Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times

Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times

by Andrew Piper


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Andrew Piper grew up liking books and loving computers. While occasionally burying his nose in books, he was going to computer camp, programming his Radio Shack TRS-80, and playing Pong. His eventual love of reading made him a historian of the book and a connoisseur of print, but as a card-carrying member of the first digital generation—and the father of two digital natives—he understands that we live in electronic times. Book Was There is Piper’s surprising and always entertaining essay on reading in an e-reader world.
Much ink has been spilled lamenting or championing the decline of printed books, but Piper shows that the rich history of reading itself offers unexpected clues to what lies in store for books, print or digital. From medieval manuscript books to today’s playable media and interactive urban fictions, Piper explores the manifold ways that physical media have shaped how we read, while also observing his own children as they face the struggles and triumphs of learning to read. In doing so, he uncovers the intimate connections we develop with our reading materials—how we hold them, look at them, share them, play with them, and even where we read them—and shows how reading is interwoven with our experiences in life. Piper reveals that reading’s many identities, past and present, on page and on screen, are the key to helping us understand the kind of reading we care about and how new technologies will—and will not—change old habits.
 Contending that our experience of reading belies naive generalizations about the future of books, Book Was There is an elegantly argued and thoroughly up-to-date tribute to the endurance of books in our ever-evolving digital world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226103488
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/28/2013
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Andrew Piper teaches German and European literature at McGill University and is the author of Dreaming in Books, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Reading in Electronic Times



Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-10348-8


Take It and Read

What I must chiefly remember are the hands.

DELACROIX [diary, april 11, 1824]

... we were / hands, / we bailed the darkness out ...

PAUL CELAN ["flower"]

The meaning of the book could begin with St. Augustine. In the eighth book of his Confessions, Augustine describes the moment of his conversion to becoming a Christian:

In my misery I kept crying, "How long shall I go on saying, 'tomorrow, tomorrow?'" Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this very moment? I was asking myself these questions when all at once I heard the singing voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, "Take it and read, take it and read."

Augustine is sitting beneath a fig tree in his garden, and upon hearing the voice he takes up the Bible lying near him and opens a passage at random and begins reading (Romans 13:13–14). At this moment, he tells us, "I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled." Augustine closes the book, marking his place with his finger, and goes to tell his friend Alypius about his experience. His conversion is complete.

No other passage has more profoundly captured the meaning of the book than this one. Not just reading but reading books was aligned in Augustine with the act of personal conversion. Augustine was writing at the end of the fourth century, when the codex had largely superseded the scroll as the most prevalent form of reading material. We know Augustine was reading a book from the way he randomly accesses a page and uses his finger to mark his place. The conversion at the heart of The Confessions was an affirmation of the new technology of the book within the lives of individuals, indeed, as the technology that helped turn readers into individuals. Turning the page, not turning the handle of the scroll, was the new technical prelude to undergoing a major turn in one's own life.

In aligning the practice of book reading with that of personal conversion, Augustine established a paradigm of reading that would far exceed its theological framework, one that would go on to become a foundation of Western humanistic learning for the next fifteen hundred years. It was above all else the graspability of the book, its being "at hand," that allowed it to play such a pivotal role in shaping one's life. "Take it and read, take it and read" (tolle lege, tolle lege), repeats the divine refrain. The book's graspability, in a material as well as a spiritual sense, is what endowed it with such immense power to radically alter our lives. In taking hold of the book, according to Augustine, we are taken hold of by books.

Nothing is more suspect today than the book's continued identity of being "at hand." The spines, gatherings, threads, boards, and folds that once gave a book its shapeliness, that fit it to our hands, are being supplanted by the increasingly fine strata of new reading devices, integrated into vast woven systems of connection. If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. They, like jellyfish or hydra polyps, always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense. What this means for how we read—and how we are taken hold of by what we read—is still far from clear.

Aristotle regarded touch as the most elementary sense. It is how we begin to make our way in the world, to map it, measure it, and make sense of it. Touch is the most self-reflexive of senses, an insight affirmed by the German researcher David Katz, who established the field of touch studies in the early twentieth century based on his work with World War I amputees. Through the feeling of touch, we learn to feel ourselves. Touch is a form of redundancy, enfolding more sensory information into what we see and therefore what we read. It makes the words on the page richer in meaning and more multidimensional. It gives words a geometry, but also a reflexive quality.

To think about the future of reading means, first and foremost, to think about the relationship between reading and hands, the long history of how touch has shaped reading and, by extension, our sense of ourselves while we read. After completing his early masterpiece Dante and Virgil, the great French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix wrote in his journal, "What I must chiefly remember are the hands." As Delacroix said of painting, so too of reading.

* * *

Ever since its inception as a pair of wood boards bearing wax tablets bound together by a loose string, the book has served as a tool of reflection. There is a doubleness to the book that is central to its meaning as an object. With the pages facing each other as they face us, the open book stands before us as a mirror. But even when closed, the book is still informed by a basic duality. The grasped book is not only a sign of openness and accessibility, as it was for Augustine. It can also be an affront, closing something (or someone) off in the name of opening something up.

Consider Adolf von Menzel's Man Holding a Book (fig. 1.1), one of the most sensuous depictions of the relationship between a hand and a book I have ever seen. In it we see the grasping hand almost entirely consume the image, excluding the man named in the title from view, but also the book—so that we cannot even be sure it is a book anymore. Grasping closes in the name of reopening. For Augustine to reopen himself to the world, anew, he must first close himself off from the world by opening his book. Books are objects that conjoin openness and closure together, like the hands to which they belong.

Nowhere is this more the case than when we read. When we hold books while we read, our hands are also open. Reading books, and this is no accident, mimics the gestures of greeting and prayer. In the Middle Ages, this marriage of reading and prayer was combined in one of the most popular book formats from the period, the diminutive "book of hours," which individuals—those who could afford them—carried around with them as daily reminders of religious song and wisdom. In Jean de France, Duc de Berry's Belles Heures (1405–8), one of the most lusciously illustrated examples of the genre (fig. 1.2), we see the patron's wife with her hands in prayer before the book. The mirroring that transpires between her hands is then mirrored again in the medium of the open book before her, which is itself mirrored in the figure of God, who is depicted as a trinity grasping a book, the book of the world (although with four, not six, hands, as two are presumably reserved for holding the three of them together). Reading books, we are shown, is expansive, as well as inclusive. It is an act of calling out beyond ourselves, but it is also a symbol of reciprocity: in holding books, we are held together. Every time we hold a book today we are reenacting this initial bond between reading and prayer.

The open hand was the preferred sign of divine calling in both ancient and medieval art. Unable to be present, God spoke through his hand. We do not just call out with books, in other words, but are also called to. The open hand is a reminder that when we read books we hear voices, another sign of the book's essential doubleness. The seventeenth-century physician John Bulwer, who wrote one of the first studies of hand gestures, noted that the hand "speaks all languages." It is in many ways a truer form of speech. As Bulwer writes,

The Tongue and Heart th' intention oft divide: The Hand and Meaning are ever ally'de.

The book's handiness is a sign of its reliability. Unlike tongues and hearts, books are things that can be trusted, a fact that has much to do with the nature of their tactility.

In the Codex Manesse (1304), one of the most comprehensive illustrated books of medieval German love songs, we see how the open hand speaks here too, but this time in the form of the scroll, a common medieval device (fig. 1.3). As a sign of speech, the scroll holds medieval readers (and listeners) together. The scroll (old media) communicates what the book (new media) cannot. Reliability is a function of redundancy, of saying something twice. The use of multiple channels—speech, scroll, book—is the best guarantee that a message will be received, that individuals will arrive at a sense of shared meaning. Like the book's ability to conjoin the different faculties of touch, sight, and sound into a single medium, according to the tradition of the Codex Manesse the book itself is imagined to reside within a more diverse ecology of information. When we think about media death, about the idea of the end of certain technologies, we do well to remember this medieval insistence on the need for redundancy, the importance of communicating the same thing through different channels.

Hands in books do not just speak, they also point in a more literal sense, like Augustine's finger that was used as a bookmark. Books, like hands, hold our attention. As early as the twelfth century, writers began drawing hands in the margins of their books to point to important passages. Such a device gradually passed into typescript and became a commonplace of printed books. It looked like this: [??]. The pointing hand in the book stood for the way books themselves were like pointers, making the world graspable. If books open us out into the world, they also constrain. They bring the world down to size, inoculations against the problem of patternlessness.

The child's first drawing is often of his or her own hand. The footprint may be the first mark we make in the world (for hospital records), but the handprint is the original sign of self-reflection, of understanding ourselves as being in the world. The "handbook" or "manual"—the book that reduces the world into its essential parts, into outline form—is an extension of this art of measurement. It is one of the oldest types of books, dating back to Epictetus's Enchiridion (second century AD), a short repository of nuggets of wisdom. In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede taught readers to count to a million on their hands in his On the Reckoning of Time (AD 725). By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the measuring hand would become the ultimate sign of our bibliographic relationship to the world, embodied in the new genre of the atlas. In its first incarnation, Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), the entire world could now be held in the reader's hand. The secular bravura on display in these books, where the reader assumed the divine view, cannot be overstated. The book was no longer simply a mirror, but a container and a lens at once. By the seventeenth century, the great age of wars of religion, palmistry and chiromancy, knowledge of and on the hand, would become major sciences. Handbooks seem to proliferate in periods of intellectual and technological uncertainty, much as they are proliferating today.

In the nineteenth century, readers witnessed the birth of reading as touch, in the form of Louis Braille's invention of a dot-matrix reading system for the blind in 1824. The method derived from an earlier request by Napoleon for a code that could be read by his soldiers at night in the field without the use of light. Braille's innovation was to make the dot-matrix representation of letters small enough to correspond to a single touch of the finger. It made reading digital in a very literal sense. By the end of the century, libraries such as the National Library for the Blind in Britain contained over eight thousand volumes in braille, one of many subsequent technologies that aimed to bring reading to the visually impaired.

The turn of the twentieth century was a period of numerous experiments with the tactility of reading, both practical and impractical, culminating in the modernist revival of experimental books between the world wars. Books made of sandpaper, cardboard, cheap notebook paper, wood, and even metal were some of the many ways that artists experimented with the touch of reading. In the Russian artist El Lissitzky's celebrated Architecture of VKhUTEMAS (1927) (fig. 1.4), we see how the disembodied hand of the divine voice from the medieval book has returned, now in the form of the drafting hand of modern science. With the compass needle seemingly woven into the hand's grip, we can see Lissitzky performing a subtle visual pun. The compass needle is imagined to stand in for the sewing needle, one of the original tools of bookmaking through the sewn binding of the book's spine. For the Russian avant-garde, the rectilinearity of modernism—the cube, plane, column, grid—was as much born from the book as it was the industrial Gargantua of the new machine age. The handbook was one of modernism's secret muses.

If the book's handiness has been fundamental to the way we have taken stock of the world, its ability to serve as a container has been another way through which we have found order in our lives. Books are things that hold things. They are proxies for our hands, much like the popular device of the clasp, which was initially used to keep the pages of books from expanding in the humidity. The book's meaning is tied to the way it relates, in an encapsulating way, to other objects in our lives. Scrapbooks—the books that record the sediments of our reading—are an integral part of the history of the book. But so too are wallet bindings, introduced in the fifteenth century, which allow readers to place objects in a special front pocket, like pencils, eyeglasses, or notes, but also things like flowers and artificial flies (for fishing), as in The Companion to Alfred Ronald's Fly Fisher's Entomology (1836), which contains hundreds of flies hooked into its pages. Musical records, too, began to be tucked into the front pockets of books, as in the popular series Bubble Books That Sing from the 1920s. The trajectory of the "pocket book" from something that fit into your pocket to a book that had its own pockets to becoming a fashionable handbag is marvelous and strange and one deserving of its own history.

Things in books not only draw us into a broader world of everyday objects. They also show us how things impress us, the way pressure is an integral component of human knowledge, one that is deeply tactile in its origins. Pressing flowers between the pages of books, a popular activity through the ages for amateurs and experts alike, was not only a means of preserving specimens. It was a way of reflecting on how nature too could leave impressions behind to be read, one more link in the sturdy chain of the long-standing idea of "the book of nature." In the nineteenth century, the Austrian printer Alois Auer pioneered a technique of "self-printing nature," in which specimens were imprinted directly onto soft metal plates and from there inked and printed directly onto the page. It led to a beautiful series, Nature Printed, by the Englishman Henry Bradbury, in which he printed the ferns and other plants of Great Britain directly from real specimens. Nature was thought to reveal herself more transparently through the medium of print. Grasping, measuring, and pressing—these are the activities through which things become legible in a bookish world.

But not for everyone. For some readers, the book is anything but graspable. It embodies an act of letting go, losing control, handing over. "Without me, little book, you will go into the city," runs Ovid's famous saying about his writing. Books cross time and space; they transcend the individual's grasp. In this, we cannot know what will happen to them when they leave our hands. "Every poem is a betrayal," Goethe once said. Turning over the book to another involves the possibility of losing control of one's meaning, of potentially being betrayed by the reader. As an object that can fit easily into our hands, but also our pockets, the book and its meaning are always potentially purloined. It lends a whole new meaning to the divine command "take it and read."

Excerpted from BOOK WAS THERE by ANDREW PIPER. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Nothing Is Ever New

1. Take It and Read
2. Face, Book
3. Turning the Page (Roaming, Zooming, Streaming)
4. Of Note
5. Sharing
6. Among the Trees
7. By the Numbers

Epilogue: Letting Go of the Book

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