This book is not a case for or against books. It is not about old media or new media (or even new new media). Instead, it is an attempt to understand the relationship between books and screens, to identify some of their fundamental differences and to chart out the continuities that might run between them…. In Gertrude Stein’s words, books were there. It is this thereness that is both essential for understanding the medium of the book (that books exist as finite objects in the world) and also for reminding us that we cannot think about our electronic future without contending with its antecedent, the bookish past. Books got there first.
One of the books I read last year was an essay anthology titled A Passion for Books. I thought it would be about, well, you know, reading books. Turns out, it was primarily about collecting books. I was quite disappointed.
I should have read Book Was There; it didn’t disappoint at all. At several points, my face hurt from smiling so hard and so long. It’s about the human relationship to reading books and electronic media, the history and the future of that relationship. I wanted to argue with it in places – always a good sign – and I didn’t follow the argument in other places. When it came to pulling quotes, I copied enormous passages, far too long and too many to include in a blog post. It’s marvelous.
Each of the chapters is organized around something that we do when we read: how we touch books and screens, how we look at them, how we share them with each other, how we take notes with them or navigate our way through them, where we use them, or even how we play with them. In this, I am interested in understanding how we relate to reading in a deeply embodied way.
This functional approach to reading was a new perspective for me. It provided a natural setting for a comparison – no, that’s not the right word, an examination – of how we read books and screens. Touch, sight, motion, use: these are the topics, and they often led to surprising places. Several chapters end with Piper’s anecdotes about his children’s experiences with reading, making this a sort of academic-general readership hybrid text.
First up is “Take It and Read” borrowing the phrase St. Augustine heard that led to his conversion to Christianity. It deals with how we hold and touch what we read, focusing on hands. In this initial chapter I had some of my biggest arguments with the text. We don’t read everything in the same way; we read a novel differently than an instruction manual, or an encyclopedia. We don’t even read similar material in the same way every time: sometimes I sit in a comfy chair, sometimes I sit at my computer so I can look up literary or historical references as I encounter them (as I did with this very book), and sometimes I read in bed or on the bus or in a waiting room; some books are small, others large, some paperback, some hardcover. I hold books differently in each of these cases. I disagreed with specific points: “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.” My hands fold around the book; that isn’t, to me, open. When I sing in a chorus and hold music, yes, my hands are open, palms flat, one supporting the folder, one one keeping it balanced and readying the page turn. But books, no, my hands are not open, and it doesn’t look like greeting or prayer, which would, to me, be flat hands together. But Piper includes an illustration from a medieval Book of Hours (yes, the book has many delightful [black and white] illustrations!) that shows the reference: the palms are flat, thumbs performing the holding function. So I can argue about what happens in reality, but there is cause for making his point.
The corresponding e-book component of this chapter dealt with presence: “Digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden.” Although we’re all familiar with clicking, tapping, and swiping – the hard screen a different sensation from the tactile feel of paper pages – Piper examines other ways that touch is incorporated into digital media, using the examples of the interactive digital installation Text Rain (Camille Utterback, Romy Achituv) – where letters fall from the sky and can be gathered with the hands or objects – and the storyspace The Jew’s Daughter (Judd Morrissey, with contributions from Lori Talley), in which a click changes parts of the page. Others, created since, abound.
The second chapter – “Face, Book” – starts with a summation of Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece. I know nothing about Balzac other than the exquisitely clever use of his name as an epithet for “dirty books” in The Music Man – a play so old-fashioned yet so relevant to this sociopolitical moment – but now I want to read everything he wrote. This leads to a history of the frontispiece in print books, and the ubiquity of online faces. This had a particular resonance for me, since I have tried very hard not to put my own image online, to the point of breaking my webcam (which can lead to some conflict in the Zoom era).
Books teach us to see the world multiply, from all its angles. The multiple faces of books presuppose a nonknowledge of another that has deep ethical implications… Facebook presupposes an inherent presence of another, that there is no I without You, and that, too, is ethically profound. There is an entanglement to social networking that is as meaningful as the book’s pedagogy of mental distance, that I can never in the end fully know you.
“Turning the Page,” the third chapter, might be the most familiar to even casual computer users. It compares the crowdedness of the digital page (ads, navigation panels, etc) with that of medieval manuscripts which might include sidebars, illustrations and decorations, and rubrics. I’d add the Talmud to that: now there’s a book that revels in the crowded page, the actual text under examination often the smallest part while the commentary floods around it.
Piper mentions three ways of reconceptualizing the digital page – roaming, zooming, and streaming – with examples of each. I kept thinking of Sea and Spar Between, a digital version of Moby-Dick created by Nick Montford and Stephanie Strickland that I encountered in a mooc on electronic literature: “What does it mean, that the work can’t be “read” as a whole – what does it mean to our closure-driven psyches when a work of e-lit never ends?”
The fourth chapter, “Of Note,” about, clearly, different forms of making notes about texts, had me considering my bizarre reading strategy in the recent Catherine Project reading group on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Armed with both a PDF and a paper copy of the book, I still had a terrible time flipping back and forth between text and end notes and supplements. I taped paper tabs to the paper copy so I could find the end notes and various chapters more easily, but still struggled. I finally ended up manually copying the text, chapter by chapter, into a Word document and using Comments to store end notes next to the text of reference, including material from the supplements and from outside texts as necessary. It was absurdly time-consuming, but it was the best way I could manage it.
Piper’s recognition of notes in relation to texts introduced me to yet another book I must read: Nabokov’s The Origin of Laura, an unfinished novel he left in the form of index cards at the time of his death with instruction to destroy it. His son disobeyed, and eventually published a blend of cards and book:
All that remained of Nabokov’s “novel” at the time of his death was a stack of index cards left in a safe. The book that they became consisted of pages of perforated color facsimiles of note cards with printed transcriptions beneath. There was something profoundly disjunctive between the cards, the kind that anyone could buy at a drugstore, and the weightiness of the book to which they belonged, the last remaining novel by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers.
In its affectionate reproduction of the author’s note cards in book form, The Original of Laura performed, at both a visual and tactile level, what we might call a morphological theory of media – that notes could become books, indeed that these two very different forms of writing (the cheapness of the index card and the majesty of the book) might be synonymous with one another. But in the cards’ perforation – one of the most inspired publishing decisions of our so-called late age of print – the note cards’ possible removal from the book also drew attention to the hole in that book… that was the note. Without notes, so Laura tells us, we have no books.
This chapter also looks at handwritten marginalia, the importance of handwriting, and the insufficiency of electronic handwriting instrumentation. Anyone who’s played both a traditional piano and the electronic version will immediately understand that insufficiency.
I’ve been told many times that learning is enhanced by handwritten notes far more than by typed or recorded notes, and I believe it, but with three kinds of nerve damage my dominant hand is just not up to the task of legibly writing more than a sentence or two at a time.
Chapter 5, “Sharing,” is one of the more opaque chapters to me. Piper uses Adam’s rib as his grounding anecdote, but to me, he didn’t share his rib, he gave it (or, rather, God took it and gave it); only Eve had use of it after her creation. There’s also a section on UNIX which I more or less skipped over (in my defense, I once worked as a systems programmer and analyst back in the days of the mainframe, and do everything I can to avoid being reminded of that). I’m more on board with the discussion of shared reading spaces and communal reading (I do participate in these reading groups, after all, and will hunt down online short story discussion groups like a bloodhound). The comments on libraries nearly brought a tear to my eye; could Piper have known, back in 2012 when this volume was published, that libraries would become targets for those advocating censorship and bigotry?
“Among the Trees,” Chapter 6, looks at two rather opposite phenomena: the history of outdoor reading, and our fondness for reading in corners. When I moved to my current home four years ago, I finally arranged a Reading Corner. It’s not fancy – just a comfy chair by two windows and a bookshelf – but it’s perfect. Piper also talks about chairs designed for reading, reminding me of the interview I did with Richard Osgood about his Tin House Plotto story, and his wide array of reading chairs with different settings for different authors. There’s also a historical review of book miniaturization, leading me to remember the now-defunct Madras Press (I miss them) and their collections of teeny-tiny square books released once a year.
Historians of ideas tell us that it was during the eighteenth century when the tree of knowledge began to give way to the knowledge “field.” Hierarchically ordered categories based on descending branches of knowledge were being replaced by adjacent, yet slightly porous fields. The sequentially ordered “leaf” was no longer at the center of learning; It was instead the topographical map…. The computational tree has ironically only further accelerated the growth of knowledge fields.
Now the UNIX-data tree section comes home to roost in a wonderful way: Stefanie Posavec’s “Literary Organisms” as graphic descriptions of books, using the tree structures. The kind of work that goes into this is overwhelming.
Considering my constant whining about how much trouble I have grasping statistics or calculus, it’s interesting that Chapter 7, “By the Numbers,” had me jumping up and down with glee. Sarah Hart’s book Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature was released just about a week ago, and I’ve been reminding myself I strongly prefer paperback books so should wait a year to read it; but every mathematician in my Twitter feed is pimping it, so I may not be able to resist. In this chapter Piper presages the title of Hart’s book:
Reading literature is indebted in profound ways to the world of the numerical, just as the history of mathematics is far from what the deterministic horror story many make it out to be. Symbols like ∞, π, e, -2, √, ≈ or ideas like “plane,” “circle,” or “parallel line” – are these any more precise than when Mrs. Ramsey reads “Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose”? They are both signs of the necessity of form, of our need to model, approximate, represent. Whether it’s fiction or theorem, they are means of understanding a world that at bottom always seems to elude our grasp.
In this chapter we encounter the ancient practice of bibliomancy – divination through books – and recall St. Augustine’s conversion from the first chapter. To some degree is still practiced today; there’s a scene in Herman Wouk’s Winds of War where a Navy pilot, on the eve of the Midway battle, opens his Bible to a random page and points, unfortunately, to the verse from Isaiah, “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.” Turns out God changed his mind a few verses later, but you can guess what happened to the character.
Non-electronic computation included Raymond Llull’s dials for moral guidance in the thirteenth century, and Georg Harsdörffer’s seventeenth-century thought rings for mixing and matching German phonemes. Nonsense poetry teams up with Dada, and Piper shows us how the Turing Machine relates not only to Samuel Beckett, but to the history of reading: “At the dawn of computing the scroll returns, an ironic bookend to the end of the book.” Don’t be afraid if this sounds esoteric; it’s all very accessible.
Then we come to algorithms, the word that has been on everyone’s mind for the past decade. But just like bots can be annoying or deliver little bits of Van Gogh or Moby-Dick to brighten your feed on occasion, algorithmic writing can be wonderfully creative: witness Fox Harrell’s GRIOT, or Wershler and Kennedy’s Apostrophe Engine, which create poems and texts from various inputs. I was a bit disappointed not to find mention of my own obsession from a few years ago, the Mesostic as created by John Cage, but one book can’t include everything and I’m glad to discover new things.
Then we get to distance reading, as I knew we would. This is a method of examining texts, often multiple texts, via computer analysis to determine linguistic patterns, or lack thereof. One of the first moocs I took, back in 2014, gave me some introductory experience in corpus linguistics; it still runs every year. Back in the day, it had several foci: positive and negative words used in media coverage of various events and people (particularly related to immigration), and a landmark study of war metaphors in cancer treatment. There’s also a Shakespeare-specific mooc from another university that looks at the myths about the Bard and ways his language use varied between dramatic characters, as well as a Stylistics mooc that includes a brief corpus unit. It’s a fascinating field, even for those who, like me, aren’t going to become experts but want some idea of how it works and are interested in the findings.
Piper’s chapter references several applications of distance reading from analyzing Stein to looking at the language used to describe poverty and how that correlates to the proposed remedies. There’s also a fascinating topological map of eighteenth-century literary works showing the influence of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (and reminding me that Goethe is another European author I’ve more or less ignored and thus need to add to my TBR list).
Lest we shake our heads and fret about what the world of reading is coming to today, Piper then draws our attention to earlier forms of corpus creation: from Origen’s Hexapla in the third century, comparing six different source texts for the Bible, to the sixteenth century Bible arranged by Erasmus comparing the Greek and Vulgate versions of scripture. Our tools may be shiny and new, but the impulse to compare texts as wholes has quite a history.
We are at a similar moment in terms of creating new textual instruments today. Current anxieties about the meaning of computational interfaces are no different than the controversies that surrounded the biblical translations of Renaissance humanists. Erasmus had provocatively entitled his addition Novum Instrumentum, not Novum Testamentum, a new instrument, not a new testament. For Erasmus, the book was indeed an instrument, not just a “mere tool.” Where some readers were shocked to encounter his edition rather than Jerome’s, so too are some readers today just as shocked to see their beloved Jane Austen heaped onto a giant pile of books and run through the mill of data mining.
A few years ago, Pam Houston’s essay, “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately,” which included a sneer at this new instrument. “I thought it was a joke,” she writes, when she heard of distance reading, since she’d been teaching close reading all her professional life. I had a few things to say about that (the second time I’ve had a few things to say in response to a Houston essay, making her one of my favorite writers), primarily that this technique doesn’t replace close reading; it augments research into texts by looking at them in a different way. And by the way, close reading itself was a new way of looking at texts in the 1920s when I. A. Richards began to advocate for it.
The book ends with a brief Epilogue – “Letting Go of the Book” – which I found quite disturbing, a reaction I might not have had if I’d read it in 2012 when originally published. He describes the work of Emily Jacir in which she shot one thousand books with a .22 pistol as a political protest.
Jacir’s work was also part of a larger wave of contemporary projects that were performing aggressive, even violent, acts towards books. Cutting, drawing, soaking, unfurling, piercing, and shooting the books have been some of the many ways that artists like Jacqueline Rush Lee, Jonathan Latham, Robert The, Cara Barer, and Sam Markham have over the past decade or more been enacting a collective sense of the book’s imminent demise. If we have forever been imagining our way past books, we have more recently begun to think about what it would be like to live in a world without them. We have begun the work of bibliographic mourning.
At an even deeper level, though, Jacir’s work and the work of other book demolishers isn’t just about a particular moment in time when the book’s viability as a medium seems to be increasingly in doubt. It also captures something fundamental to the act of reading itself, something more timeless about the kindred spirits of mourning and melancholy that go with reading. Just as the imagination of how to transcend books has been integral to the history of books, so too is a sense of melancholy, a persistent sense of loss. Melancholy isn’t a sign of the book end; it is its inspiration. Melancholy is reading’s muse.
As to the first paragraph: the combination of violence and books strikes me as terrifying right now, in a moment when books are not only banned but become criminal contraband, when librarians are receiving death threats and funding is being threatened – in a context where murder seems to be a common reaction to any kind of unexpected encounter.
As for the idea of melancholy, it seems to be a persistent idea, but I don’t understand where that idea comes from. If reading itself is “nonvital, sluggish, or even deadening,” why do we persist in doing it? I experience a distinct sense of pleasure – subtle, to be sure – when I read. It’s why I’ll read anything – the iconic cereal box, signs on the bus rather than looking at familiar scenery – in moments of captivity, and make time for reading daily. I’ve always wondered if it’s something in the wiring of the brain, some interpretation pathway passes close to the pleasure center, or there’s an excess of dopamine in some region that translates marks on a page into people and ideas and actions. Yes, many books are sad, but isn’t that the basis of catharsis: a sadness we understand, one we can react to and control, rather than the sadness that weighs us down when bad things happen? I’m talking out of my hat here, but I don’t get the melancholy thing.
John Koenig does, however. He’s the writer of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which I just mentioned in my post on Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary: he gives the definition of his neologism vellichor as “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time.” Wistfulness is a second cousin to melancholy. Perhaps there is something there.
Piper ends with a nod to Alexander von Humboldt, another person I recently met via reading Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. Von Humboldt wanted to write an Uberbuch, “the entire material world in a single book.” Piper doesn’t make the facile connection to the Internet, but I confess, I did.
It’s interesting that this book has so many offshoots that I will go forth and read, because it is for me an offshoot. Last Fall, I participated in my first Reading Group via the Catherine Project, with Prof. Piper leading a reading of contemporary short stories. As I typically do when I take a mooc, OCW, or other learning experience, I looked him up (I follow him on Twitter, where he is very involved in AI, particularly in relationship to learning and the classroom) and found this book. I don’t mess with Gertrude Stein unless I have to, but I was intrigued by the title, the cover design (oh, the urge to straighten that image!), and ultimately, the subject matter. I’m very glad I picked it up.
But as he writes, “In the end, we must always let go of the book.” So I shall. It’s been a wonderful ride.