationally, insist on the distinction between book and text. But to understand the confusion between them – and the hysteria over digitization it has generated – we could, perhaps, think of the book as the incarnation of literature. In fact this is probably the subtext of Parks's title, "E-books Can't Burn" (the spirit is immortal), and the mysterious response of a commenter that the fact that a book can burn is what makes it valuable (the flesh is mortal). 


  1. I had the chance to read a book on my mother's e-reader last summer, and I didn't mind it. Once I got over the strangeness of it, it was very much the same experience as ever-- at first I was distracted by not being able to go back and reread sections, but when you get used to the device it's actually easier to search and find sections.

    The criticism of e-readers that I can't understand at all is that "we don't need anymore digital devices in our lives!!". There is no rational argument against things just being digital anymore, we originally needed to rail against digital objects because they were associated with video games and distractions that discourage actual socialization, this isn't the case anymore. If a digital device does nothing but promote reading literature, it's just fine in my book.

  2. Also hilarious: during the peak Era of Reading, the 19th century, the novel was regarded as dangerous because it was a distraction that encouraged women (as sub-rational creatures)to be unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Sort of like the argument about children and TV later. Serious, rational people (i.e. men) read to acquire information. Now, we rail that there's "too much information" and we've (apparently) abandoned literature. And nothing is more respected than the novel, now regarded as the lynchpin of culture and subjectivity. Make up your mind, Western culture: does fiction distract us from information, or vice versa? Or, yeah, just shut up. (Western culture, not you.)