Category Archives: Orality

Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

My colleague in the library here at Messiah College, Jonathan Lauer, has a very nice essay in the most recent Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Jonathan makes an eloquent defense of the traditional book over and against the googlization and ebookification of everything.   He especially employs an extended metaphor drawn from the transition to aluminum bats in various levels of baseball to discuss his unease and reservations about the shifts to electronic books and away from print that is profoundly and rapidly changing the nature of libraries as we’ve known them.  The essay is more evocative than argumentative, so there’s a lot of different things going on, but a couple of Jonathan’s main points are that enhancements we supposedly achieve with digitization projects come at a cost to our understanding of texts and at a cost to ourselves.

In the big leagues, wooden bats still matter. Keeping print materials on campus and accessible remains important for other reasons as well. Witness Andrew M. Stauffer’s recent Chroniclearticle, “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book.” Stauffer, the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, cites several examples of what we all know intuitively. “The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered on the screen,” he writes. “There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.” Without these details, discernible only in physical copies, we are unable to understand a book’s total impact. Are we so easily seduced by the aluminum bat that we toss all wooden ones from the bat bag?

Let’s also acknowledge that our gadgets eventually program us. History teaches us that technologies often numb the very human capacities they amplify; in its most advanced forms, this is tantamount to auto-amputation. As weavers lost manual dexterity with their use of increasingly mechanized looms during the Industrial Revolution, so we can only imagine what effect GPS will have on the innate and learned ability of New York City cabbies to find their way around the five boroughs. Yet we practice auto-amputation at our own peril. We dare not abandon wooden bats for aluminum for those endeavors that demand prolonged attention, reflection, and the analysis and synthesis that sometimes lead to wisdom, the best result of those decidedly human endeavors that no gadget can exercise.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan’s position, things like the revamping of the New York Public Library leaving me with a queasy hole in my stomach.  I’ve had a running conversation with Beth Transue, another of our librarians, about our desire to start leading alumni tours of the world’s great libraries, but if we’re going to do so we better get it done fast because most of them won’t be around anymore in a few more years, at least if the NYPL and its budgetary woes are anything to judge by.

At the same time, I think Jonathan overstates his case here.  I don’t think serious thinkers are assuming we’ll get rid of books entirely.  Although I currently think we are already living in what I’ve called an E-plus world, print will continue to be with us serving many different purposes. Jason Epstein over at the NYRB has a blog on this fact and progrognosticating the likely future and uses of the traditional book seems to be a growth industry at the moment. I don’t think the average student is too terribly interested in the material textuality that Jonathan references above, nor for that matter is the average scholar, the vast majority of whom remain interested in what people wrote not how the publishers chose to package it.  But those issues will continue to be extremely important for cultural and social historians, and there will be some forms of work that will only possibly be done with books.  Just as it is a tremendous boon to have Joyce’s manuscript’s digitized, making them available for the general reader and the scholar who cannot afford a trip to Ireland, authoritative interpretations of Joyce’s method, biography, and life’s work will still have to make the trip to Ireland to see the thing for themselves, to capture what can’t be captured by a high resolution camera.

That having been said, who would say that students studying Joyce should avoid examining the digitized manuscripts closely because they aren’t “the genuine article.”  Indeed, I strongly suspect that even the authoritative interpretations of those manuscripts will increasingly be a commerce between examination of the physical object and close examination of digitized objects since advanced DH work shows us time and time again that computerized forms of analysis can get at things the naked eye could never see.  So the fact that there are badly digitized copies of things in google books and beyond, shouldn’t belie the fact that there are some massively important scholarly opportunities here.

Jonathan’s second point is about the deeply human and quasi-spiritual aspects of engagement with traditional books that so many of us have felt over the years.  There’s something very true about this. It is also true that our technologies can result in forms of self amputation.  Indeed, if we are to take it to heart we need to admit that the technology of writing and reading itself is something that involves self-amputation.  Studies have shown that heavy readers alter their brains, and not always in a good sense.  We diminish the capacity of certain forms of memory, literally making ourselves absent minded professors.   Other studies have suggested that persons in oral cultures have this capacity in heightened form, and  some people argue that this generation is far more visually acute than those that preceded it, developing new abilities because of their engagement with visual texts.  So, indeed, our technologies alter us, and even result in self-amputation, but that is true of the traditional book as well as the internet.  This second is Jonathan’s larger claim since it seems to claim for traditional books as such a superiority in terms of something central to humanity as such. I am intrigued, with this argument that the book is superior for serious reflection and the quasi spiritual aspects of study that we have come to treat as central to the humanities.

I admit, I don’t buy it.

First, I admit that I’m just wary about attributing essential human superiorities to historical artifact and practices.  Homer as a collection of aural songs is not inherently inferior to the scrolls within which they were originally collected, then finding their apotheosis in the book form.  We have come to think of the book as exhibiting and symbolizing superior forms of humanity, but it’s not clear that book form was triumphant in the west because of these attributes.  Indeed, traditional Jews and others clearly think the scroll remains the superior spiritual form even to this day.  Rather, the codex triumphed for a variety of complicated reasons.  Partly Christian Churches for ideological reasons apparently wanted to distinguish their own writings from the writings of the Jews.  There may have been some more substantive reasons as well, though that’s not entirely clear: Anthony Grafton points out that many of the Christian innovations with the codex seemed to focus on the desire to compare different kinds of texts side by side (an innovation, I will point out, for which the internet is in many ways easily superior).  The codex also triumphed not because it was spiritually and intellectually superior but because it was, frankly, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to disseminate than its scrolly ancestors.  One good example is from the poet Martial who explicitly ties the selling of his poetry in codex form to making them easily and efficiently accessible to the common person:  “Assign your book-boxes to the great, this copy of me one hand can grasp.”

The entire trend of book history has been toward this effort to make texts and what they contain more readily and easily available to more and more people.  From the early clay tablets to the mass market paperback that let you carry Plato in your hip pocket, the thrust of the book has been toward broader and broader dissemination, toward greater and greater ease of use, toward cheaper and cheaper accessibility.  The goal of writing, even when that writing was imprisoned in libraries that only the initiated could enter as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, has been open access.

The digitization that is occurring now comes to fulfill the book, not destroy it.

Secondarily, I guess I no longer believe fully in the spiritual or intellectual superiority of codex forms simply since it doesn’t comport with my experience.  As I do more and more of my reading of books with my various e-readers, I find that I have serious, contemplative, analytical, and synthetic engagements with all kinds of texts, from those hundreds of “pages” long and those not.  As I get used to the tools of various e-readers, theres almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in some way on an e-reader that is accomplished in traditional books.  Although I interact with texts differently now in a spatial sense, I am able to take fuller and more copious notes, I am able to mark texts more easily,  and if I can’t quite remember where something was in the book I can use a search engine to find not only a specific phrase or topic, but every single instance of that topic in the book.  Moreover, because every text represents an act of contemplation on and conversation with other texts, I can at the touch of a screen go and read for myself the interlocutors embedded within a book, just as those interested in Jonathan’s essay can touch my link above and decide for themselves whether I am reading him fairly.  Thus there are very obviously and seriously some ways in which e-readers are superior for serious analytical and interpretive readings of texts, or at least the equal to them.

All this having been said, I will say that there remains one way that I find the traditional paper book the clear superior to the e-book, and that has to do with my ability to make it mine.

I spoke a couple of days ago about the personal connection I felt to Kierkegaard in rereading him and discovering my many years of underlines, highlights and marginalia.  I even confess that I real Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new memoir on my iPad, but I still bought a hard cover at the reading–not because I thought I would be able to analyze it more effectively in hard cover, but because I wanted her to sign it for me.

This is a personal connection to the book that isn’t unimportant, but that is about my personal biography, and Kimi’s.  It’s not about the text, and frankly I doubt it will in the long run even be about literary history.  Some literary archivist somewhere is collecting all the shared comments on the Kindle version of Kimi’s book, and that massive marginalia will be fodder for some graduate student’s dissertation in a few decades.

I pity the poor graduate student who decides on such a project. But at least she won’t have to strain her eyes to decipher the handwriting.

Miscellany: More Librivox, More Emerson, More Diarrhea

Ok, to get to Diarrhea, you have to read to the end of this post.

 

MORE LIBRIVOX

I got some very good comments from “Hugh” who is a poobah of some sort over at Librivox. You should go read his comments yourself at my post, “Listening as Reading,” but a couple of excerpts here since I want to think about what he has to say. (And, hey, it’s a cheap way to come up with a post when it’s late at night and I’m having trouble collecting my thoughts.

Says Hugh:

“in pre-radio/tv/recordings days, and when books were relatively expensive, many books were actually written to be read aloud – it was a form of family entertainment: the family & friends gathered around papa (or mama) who read at the fireplace. dickens is a particular example. of course an mp3 audio version read by a stranger isn’t the same thing, but it is another experience of literature, one that has it’s own particular richness, and weakness.”

Yes, a good thing to point out, continuous with my general observation that for the longest part of human history reading was primarily about reading aloud, not reading silently. I’m not quite sure I would go completely down the road that books in the nineteenth century were written to be read out loud. This misconstrues the case. But it is the case that they were commonly read out loud, and there was a great deal of fluidity between the oral presentation and the written. Dickens is a good representative of this fluidity. I’m not quite sure I would say Dicken’s wrote his books in order to read them out loud. He wrote them in order to get them published serially in magazines. But it is absolutely true that he often rewrote and rewrote passages over and over in order to achieve certain kinds of emotional effects in his listening audience. Thus there’s a deep connection between the orality of the word and the writtenness of the word. A fluid interchange of sorts. I still tell students they ought to read their work outloud to themselves in order to hear how things sound. This can be a good guide to the kind of rhetorical affects you are achieving.

Says Hugh again:

“-we are primarily a platform to help people record audiobooks (with an objective of making a complete audio library of public domain books); that the public can download and listen to our files is in a way just a fortunate by-product of what we do.

-and while our collection’s “quality” is, by design, all over the map, the volume of good and extraordinary recordings is daunting…it’s a matter of finding the good stuff. Here are some recommendations:

http://ask.metafilter.com/79067/Librivox-Recommendation”

This last is very helpful, though I wish the list was more organized. I clicked through some of the recommended readings and–on the basis of very short sampling–most of them are superior to some of the detritus I’ve waded through the past few times I’ve strolled through Librivox. I wish that Librivox would provide some kind of ratings system itself–at least one that recognized the popularity of different readings–though I suspect that this would counter the dream of pure democratic participationism that drives this kind of thing on the web.

As for Librivox being primarily about the readers and not the listeners, something Hugh tells me in a second comment, I’m not so sure. (I think Hugh didn’t think it was fair of me to criticize many of the readers for being…well…Dull. Or annoying. Or both). To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording. Well, OK. But the thrill of doing so is that people will listen in, yes? I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that people might actually look at this blog, why not just keep it on my computer instead of publishing it for all the world to sneer at.

It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist. There are a lot of opera singers out there who really ought to spare the rest of us and restrict their renditions of Nessun Dorma to the safety of their shower stalls. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge them the right to perform for the world on YouTube. But if they do, I generally think we’ve got a right and responsibility to Puccini and to Pavorotti to say, “You know, that really stinks pretty badly.” There’s no inherent nobility in performing, contrary to what most Americans seem to think.

But enough. Mostly I’m on Hugh’s side here. I’m glad someone’s doing something like Librivox, even if I don’t want to listen to most of the people doing it.

 

MORE EMERSON:

I blogged a bit about Emerson today on the blog dedicated to my course on literary theory. Just a bit of that from a post I called “Emerson and the Gods of Reading”:

Along these lines, I think there’s a way in which Emerson’s notions of creative reading are embodied in the way we read now. For Emerson, reading was a threatening activity precisely because we were always tending toward submission and passivity, always on the brink of substituting someone else’s creativity or knowledge for our own. This would mean we had failed to be “The Poet” we were meant to be and in fact are if we would only realize it. Instead, reading only exists to a purpose if it inspires us to more writing of our own. Reading must always give forth in to new and different expression, or it is worthless. Reading that absorbs and doesn’t give forth in new creativity, reading that doesn’t come to an end in writing is destructive to rather than an enhancement of our humanity.

What is this if not the reading ethic of blogging. Emerson, the familiar spirit of Facebook culture. Reading for us now is only meaningful if it gives forth in self expression. Indeed, texts become primarily a means of further self-expression. I read other texts or find other materials on the internet in order to “blog” them. The verb in this sense means partly to write about them, but blogging something also connotes making it one’s own, making it an opportunity for self-expression, an opportunity to speak.

I don’t think I want to deride this outright. NPR had someone–maybe the founder of Facebook-?!-on today with a little piece on the glories of connectivity available through self-exposure. It seemed a little facile–by exposing my darkest secrets on the net I’ll be able to develop authentic relationships with people I’ve never met. Umm, maybe. If this were true, why not go expose yourself to your next door neighbor. Still, it is the case that kinds of connections are built through this incessant speaking. Ultimately, for Emerson, our seeking expression at the expense of reading was not a form of self-aggrandizement, though it’s often taken for that. It was ultimately a way of connecting to a broader world. In Emerson’s view, if all people would become The Poet they were meant to be, all the world would be saved and we would all be one. It’s ultimately a platonic evangelical Christian vision without Christ in some sense. If we’ll all individually get right with Jesus, we’ll all be one. The internet says something vaguely similar. If we would all just keep looking for ways of expressing ourselves through the texts of others, we will all be connected through what is, after all, the World Wide Web.

I have no idea if this makes any sense, but it seemed profound at the time. Parents are paying for this stuff. It better be.

 

MORE DIARRHEA

Ok, this doesn’t refer to the stinky liquid spew that this post is fast becoming. Or not only that.

I often tell my English students that there is a magazine about everything, so they can take their writing skills and find a job anywhere in the world. The last part is a department chair’s fantasy, but there really is a journal about everything in the world.

Witness “Dialogue On Diarrhea.” Yes, there is a journal covering everything you wanted to know about loose stools. Ok, I should say there used to be a journal. In the words of the web site:

Dialogue on Diarrhoea was an international newsletter on the control of diarrhoeal diseases published by Healthlink Worldwide (formerly AHRTAG), a UK-based non-governmental organisation.

The first issue was published in May 1980.The last of a total of 60 issues, during its 15 years, was published in May 1995.

Published four times a year, Dialogue on Diarrhoea offered clear, practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases. It also acted as a forum for readers to exchange ideas and share experiences.

Umm, just what kind of experiences are we sharing here exactly?

Anyway, the print newsletter is no more. And now instead we have “Dialogue On Diarrhea Online”. So the next time you have this problem, you’ll know where to head. Besides the bathroom. I mean.

And, as we think of it, doesn’t this point to the last important remaining geography in which print remains triumphant. Bathroom reading. It’s a bit tragic that the diarrheatics among us will now have to carry their Kindles to the bathroom in order to keep up on the latest and share their experiences. On the other hand, with laptop in hand they will now be able to share their experiences in a much more intimate and immediate way.

Ok, I’ll stop. I’m sure I’ve now insulted all the chronic diarrhea sufferers who regularly read this blog. And none of my students will ever get an internship with this website. That’s for sure.

Final note: I thought for sure I would be the only person on WordPress who used the word “diarrhea” in a tag. No. There are hundreds of us.

Isn’t the web a wonderful place?

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.