Friday, May 20, 2011

Black discs and retrieval machines

Even my conservative friends are enamored of the argument that books are going the way of the vinyl LP. (True, the vinyl LP was introduced in 1926 and largely replaced by the compact disc in the mid to late ’eighties—a history of sixty years—while the codex appeared in the first century C.E., giving it a history of two thousand years. But, hey, technology marches on!)

Replying to my argument that the “physical book” (as he prefers to call it) will not be entirely replaced by digitalized texts for the Kindle and iPad, John Podhoretz alludes to the size of my own personal library, and reassures me: “Don’t worry; the fact that new books will no longer be printed except in the way that, say, new vinyl records are still released for high-end stereo fans will make your own collection far more valuable over time.”

Terry Teachout joins in. He says that John is right. “One generation from now,” he predicts, “the physical book will be for antique collectors only—like black discs.” In a later tweet, he adds: “[T]he same pattern of technological adoption has taken place repeatedly over the past quarter-century.” My problem, he says, is that I am “confusing the container with the thing contained.”

I don’t think so. Several years ago, in an essay on Holocaust writing in Comparative Literature, I began by contesting a bedrock presupposition of serious and thoughtful readers like Teachout:

The study of literature is widely presupposed to be the interpretation of texts. As an object a book can sit around for years, resting comfortably on a library shelf, but as a text it does not exist at all unless it is read, interpreted, understood. A book is printed and bound; a text is worded and meant. The problem, then, is to discover the meaning beneath the words.What Holocaust writing teaches us, I argued in dissent, is that a “literary text makes a claim on its readers that is logically prior to meaning.” And what is that claim? The claim of a person.

Much mischief is caused by disembodying a text from the person who created it. And something similar, I think, is happening among those who prematurely celebrate the “end of books.” The mistake in both cases is to disregard the materiality of reading.

Although I have advanced this argument before, I have been hesitant to make it the centerpiece of my case against electronic texts, because it relies upon empirical research—and not enough research has been conducted into the effect of different reading platforms upon understanding, retention, the ability to immerse oneself in a text. What research there is, however, suggests that print enjoys certain advantages over electronic media. Anne Mangen, a reading researcher at Norway’s University of Stavanger, has found that the “phenomenology of reading intangible text” suffers by comparison to reading from a printed-and-bound book. She writes:The tactility of a mouse click, of touch screen page turning or of a click with the e-book page turner bar, is very different from that of flicking through the print pages of a book. The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens or scrolling with keys or on touch pads—take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone.Because the printed text is tangible, “physically, tactiley graspable,” as Mangen puts it, the difference in reading is enormous. While we scan the text on a screen, we read a paper-and-binding book with our hands and fingers in addition to our eyes. Reading, Mangen observes, requires manual dexterity. It is not merely an activity of mind.[1]

Every parent knows this. Children fall in love with books as physical objects long before they experience them as meaningful texts. As I have noticed before, children’s books celebrate their materiality: there are board books, touch-and-feel books, lift-the-flap books, pop-up books, musical-sound books. These are not the precursors to hypertext; they are early training in the handling of books. Or, as Mangen says with rather more scholarly rigor, they are reminders that reading is a multi-sensory experience.

Older readers know this too. Reading a book requires intense concentration, but it also leaves a physical memory. We recall a passage as falling on a left- or right-hand page, at the top or bottom or in the middle. We thumb the remaining pages and place an incident or argument in a spatial context, not just in time. The multi-sensory aspect of reading a book is an aid to memory, just as language instructors (who teach their students to write and read and speak and listen and pick up objects while translating their name) have always suspected.

And not merely “older readers” in the sense of having grown up in pre-Kindle days. In a recent survey by the Book Industry Group, nearly seventy-five percent of college students—the same youngsters who started using cell phones and iPods from an early age—said they prefer to study textbooks in print rather than on a screen. They too must share the intuition that reading a “physical book” gives them a better chance to understand, retain, and immerse themselves in their reading.

Books are nothing like vinyl LP’s. In reality, the black discs differ only marginally from compact discs or even MP3 files. What Podhoretz and Teachout overlook in their joyful analogy is that the different media simply require different retrieval machines. The hardware has changed—from “high-end stereo equipment” to CD players to iPods and iTunes—but the fundamental mechanism of playback is unaltered.

Indeed, technological progress has made retrieval of the music on the earlier formats increasingly burdensome. I own about a hundred vinyl LP’s that have never been rereleased in another format, but I no longer own a turntable. Without the right machine, I have no way of getting to that music. (I wonder too if Teachout himself has not confused the music with the performance. I’d be eager to learn how scores are being treated in the electronic age.)

At all events, this is a problem that I have worried about when it comes to ebooks, and despite reassurances, I remain worried. Perhaps it is only my personal experience—I am an Orthodox Jew who cannot use electronic devices on Saturday, and I lived through Hurricane Ike and the sixteen-day power outage that followed—but I don’t think it is outside possibility that the loss of a retrieval machine could mean the permanent loss of a text.

But a paper-and-binding book requires no retrieval machine beyond a human being, who reads it with his whole person. The end of mankind’s two-thousand-year adventure with books might be of concern, then, to more than book collectors.

[1] Ann Mangen, “Hypertext Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion,” Journal of Research in Reading 31 (2008): 404–19.


Andrew Fox said...

Thank you for posting these thoughts and observations. I hope your viewpoint thoroughly permeates the net and sparks hundreds of conversations. You've managed to lucidly and economically lay out many of the arguments which have bounced around in my own head regarding the issue of pixels versus print. Change will happen, of course -- no one can prevent it. But we should remain mindful of what could be potentially lost in the change. Will students at all levels retain far less of the material they read, due to their having read class texts on an e-reader rather than as part of a physical book? We probably won't know the answer until long after such effects have manifested and rebounded through our society. . . the same way that the massive substitution of corn syrup for sugar in so many of our foods since the 1970s may now be rebounding as increased levels of obesity and diabetes in the American population.

Shelley said...

As a writer, I was very taken by your phrase "consumer books"--so many of the titles I see in the bookstore seem to fall into that category. Can't imagine anyone rereading these....

dstanley869 said...

It took me a a while to get used to my Kindle, but only because navigating within the text takes some extra thought and effort.

Now that I'm acclimated to the Kindle, I have no interest in going back to paper books, except for those with many pictures and charts, which can be duplicated on the small screen but not very well.

I doubt that paper books will ever disappear entirely, but they certainly will become more expensive as ebooks continue to outsell them. Until and unless paper publishers scale back their business models to accommodate the decreased demand.

claudio said...

I have kept buying LPs and very few CDs and, in those last years, the LPs production and sales are (slowly) rising while the CDs are plummeting.
Maybe in a few years we will have ebooks and hardcover only, very well printed and well edited books. Something like the option antique shop vs Ikea.

Anonymous said...

I'm here via, curiosity piqued by your mention of cognitive aspects of e-reading and paper books.
and can I just say.... resounding YES!!! I've been kicking these ideas around since I got an e-reader in 2011, and you've nailed it!