Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spatial form and electronic texts

I’ll say this for the Kindle. It is forcing me to rethink my deepest convictions about literary form.

Over at the New Republic, Rochelle Gurstein finds herself hanging back from the celebration of the new electronic media. While the congnitive scientist Steven Pinker (Mr Rebecca Goldstein) plugs Twitter, e-mail, PowerPoint, and Google (“Far from making us stupid,” he bubbles, “these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart”), Gurstein observes that the champions of progress “have no awareness that there are also losses—equally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as “keeping us smart’)—and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two.”

What could possibly be lost in the wholesale adoption of the new electronic media? Quoting a friend, she says that “the world we have on our computer screens lacks physical, tangible materiality” and is “changing the feel of our lives in unpredictable ways.” Gurstein is not especially persuasive on the “physical, tangible materiality” that is being lost among the Kindles and iPads, saying only that we writers want the “the fruits of our labor to exist between hard or even soft covers in our own time and after us” (which is just another way of saying that “we” cling to a romantic conception of literature against the terror of oblivion). Moreover, the “presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them,” consoling us with an image (or illusion) of the continuity of self.

This is the sort of vague language, expressing a musty nostalgia for a golden age, that makes techno-revolutionaries reach for their guns. But I don’t want to be too hard on Gurstein. She is right that something is lost in reading texts on the Kindle and iPad, and she is right that it has something to do with the “physical, tangible materiality” of books. I wasn’t much clearer when I tried to define the loss last Friday.

Since then I have gone back to an essay that I learned in graduate school to abuse as a particularly noxious outbreak of the New Criticism—namely, Joseph Frank’s famous essay on “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” which first appeared in the Sewanee Review, then edited by Allen Tate, in 1945. (In an irony that probably refutes my case, I downloaded a copy of The Idea of Spatial Form, a collection of Frank’s six essays on the subject, to my Kindle.)

Frank’s basic point is that a “good deal of modern literature makes no sense if read only as a sequence”—as an experience confined to time, occupying no space. The view of literature as exclusively temporal—even if, as J. V. Cunningham pointed out, reading may occur at different times and the times may be compared—might be called the triumph of the scroll. The literary experience unrolls in advancing time, and the reader is constantly urged forward.

The scroll is a notoriously cumbersome format in which to handle texts, as anyone who has ever watched the baal korei struggling to find his place in the weekly reading can attest. But even the rabbis, who were familiar and comfortable with scrolls, held a spatial conception of the biblical text. Not only did it move forward, in a narrative line, but it also invited connections across time, at different physical places in the text. In the second century, Yishmael ben Elisha codified the principle as g’zerah shavah, teaching that similar words and expressions in different contexts can be studied and cited to elucidate one another.

In the twelfth century, Maimonides carried the principle a step further, arguing in his commentary on the Mishnah that the manner in which the Bible was given, which can only metaphorically be described as “speaking,” is of far lesser moment than the fact that it was given by God. As such it constitutes an unbreakable unity, and thus “there is no difference between verses like ‘And the sons of Ham were Cush and Egypt’ [Gen 10.6] . . . and verses like ‘I am the LORD your God’ [Exod 20.2].” Legally and even philologically, there is no chronological development within the Bible; there is no earlier and later; the words of the text are treated as a simultaneity.

There is nothing very remarkable in any of this. It is merely to say that texts form patterns that are distinct from, sometimes even opposed to, their narrative or argumentative development. Because it exists in space as well as in time, the codex, the print-and-binding book, provides a convenient form for such extra-temporal patterning. Obviously, the patterns continue to populate a text even when it is reduced to electronic form. But the forward push that electronic form encourages, its scroll-like unrolling, discourages the spatial recognition of patterns, if only by making the text more difficult to conceive—to hold in the hand as well as the mind—as a whole.

A very small and trivial example. Yesterday I was reading Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame on my Kindle. (I bought the book precisely because an Amazon reviewer complained that it is old. It was first published in 1995.) In typical fashion, James tries to devise statistical standards for admission to baseball’s Hall of Fame. The entire second chapter of the book, “76 Trombones,” is made up of quotations from a variety of sources, asserting that Lefty O’Doul or Phil Rizzuto or Dick Allen or Doc Cramer—some player not currently enshrined—deserves induction in the Hall. After a page or two, the chapter bored me: I grasped its principle and was eager to turn to James’s argument. It was unclear, though, whether James had simply compiled several pages of epigraphs, which would be followed by his own prose, or whether the entire chapter (as turned out to be the case) was taken up by the quotations.

In a print-and-binding copy, I could have quickly thumbed the chapter and flipped to the next. Unable to see the whole in an instant, though, I was reduced to paging [click] through [click] the [click] chapter [click], page [click] by [click] page. The codex mirrors the literary text’s spatial structure by permitting the eye, as if roaming over a building, to take in the whole at a glance. But the spatial dimension is just what electronic texts lack.


R/T said...

Your analysis of reading strategies, particularly as they involve physical as well as cognitive maneuvers, reminds me of how changes in technologies, throughout history, have forced readers to adapt. Think of the movement from hand written scrolls to hand written paged books to printed books to electronic books. This raises a question: is technological evolution necessarily real improvement or is it a return to the basics? After all, there is a lot to be said for hand written scrolls and the reading strategies that were (are) needed; now, we find ourselves using the nearly identical strategies when we scroll through (pun intended) the electronic texts on modern devices. So, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Well, it is something to think about.

(Word verification: scarwit. Gee, I hope the Google-generated W/V is not trying to tell me something there!)

scott g.f.bailey said...

I remember about 15 years ago (perhaps it was less recent than that) the claim was made that the mere existance of HTML and hyperlink jumps would radically change the way narratives were structured, sweeping away the old-fashioned linear forms. Electronic media have not, I don't believe, revolutionized narrative. But perhaps that's a different discussion.

The thing about e-readers is that they are ugly things, and we are being asked by commercial interests to accept these ugly objects and let go objects of beauty. The book-as-object idea gets ridiculed by e-reader fans, but I think that any movement that pulls culture away from beauty is a step in the wrong direction. The aesthetic experience of reading is important, as is the aesthetic experience of everything. Computers in general force us to view the world in a limited way and corral our vision into a space whose walls are made of windows and truetype fonts and drop down menus and all sorts of things that are ugly, and we are becoming desensitized to beauty. I don't care about the convenience of the kindle, nook, ipad, whathaveyou. Is function truly more important than form? If so, what does that say about our opinion of humanity itself? This is my worry over the digital future in general.

D. G. Myers said...


A particularly brilliant point about the book as an object of beauty.

One aspect of electronic reading that I have yet to describe is the ungainliness if not quite the ugliness of the “type” on the “page.”

Electronic readers do not know how to “justify” lines attractively, because they do not hyphenate words, and sometimes the spacing is distracting, as a consequence. And the typefaces are bland and utilitarian—short serifs, nothing with character.

What is more, the running heads are gone, making it even more difficult to page quickly through a text. Widows are commonplace, and though I realize that more and more printing houses ignore widows, they continue to annoy me. I shouldn’t be noticing them.

The best printed texts are not merely objects of beauty, but transparent at the same time—an almost unheard accompaniment to great writing.

A. Jurek said...

Your complaint is really about the technology, not the concept. An reader should be at least 15 inches diagonal display, and have the software that would allow for easier browsing through a text. I think the iPad is closer in this than the Kindle.

D. G. Myers said...

I said as much in my first post, Adlai. Like most Apple products—I am a Mac user—the iPad seems more “natural,” more “intuitive,” than competing systems.

But still I wonder. Can technology duplicate thumbing a book? And while I subscribe to the new motto that “Search Is Everything,” I also worry that algorithm-driven searches, as opposed to the discovery of spatial patterns through the experience of reading a three-dimensional book, is merely an abridgment.

The Militant Working Boy said...

scot g.f.bailey made an excellent point about the beauty of the book being replaced by the ugliness of e-readers out of convenience or practicality. Makers and fans of the e-reader, ironically, hold very mechanical ideas about what the "point" of reading really is. They believe it is the act of mentally processing written information and the more readily and easily available it is, the better.
However, they exclude the fact that reading is an experience. Books are sensual objects and the crackle of a newly opened cover, the smoothness of the page, the smell, the way it feels in your hand, the triumph of snapping it closed when you are done- these are the pleasures of reading a book that have gone unnoticed until the Kindle (nook etc.) entered the scene.
Books vary in size, shape, color, texture, page material, and so on. Each one is a work of art. Why do we wish to replace art with identical white machines with identical texts and identical "experiences"? True, they take up less space and use fewer trees. But one of the greatest attributes of humanity is our ability to write- to use letters and words to make stories, create new worlds, spark ideas, inspire each other and stimulate creativity and progression. Isn't that worthy of art?