Monthly Archives: February 2008

Books in a material world–Bookporn and more

I was talking to a couple of students yesterday, one of whom wants to be a librarian because she loves “being around books.” A little bit of a Scrooge, I guess, I told her she better get used to being around computers since that was the real future of libraries, taking her back a bit with my revelation that the library budget at our own college had just been required to move $50,000 from book purchasing to database collections. Small change for a lot of places, but for my smallish college $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, I’ve already felt the squeeze just a bit since English used to depend on the general fund of the library to order contemporary novels and poetry–which we ordered gleefully and at will. Probably partly on the erroneous assumption that availability would somehow translate into their being taken off the shelf. Well, that fund hasn’t disappeared, but we’ve been asked to order not quite so gleefully, and not quite so at will. A concrete manifestation of how a response to a perceived technological need–real or not–will gradually determine or close the future of the book as we’ve known it.

Still, my student was not dissuaded. She feels that books will always be with us because we love their physicality. There’s that body of the book theme again, and there’s something real about it that has to be thought through. Reading is not simply a mental process of decoding letters, not simply a process of getting information off a page or screen and in to our brains. It’s a physical activity to which we attach all kinds of cultural and personal meanings, a kind of spiritual reverence that the attach to the being of books that we cannot yet attach to computers.

We imagine computers too much as tools, and emphasizing their efficiency does too little to address the tactile, even the olfactory meanings that we attach to book culture. The other student who was with us was very intrigued by Amazon’s Kindle, but even she paused and said, “I became an English major when I looked out from the balcony and saw the stacks and stacks of books.” The physicality of books inspires a reverence, whereas the efficiency of computers inspires…what?…a sense of efficiency?

Indeed, I’m intrigued by the growing tendency of laptop users to try and personalize their laptops–recreating their essential impersonality through a kind of personal graffiti. There’s a great newstory on this phenomenon at c/net, along with Personalized laptop.  One of my favorites. 

We do this with books, it seems to me, but not in the same way. We don’t feel compelled to personalize the cover of a book, and our markings in a text are more to memorialize a reading experience than to carve a human personality into what is, after all, a machine. Books are a technology, but at the least we have learned to experience them as extensions of the body rather than as tools.

Along these lines, I’ve been running in to a lot of images of books again. Rachel Leow over at A Historian’s Craft celebrates the one year anniversary of her blog with BookPorn #27, a couple of fabulous images of the Library of the Musee Guimet. Says Rachel:Library Musee Guimet

“There’s a kind of hushed atmosphere when you walk in: the lights are dim and people shuffle about, struck silent with reverence, or perhaps the disconcerting, all-pervading pinkness of the walls and columns. The books lie, untouchable, behind their wire cages, and the smell of old paper lingers about well after you step, blinking, back out into the fluorescent glare of the exhibition outside.”

Nice writing, Rachel. And happy birthday. It seems to me that Rachel gets at this notion of the importance of the physicality of books inspiring a kind of reverence, something I attach even to my tattered paperback crowded onto basement shelves, but which I don’t really attach to my computer. Like nearly everyone else, I’m sure I spend a great deal more time on my computer reading anymore than I do in actually reading books. Like most white collar workers I’m chained here all day, and then blog all night. But feeling reverence for my computer feels a little bit like feeling reverence for my screwdriver. Not impossible, I guess. I’m sure many a carpenter has a deep feeling for his screwdriver. But I also guess that mostly such carpenters are considered weird by everyone else.

Books are tools, but it’s a mistake to think that what counts in reading them is the toolishness. If we only focus on the instrumental qualities associated with text delivery, there is no question that the e-book-o-philes among us are right to scoff at fears of digital libraries. Still, culture is more than instrumental, and always has been.

Along these lines, there’s a humorous and very interesting Giuseppe Acrimboldo Librarianskewering of those of us who are book fetishists over at if:book. Chris Mead has written a song about the history of books along with a lot of great images. My favorite is this from Giuseppe Acrimboldo, “The Librarian.” I love it. The human is text, no a book, a library. What I’ve always thought anyway. I am my books. I don’t yet say, I am my computer. Will I ever.

Chris takes the opportunity to skewer the-sky-is-falling attitude that some of us bring to the changes that are going on

“words: written in silence, muttered in monasteries
have been sung, shouted, acted – now by digital industries

broadcast and mixed for our burgeoning multiculture,

but circled by many a gloom-laden vulture

crying “R.I.P. books: doomed to extinction
by some blinking e-inky, i-evil invention”.
The word spreads and
changes; that’s my belief.
What next for the book?
The future lies overleaf.

Very nice. Dr. Seussian. Ok, only almost. Still, Chris’s poem/song emphasizes an assumption that I think is flatly wrong. That the technology of reading is essentially inconsequential for the act of reading itself. This is clear explicitly in the opening part of his poem.

“Books are what a society carries its words in
and words have been written on stone, silk, slate, parchment,
wax, clay, screen and skin,”

This is superficially true, but the assumption seems to be that reading is only about decoding letters, and books–or parchments or scrolls or screens–are merely delivery systems that are more or less equal except in the efficiency with which they can deliver text to readers. This is flatly false, as any historian of books and reading could point out in half a breath. In some sense, when we went from reading scrolls to reading codexes and then books, the changing technology changed the meaning of the act of reading, not just the techniques of the act of reading. It is this changing meaning that is crucial to try and understand. Techniques of text delivery can merely be learned through users manuals. Meanings and their attendant ways of being human are less easily learned and unlearned. We ought to pay attention to what those changes might be.

Final note: I’m sure everyone’s familiar with this video, but it still makes me smile. It’s a reminder that all of the cultural associations we have with books had to be learned. There’s nothing natural about our sentimental attachments to books. As kids, we’re all in the position of the monk at a loss here, not knowing which way a book sets on the table, which way to turn the pages. Culture is learned. That doesn’t mean the demise of books should be sniffed at. But culture is learned.

Emerson and the Umpires of taste

It’s not particular fashionable to admit that I love Emerson. Indeed, for as long as I’ve been in literary studies, Emerson and the other Romantics have been the arch-enemies that others have sought to dismiss, disparage, demote, decenter, damn, and deconstruct. Among other things. As an undergraduate this had a religious and an aesthetic cast. On a religious scale,Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson was a heretic who could say in all seriousness that poets are liberating gods, that we are part and parcel of God, and that he was a transcendatal eyeball (or something like that) creating the universe through his imagination. And we all thought Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be just a little bit odd. What need the consolations of Christ when the advent of the world came through the exercise of the individual imagination, consort of the Oversoul?


On an aesthetic scale, Emerson and the romantics were merely gauche, optimistic naifs willing to blather on about the state of their own souls when what was really needed was the hard and broken nose of modernism, which viewed the soul of the poet with only a little less scepticism than the machinations of the modern world. Both strains of anti-Romnticism came together in the aesthetic pieties and the pious aesthetics of T.S. Eliot. Odd mix for me, but I’d still rather read Eliot’s Waste Land than Emerson’s Poetry. But, too, I’d rather read any one of Emerson’s essays than any essay that Eliot ever wrote. They are a poetry of their own, and by that I mean they move me and change the way I see the world in some of the same ways that Eliot’s poetry moves and changes me.

(Unfashionable admission number two–I became a scholar of English during a semester in which I spent hours memorizing lines of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land to deliver as part of an oral interpretation class. Who says it’s not a song?)

(Unfashiongable admission number three–I admit to the perversity of liking equally and in different ways the long, engorged, and lusty lines of breathy Walt Whitman and the Puritan and technical severity of Eliot’s poetry that tends to exist only on the page. The belief that you can only like one kind of thing, that we can’t like poetries that are polar opposites is, in the words of Emerson, a contradiction that is the hobgoblin on little minds. Read much. Love much. Contain multitudes.)

Which brings me to the “umpires of taste” who are the target of the first line of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Obviously Emerson has in mind the critics of his age, but my general interest is the way that Emerson looks at and understands reading. The umpires of reading are seeking to create rules for reading and writing, to arrive at a proper reading. What is the right thing to like, what is the best thing to read, what is the best way to read, what is the proper understanding of a text. This is the kind of reading that Emerson derides when he priviledges writing over reading, when he dismisses the reading of books for the making of books. He is, of course, suspicious of reading in general, as “The American Scholar” makes plain. However, there is a kind of reading that is a kind of poetry. Indeed, it’s not to much to say that writing is a kind of reading, and that reading is a kind of writing, if we understand that both can require the agency of the imagination.

There is, of course, a kind of reading that is purely instrumental. The gaining, processing, and storing of information. Too often, this is the kind of reading that we encourage in school, and the kind of reading that we think is the primary and first point of reading. Any other kind of reading only comes later, or is suspect if it doesn’t subject itself to this. The umpires of taste sniff at the inspiration, the personal connections, the new insights that readers bring to a text, sniff and subject such readings to the rules and requirements of reading properly.

Emerson reverses this academic privileging of analysis under reposed and quieted emotion.

“An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream that holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Amen and Amen. The Discipline of English is often not ill-named a discipline, since it’s goal can often end up being to transform these wild and boggy responses to the chant of the universe to automatic responsa, with criticism as dull as memorized prayers.

Ok, I’ll be more composed and analytical tomorrow. But first I had to say that Emerson does a service by getting at why we chose to read in the first place. Before we had to read in order to write a disseration, or publish an essay, or teach a class. When we were lovers plain and simple.

I hope that isn’t the same thing as saying before we grew up.

Lolita’s Bedroom—Or why marketing directors should read more novels.

What young family wouldn’t hold out the image of a sexually precocious 12-year-old as the image they hope their young daughters will have dancing in their heads as those innocent heads hit the pillow at night. The London Times reports that Woolworths has had to pull a certain ill-named piece of bedroom furniture from the market after a widespread internet protest by offended mothers.Woolworth’s Lolita bed

“The Lolita Midsleeper Combi, a whitewashed wooden bed with pull-out desk and cupboard intended for girls aged about 6, was on sale on the Woolworths website for £395.”
……

“Whereas many mothers were familiar with Vladimir Nabokov and his famous novel, it seems that the Woolworths staff were not. At first they were baffled by the fuss. A spokesman for the company told The Times: “What seems to have happened is the staff who run the website had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either. We had to look it up on Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now.””

Lolita book cover full sizeAs my colleague, Matt Roth, suggests it’s hard to know which is worse, that they made the bed in the first place, or that they didn’t know about one of the iconic literary figures of the past half-century.

However, given the international state of our reading crisis, perhaps its worth asking how so many mothers even knew who Lolita was. I wonder if they read the book or saw the movie.

In any case, cultural illiteracy will get you nowhere.

Still, I’m just a tad bit suspicious about Woolworth’s protestations
According to the same Times article, the Brits business community has a penchant for salacious pitches to the preadolescent crowd:

“In 2006 Tesco was removed its pole-dancing kit from the toys and games section of its website after it was accused of destroying children’s innocence.”

A pole-dancing kit. What every nine-year old girl wants for Christmas.

Similarly the BBC reports the following:

“In 2005, WH Smiths came under fire for selling youngsters stationery bearing the Playboy bunny – a symbol of the pornography empire.

“Prior to that Bhs decided to withdraw its Little Miss Naughty range of padded bras and knickers for pre-teen girls after attracting criticism.

I’m not sure what’s naughty about knickers. I thought it was just a weird British word for underwear. And according to the grammar they were padded anyway. Sounds uncomfortable to me. Still, I draw the line at padded bras for pre-teens.

For the record, I did a Google search on women named Lolita. Turns out there are thousands of them. And not just Lolita Davidovitch. And most of them aren’t even on sex sites. I’m sure that the Woolworth’s bedrooms set was probably named after the owner’s great aunt Lolita in Birmingham. And after all, it’s not pole-dancing. Come on people, lighten up!

Anyway, though I’m appalled at the marketing division’s literary illiteracy, isn’t it a great thing to see literature making a difference in the world.

More solid evidence that the NEA is correct in saying readers are more likely to be social activists. 😉

Listening as Reading

Some more about audiobooks today.

I still remember my shock and dismay a couple of years ago when I clicked on to the New York Times book page and found an advertisement of much a younger, more handsome and vaguely Mediterranean-looking young man who oozed sex appeal as he looked out at me from the screen with headphones on his ears.

“Why Read?” asked the caption.

Surely this was the demise of Western Civilization as we knew it, to say nothing of being a poor marketing strategy for a newspaper industry increasingly casting about in vain for new readers.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that audiobooks have developed a generally sexy and sophisticated cache for literary types that other shorthand ways to literature typically lack. As an English professor, I’ve been intrigued lately that a number of colleagues around and about have told me they listen to audiobooks to “keep up on their reading.” To some degree I’ve always imagined this as a slightly more sophisticated version of “I never read the book, but I watched the movie,” which has itself been about on a par with reading Sparknotes.

However, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, another colleague recently took issue with my general despairing sense that the reading of literature, at least, is on the decline, no matter the degree to which students may be now reading interactively on the web. “Yes,” she said, “but what about audiobooks?” She went on to cite the growth in sales over the past few years as evidence that interest in literature may not be waning after all.

My immediate response is a little bit like that of Scott Esposito over at Conversational reading. In a post a couple of years ago Scott responded to an advocate of audiobooks with the following:

Sorry Jim, but when you listen to a book on your iPod, you are no more reading that book than you are reading a baseball game when you listened to Vin Scully do play-by-play for the Dodgers.

It gets worse:

[Quoting Jim] But audio books, once seen as a kind of oral CliffsNotes for reading lightweights, have seduced members of a literate but busy crowd by allowing them to read while doing something else.

Well, if you’re doing something else then you’re not really reading, now are you? Listen Jim, and all other audiobookphiles out there: If I can barely wrap my little mind around Vollmann while I’m holding the book right before my face and re-reading each sentence 5 times each, how in the hell am I going to understand it if some nitwit is reading it to me while I’m brewing a cappuchino on my at-home Krups unit?

It’s not reading. It’s pretending that you give a damn about books when you really care so little about them that you’ll try to process them at the same time you’re scraping Pookie’s dog craps up off the sidewalk.

I have to grin because Scott is usually so much more polite. Nevertheless, I cite Scott at length because viscerally, in the deepest reaches of my id, I am completely with him and he said it better than I could anyway.

However, it’s worth pausing over the question of audiobooks a little further. I don’t agree with one of Scott’s respondents over at if:book, who describes listening to audiobooks as a kind of reading. But it is an experience related to reading, and so it’s probably worth parsing what kind of experience audiobooks actually provide and how that experience fits in with our understanding of what reading really is.

As I’ve said a couple of times, I think we lose sight of distinctions by having only one word, “reading,” that covers a host of activities. I don’t buy the notion that listening can be understood as the same activity as reading, though the if:book blog rightly points out the significance of audiobooks to the visually impaired. Indeed, one of my own colleagues has a visual disability and relies on audiobooks and other audio versions of printed texts to do his work. Even beyond these understandable exceptions, however, Scott’s definition of reading above privileges a particular model of deep reading that, in actual fact, is relatively recent in book history.

Indeed, going back to the beginnings of writing and reading, what we find is that very few people read books at all. Most people listened to books/scrolls/papyri being read. TheChrist reading in the synagogue temple reader and the town crier are the original of audiobooks and podcasts. In ancient Palestine, for instance, it’s estimated that in even so bibliocentric a culture as that of the Jewish people only 5 to 15% of the population could read at all, and the reading that went on often did not occur in deep intensive reading like that which Scott and I imagine when we think about what reading really is. Instead, much of the experience of reading was through ritual occasions in which scriptures would be read aloud as a part of worship. This is why biblical writers persistently call on people to “Hear the Word.” This model of reading persists in Jewish and Christian worship today, even when large numbers of the religious population are thoroughly literate. See Issachar Ryback’s “In Shul” for an interesting image from the history of Judaism.

Indeed, in the history of writing and reading, listening to reading is more the norm than not if we merely count passing centuries. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Reformation that the model for receiving texts became predominantly focused on the individuals intense and silent engagement with the written word of the book. In this sense, we might say that the Hebrews of antiquity weren’t bibliocentric so much as logocentric—word-centered but not necessarily book-centered.

Along these lines, the model of intense engagement—what scholars of book history call “intensive reading”—is only one historical model of how reading should occur. Many scholars in the early modern period used “book wheels” in order to have several books open in front book wheelof them at the same time. This is not exactly the same thing as multi-tasking that Scott abhors in his post, and it’s not exactly internet hypertexting, but it is clearly not the singular absorption in a text that we’ve come to associate with the word “reading.” “Reading” is not just the all-encompassing absorption that I’ve come to treasure and long for in great novels and poems, or even in great and well-written arguments. Indeed, I judge books by whether they can provide this kind of experience. Nevertheless, “Reading” is many things.

But to recognize this is not exactly the same thing as saying “so what” to the slow ascendancy of audiobooks, and the sense that books, if they are to be read at all, will be read as part of a great multi-tasking universe that we now must live in. Instead, I think we need to ask what good things have been gained by the forms of intensive reading that Scott and I and others in the cult of book lovers have come to affirm as the highest form of reading. What is lost or missing if a person or a culture becomes incapable of participating in this kind of reading.

By the same token, we should ask what kinds of things are gained by audiobooks as a form of experience, even if I don’t want to call it a form of reading. I’ve spent some time recently browsing around Librivox.org, which I’ll probably blog about more extensively in a future post. It’s fair to say that a lot of it turns absolutely wonderful literature into mush, the equivalent of listening to your eight-year-old niece play Beethoven on the violin. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that some few of the readers on that service bring poetry alive for me in a way quite different than absorption in silence with the printed page. As I suggested the other day, I found Justin Brett’s renditions of Jabberwocky and Dover Beach, poems I mostly skim over when finding them in a book or on the web, absolutely thrilling, and I wanted to listen to everything I could possibly find that he had read.

This raises a host of interesting questions for a later day. What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). What is critical thinking and reading? I found myself thrilled by Brett’s reading, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily and in a single glance see how lines and stanzas fit together. I was, in some very real sense, at the mercy of the reader, no matter how much I loved his reading.

This raises necessary questions about the relationship between reader and listener. Could we tolerate a culture in which, like the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, reading is for the elite few while the rest of us listen or try to listen. At the mercy and good will of the literate elite—to say nothing of their abilities and deficiencies as oral interpreters of the works at hand.

More later

Audiobooks: Baritones do it Better

I’m having a little trouble keeping the eyelids open on humpday, so I’ll probably come back to this later. Still, I’ve been away for a couple of days, so I thought I’d ruminate for a few paragraphs.

A conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks back has had me contemplating the status of audiobooks. Conversation turned around the question of whether audiobooks constituted “reading,” an ameliorative factor to the generally dismal view of literary reading that’s been out there ever since the NEA report in 2004.

I’m not convinced, but I am intrigued by the general status of audiobooks and how they relate to the historical practices of reading and listening aloud. It’s worth saying that a characteristic of modern reading practices has idealized silent reading for oneself. Reading out loud, and worse, listening to others read, has largely been a sign of immaturity or deficiency.

But should it be? Not sure. Something I’ll have to come back to.

I recently stumbled across Librivox. Again, something I’m sure many people were already familiar with, but which seems brand new to me. Essentially an archive of open access recordings of various works of literature, the recordings done by volunteers.

Librivox has all the strengths and weaknesses of democratic webdom. I literally could not understand some of the poems I tried to listen to. Some readers sounded vaguely like adenoidal adolescents, slurred words together and substituted speed and volume for earnestness and emotion. Others started well, but seemed to get bored with the poems as they go along. It takes a lot of effort, evidently, to be sonorous and measured and musical, to have a voice worth listening to without making listeners hear the voice more than the poetry itself.

Still, I ran across Justin Brett after listening to about a half dozen recordings of Dover Beach, and immediately became a sucker for his resonant baritone and British accent. I could listen all day.

For several good recordings of Brett’s vocal work, listen to the following:

“Dover Beach”

“Jabberwocky”

“The Collar”

Is it reading? I still don’t think so, but I’ll come back to it. Is it literature? That’s an interestingly different question, that will also await another day. Is the experience of literature linked inextricably to the page, or is it in the word that the page “merely” symbolizes? Is whatever is literary about literature independent of the written word–ink or digital–just as we might think of music as essentially free of and even superior to the page upon which it is composed? I don’t think so, for now, but it’s worth thinking about.

Garrison Keillor and Toni Morrison Tag Team Angelou and Grisham

Garrison Keillor, a personal favorite, has broken for Obama. As I suspected a while back, Obama seems to be doing well with the literary crowd—gathering in Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and now Garrison Keillor. There may be others, but I can’t find them in the five minutes I can afford looking around on the web. Still, it’s not a total lock. Maya Angelou and John Grisham have put in for Clinton, with Angelou putting forth with about as much sagacious pomposity as Morrison mustered for Obama. According to Angelou, embedded below, we should be attracted to Clinton because “she gives herself authority to be in her own skin… to be who she is.” We further discover that Hillary has the honesty to stand up and say “Yes, I am a woman.” And further that she is her mother and grandmother and an great grandmother and great greats. And all women. And she is even Maya Angelou.

Going to be a crowded Lincoln bedroom. And here we thought we were only going to get a two-fer with Hillary and Bill.

Seriously though, I have some trouble with the notion that women ought to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, any more than a man ought to vote for Obama because he’s a man or because he’s black, or McCain because he’s a man or because he’s white. This being said, I know it happens, consciously and unconsciously. So I don’t have an absolute problem with Angelou being straightforward about it. What strikes me, however, is that Clinton supporters have been quite frank and straightforward in arguing that people ought to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman. I don’t see quite the same straightforward statement by any prominent black supporters of Obama. And of course it would be absolutely politically impossible for someone to get up and say they were voting for Obama or McCain or Huckabee because they were men. So the rhetorical strategies are still interesting. What’s allowed and what’s not allowed. My general sense, still, is that Obama is the wiser in playing down a unique appeal to a “natural” constituency. Can Clinton speak for and to everyone. She doesn’t really try to make that case, and I imagine it will cost her in a general election.

Back to Keillor. Much more understated as befits a Minnesotan. Though, it must be said that Keillor’s understatement is no less strategic or conventional the Angelou’s and Morrison’s self-inflation.

“I’m happy to support your candidacy, which is so full of promise for our country,” the best-selling author and humorist wrote in a letter declaring his support. “Seven years of a failed presidency is a depressing thing, and the country is pressing for a change and looking for someone with clear vision who is determined to break through the rhetorical logjam and find sensible ways to move our country forward. That’s you, friend.”

“And of course it will be exciting to have a president who can speak with grace and power to the American people,” Keillor wrote.

A war that’s left 10s of thousand dead or maimed, and has saddled our grandchildren with crippling debts has left Keillor depressed. Well, perhaps this is self-inflation of a very understated sort. From what I gather though, many things leave the good Lutheran depressed, and for the melancholy another thirty or forty thousand dead is par for the course in the scheme of things.

Keillor’s compliments to Obama’s rhetoric stand out. Obama couldn’t muster a great deal of grace and power in his response, however.

“I’ve been entertained and inspired by Garrison Keillor’s work through the years,” Obama said in a statement. “As president, I will wake up every day thinking about how I can help make life better in places like Lake Wobegon all across the country.”

Umm. Ok. This is EXACTLY why I thought Obama was running. To help all those good folks with white picket fences in the land that time forgot. It’s an interesting contrast, of course, since Keillor, despite his liberalism, has made his literary career on the examination of a white ethnic community as “typically American” in an era when it’s typicality has faded by the hour. Indeed, there is no measure of how atypical Lake Woebegon really is than the candidacy of Barack Obama.

Have they even seen black people in Lake Woebegon. I have my doubts. As much as I love the show. I can’t remember a single one.

Ephemeral, all too ephemeral; Or, does anybody remember what Russell Jacoby wrote yesterday?

David Rothman over at Teleread announced today that I’ll be blogging for them on a semi-regular basis. As I’ve indicated on this blog in the past, I think Teleread is a very good portal for getting good information about all things reading, with a special emphasis on e-books and the general interface between the digital world and books. Also, though I’m not involved in this whole end of things, they function as an advocacy group for universal computer and open library access. A worthy cause in my estimation.

David wasn’t dissuaded by my protestations that I don’t consider myself an expert on reading, e-books, or blogging. I’ll try to keep it from being too much the amateur hour.

But wait, some people are saying that blogging is THE amateur hour, to the destruction of our civilization. So perhaps I’ll just do my best to contribute to the end of all things.

Seriously though, as this blog reaches its one month anniversary, I’ve realized that I’ve been thinking at least as much about how blogging works as writing as I have about how reading is functioning in our contemporary culture. Russell Jacoby, whom I generally respect for his now somewhat ancient call for a renewal of public intellectual work, wrote a kind of scathing dismissal of the contemporary academy, and along with it a rather sniffy dismissal of blogging.

I think Jacoby’s categorical thinking is part and parcel of our problem in grappling with the nature of reading and writing—and thinking and intellectual work—in the contemporary world. It is true that blogs are somewhat ephemeral, but on the other hand, how many of the many periodical essays of the 1950s do people really remember. Moreover, if blogging specifically eschews the media of print and permanence, we might ask what kind of intellectual work, what kind of cultural work generally, is being done by this kind of writing?

It seems to me to apply the standard of permanent value to any public intellectual work is wrongheaded. The things Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling had to say in the 30s, 40s, and 50s can hardly apply to our world at the dawning of the 21st century. But more importantly, they did a specific kind of public intellectual work that was appropriate for the media and age in which they worked.

Blogging can be “id writing” as described in the NyTimes the other day. But it can also be a kind of intellectual and cultural work much different from those that we are used to. The 1950s saw both a lot of what we now envy as influential public intellectual work, and it also saw the explosion on the scene of Playboy magazine. Perhaps this was why people claim even yet today to buy it for the writing.

My point is that magazines and middle to upper middle brow journals were a media through which to do particular kinds of intellectual work. It seems to me that blogs and other kinds of interactive and multimedia formations are the site of potentially important intellectual work today.

But what is the nature of that work. How does it differ from that of the past. Well, for one thing, I think it aspires more to the kind of interchanges that go on in coffeeshop culture of the 18th century, where intellectual work was not yet located (imprisoned?) in as yet undeveloped academy. It’s even much more like the intellectual work that goes on in classrooms or in informal exchanges with colleagues and students after a lecture or reading.

Academics mostly sniff at this kind of thing as beneath their consideration. But it seems to me that it is precisely out of these kinds of exchanges that enduring and important intellectual work comes from. This is why I decided to start blogging a month ago. I wanted to imagine an intellectual space, a conversational space, that wasn’t imprisoned by the conventions of academic work. I also wanted to imagine doing writing that was more like the energy I feel in conversations with good friends about topics I care about deeply.

I think, honestly, that this will lead to another kind of writing that is more conventional. I still want to publish a book on the reading in the contemporary cultural imaginary. On the other hand, just because I continue to envision a more conventional form of intellectual work, I think I’m coming to think that we are mistaken if we think that blogging or other kinds of intellectual exchange on the web can only be justified if they lead to that kind of thing. If they do, great. But if they don’t they are their own kind of good. When Jacoby criticized blogs for the ephemerality, he is holding out the standard of books, and even more books that continue to be read decades after they are written, as the only worthy definition of intellectual work. I dispute that. The immediacy of blogging, the effort to grapple in written words with difficult problems, the opportunity to have friends and strangers read or respond, these are their own goods. This is a kind of intellectual work worth doing regardless of what other forms it may lead to, and regardless of whether it leads anywhere else at all. Just as the engagement I have in my classroom is its own good and produces knowledge worth having in me and in my students, the process of writing, of thinking through issues on a daily or weekly basis, is a knowledge worth pursuing even if it disappears next week or next year.

Well, enough for now. I’ll try to come back later and put in some links for Jacoby’s piece and some other things I refer to in this post. Right now I’ve got to go party with my wife. She thinks I love my blog more than her, so I better go prove her wrong.

Body of Knowledge

Since getting started on this blog I’ve been thinking a lot about how we image reading, and more broadly knowledge. The classic picture of a man or woman, body slumped in a chair or reclining on a bed or laying under a tree, head inclined in to a book. This is our sense of what reading is, and in a larger sense of how knowledge is gained and demonstrated.

It’s a difficult image in some respects because, in fact, we can’t really tell whether reading is going on at all simply from the fact of its physical representation. For all we know the person who seems as if they are half-asleep may in fact be half-asleep. Think of the association of reading fiction with being in dream worlds. The act of reading itself, especially silent reading, is in some respects unimage-able. We can’t see the translations that occur between marks on a page that become letters and words and then are associated with meanings in the mind. We accept on trust that the student with her book open in the back of the room is, in fact, reading, rather than drifting into a half-world as we lecture on at the front of the room.

I think working on the blog has made me acutely more interested in the physical image of reading. How could I choose relevant images for a blog taken up with something so ethereal as reading? My avatar came from a library at Upsala University (I think, I can’t remember). I was lasande_man.jpgtaken by the classic image of the hunched body at the desk, but also that it was obviously a middle-aged man, somewhat monkish. Finally, that you couldn’t see the face—which seemed to me to be something about reading and something about what I wanted the blog to be. Reading is a kind of facelessness, a kind of disappearance of the self that is itself enriching and expansive. This is why I think all the focus on reading as creativity and self-assertion among so many poststructuralists—people like Roland Barthes who want to turn reading in to an alternative form of writing—is missing something that’s relatively essential and important. The disappearance of the self in reading is precisely what we desire. The loss of self is goal, not dread outcome of the process of reading.

One thing that struck me in searching for an appropriate avatar—which I pursued by searching Google images—is that images of reading are almost exclusively associated with books. Reading means, so far as the visual imagination is concerned, reading books. I sifted through a couple of dozen pages of images and came up with not one image of a computer or a computer screen. Indeed, realizing that I was interested in pursuing the conjunction of reading and writing, I thought it was a little ironic that my wordpress template has a pen at the top. Of course, I have the option of putting in a computer keyboard, and tried to find one, but perhaps the point is made. In our imaginations, reading and writing is still a matter of pen and paper. As I said yesterday, my colleague is not even certain that what we do on things like this blog is properly called writing. Why call it blogging if it is writing plain and simple. Similarly, we surf the web, we don’t read the web. It’s a new and different process, for which we don’t have adequate visual images.

My same colleague objects that we won’t go with electronic books because we like the physicality of things. Well…I didn’t point out to her that, in fact, Kindles and Sony readers and my 17-inch Macintosh computer screen are all physical to a fault. But somehow we imagine that computers have no physical presence. Without physical presence they cannot image that most insubstantial of things, the reading process. In actual fact, I think that we have constructed a certain kind of “physicality” that we associate with books, while we are only beginning to develop a sense of the physicality of computers.

Along these lines, our library at school is hosting a very nice work of art by a couple of our students. A book with reading glasses. I’m having trouble optimizing this to fit on the page, but you can access ” Vision of Knowledge” by clicking on the title. My general sense is that computers make both books and reading glasses anachronistic. We can read on the Internet, and if the text is too small, who needs glasses. Just hit text zoom.

The other interesting thing about this image is the text itself, which, of course, we read. “A vision of knowledge.” My general sense is that despite the tremendous emphasis on the Internet as a resource for knowledge and learning, we continue to imagine, to have visions of knowledge primarily through our cultural repertoire related to books. Again, a quick google search for images related to the word “knowledge” called up dozens of pictures of books, various diagrams of the brain, and a lot of variously dull and variously interesting charts and REading Womengraphs. One thing that didn’t come up were images of computers. I scrolled through about 100 and some odd images before I got to any image of a computer at all.

I’m not sure that there’s any great lesson to be drawn here. However, I think that if we can’t picture something, this means that we don’t quite know what to do with it, that we don’t quite know what it is, at least for us. The digital world is inescapable, but at least with regards to reading and knowledge we still don’t know exactly what it means, how to imagine ourselves as a part of it.

Side note: There’s a lot of stuff out there on the gender of reading, of course. There’s an absolutely fabulous book of images entitled “Reading Women” that I recommend highly. At one point I thought ALL images of reading were women, though this, of course, isn’t true at all.