Books as sign

In “Snoopers on Subway, Beware Digital Books,” Susan Dominus of the New York Times points to the ways in which books act as social signifiers and the ways in which Kindles and other e-book readers challenge that particular moder of signification.

Trying to get a read on people who are reading is one of those aimless but satisfying subway pleasures that may eventually go by the wayside, like scanning the liner notes on the way home from Tower Records. The Kindle, an Amazon electronic book reader, may make getting your hands on a book faster, but in the process, it could “make it a lot harder to indulge in the crucial cultural task of judging books — and the people who read them — by their covers,” wrote the columnist Meghan Daum in The Los Angeles Times last fall.

The Kindle may rob New Yorkers of a subway pastime that’s more specific to this city: judging people’s covers by their books. That young guy slouched in his seat, with the hoodie pulled tight over his head — his posture suggests sheer indifference. The book in his hand, “Egyptian Cosmology,” suggests something otherwise (to guess what, exactly, would require a passing familiarity with Egyptian cosmology).

This goes along with my general sense of reading as a signifying act in an of itself, and that books function socially to communicate much more than information. Most of the stuff championing e-books emphasizes their superiority at delivering information. That MAY be true. I’m reading Treasure Island on BookGlutton–admittedly not a dedicated e-book reader but an e-book nonetheless–and I’m not totally convinced. More on that in the future. When I actually manage to finish Treasure Island, that is.

Still, I think the emphasis on books as an information delivery system misses the point that these systems themselves function as cultural artifacts and so themselves enable certain forms of communication just by being, regardless of the information that they contain.

Dominus goes on to say:

Of course, the Kindle won’t stop people from reading in public, but it might make that potentially public act seem oddly private. And we risk stripping reading of the extra work it does, enlightening us about the curiosities of the people with whom we so often seem to share space and nothing else.

I think this is right in a peculiar way. I’ve mentioned on this space before my sense that I am the only person in the coffeeshop who reads books anymore. This lends itself to a particular sense of isolation that has nothing to do with the peculiarity of my activity. Buddhists meditating together are “isolated” in one sense, but the shared silence–or chanting–is a form of cultural communication nonetheless. I feel more distinctly isolated from a person on a laptop than I do from a person reading a book. This may be irrational, but is a fact nonetheless.

Computer use does not serve the purpose of bonding me to the people in my immediate vicinity in the way that reading a book in the library or the bookstore does, or at least seems to do. In a peculiar way, the computer connection homogenizes my cultural spaces. They are all equally points of connection elsewhere, as if the laptop turns everyplace in American into a strip mall–the strip mall that homogeneous space wherein every American can feel they are familiar but alienated.

4 thoughts on “Books as sign

  1. Khara House

    (Not meaning to inundate your page with comments, but can I help if it’s fascinating?!)

    This reminds me of some discussion we had in one of my Philadelphia courses on the role of simulacra in modern society. As it stands, the simulated worlds of technology and the internet serve as distinct dividers between selves; we can effectively be other people, who we really are not, online, and simultaneously avoid the troublesome contacts we have with other people that challenge us (i.e., the idea among particularly we Millenials that it is easier to have a deep, meaningful conversation via instant messenger than in person). I relate it this way to the act of reading: even something as simple as relating to the cover/title of a book a stranger reads unites you in some way(s). And there is no more beautiful an expression of interest in the presence and thoughts of another person than willingly setting down an engaging read and closing the book to listen. We lose both these things with e-books and kindle …

  2. Phil Martin

    In considering the Kindle and like technologies versus the traditional book, myself being an avid reader since right about the time I could walk through the library doors, I actually can’t wait until enough of the books I love to read become available on the Kindle to justify buying one. For me, I lose nothing reading a work in a digital format over turning pages. In fact, I gain a great deal (potentially): including not having to lug an extensive library around with each move (which as a book collecting college student is a reality I contemplate in grim spectacle every few months). With the Kindle, or like device, I also am not limited to the number of books I can have with me…no matter where I am. And as for notes, the Kindle allows you to do that too. I would be tempted to put in a plug for conservation (that by utilizing digital books we are saving all those forests) but honestly, that isn’t what compels me. The technology itself does. But perhaps this is simply the difference of generations…as I have grown up in the bosom of the digital age and therefore the Kindle is the iPod is the laptop is the digital camera is the modus operandi of my 21st century world, and I give it scarcely a second thought.

  3. Pingback: Hermeneutics of the stack and the list: unreading journals in print or online | Read, Write, Now

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