books: love, fear and technology

Friday, July 29, 2011

(Warning: this post really isn’t much about sex, but it is about books and politics, and those things, to me, are pretty darned sexy. For those who are less intrigued by such topics, I promise the next post will be more suitably along the usual lines.)

I’m writing this post from my laptop on the highway that leads from Haines Junction to Whitehorse, Yukon. This summer I’m taking an intensive reading course on psychoanalysis and sadomasochism, which has me reading a ton of Freud and later theorists. One of my typical reading strategies when dealing with heavy material is to read sections interspersed with a bit of light reading to clear my head—sort of like the sorbet they serve between courses of a heavy Italian wedding meal. Most of the time I choose porn, but occasionally something else strikes my fancy, and it was with that in mind that I purchased a copy of Book Love, subtitled A Celebration of Writers, Readers, and The Printed & Bound Book (inconsistently and excessively capitalized in an oh-so-charming fashion), edited by James Charlton and Bill Henderson.

The book is partly what it purports to be—a collection of 600 delicious quotes about the beauty and value of printed (yes, on paper) books. Considering that I’m currently lugging no fewer than 25 books with me on my little seven-week summer jaunt away from home, and that I have not (yet?) opted for an e-reader (mostly because when you’re reading a stack of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, more than half of the stack won’t be available in e-format anyway), the topic of this little gem seemed quite apropos.

But the book is partly also a thinly veiled, and at times not veiled at all, diatribe against technological innovation. Some of this anti-technology sentiment is expressed with what could potentially be read as self-deprecating humour, such as this quote from Sarah McNally:

When things get tense in a book, you start doing things like stroking the edge of the pages. When you do that on your iPhone, the next thing you know you’ve frozen the thing.

Others read more like the kind of overblown hand-wringing that makes one roll one’s eyes, such as this one from Jill Carpenter:

I miss library card catalogs terribly, and I hate searching for books using the on-line catalog. Reading books on a computer seems like having one’s hand cut off.

Um, really? Perhaps Jill Carpenter might like to have her hand cut off and see if the experience is anything like looking at a computer screen.

Or take this one, from William Gibson:

The (digital) present is more frightening than any imaginable future I might dream up. If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, he’d have a nervous breakdown.

Or this one from Russell Baker:

The oversell on the “information superhighway” exploits the same public gullibility that true atomic-energy believers exploited decades ago. It’s a gullibility that flows from a touchingly credulous eagerness to believe that new miracle ages are constantly lurking just around the corner.

Or this one from W. Scott Olsen:

I think that, fiction, poetry, and essays on the Net are heading toward the status of junk mail.

(Apparently in addition to odd capitalization, the editors have decided that misplaced commas are also charming. Perhaps they might invest in paying someone to practice the age-old and quite respectably fusty art of copy editing. They could even insist that it be done on real paper with a real red pen. Or maybe a quill and ink-jar, just to keep with the theme.)

At least William Gibson had the courage to say what’s going on here outright: fear. Russell Baker chooses condescension—a classic manner of retaining one’s threatened sense of superiority—and W. Scott Olsen opts for some more hand-wringing (as if the quality of fiction, poetry and essays somehow magically drops if they pop up on a computer screen instead of on a piece of paper). But these writers are all essentially saying the same thing: we are terrified of change.

To be fair, the book is also filled with wonderful quotes that do, indeed, celebrate the joy of the printed word, with great eloquence. Unfortunately the inclusion of what more or less amounts to a lot of rather pathetic-sounding technology-bashing leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.

In my mind, advocating for the sensual pleasures of the book does not require that other avenues for publishing be denigrated. The printed book’s many virtues are sufficiently strong without that kind of dubious assistance. A book is a meaningful object in a way that a PDF cannot ever be. A book has a look, a smell, a feel, a weight in the hand. It is tangible in the way that a scratchy blanket or a lover’s slightly damp skin or a cool, pleasantly rounded stone is tangible. It lends itself to physical enjoyment—for instance, burying one’s nose between pages to catch a whiff of the rot of old bindings, the pungency of fresh ink, the vaguely plasticky scent of photograph gloss. If a book were only ever meant to convey information, then it wouldn’t have become such an artistically produced object in the first place. Monks would never have toiled for a lifetime at illuminating biblical manuscripts, nobody would ever have bothered inventing hard covers and sturdy gold-embossed leather bindings, and today’s publishers wouldn’t invest in commissioning cover art, developing original typefaces, choosing paper weights and so forth.

It seems to me that rather than spouting fear-based anti-technology rhetoric, we should instead be considering the questions of purpose, pleasure and access.

Purpose: Why are we reading? To keep up with friends? To study? To masturbate? To better understand history, or science, or art? To have our perceptions of the world challenged, or perhaps affirmed? If you’re like me, you read for all of these purposes and then some at various points in time, and that means that you may choose a wide range of methods and formats for your reading. None of these methods is inherently better or worse than the others. They are simply more or less appropriate to a given goal.

Electronic reading presents advantages that paper books do not. Most people don’t extol the sensual virtues of the latest cheap pocket novel, the papery pleasures of leafing through a scholarly article, or the wonders of the morning paper’s typeface. That’s just not really what these items are for. The first is for fast, forgettable amusement; the second is far more about content than form (and with the average scholarly article that applies as much to the writing style itself as to the format of its delivery!); and the third is about immediate access to a steady stream of swiftly changing information.

Pleasure: Where does pleasure come into the picture? What kinds of pleasure do we seek in our reading, and how is that pleasure attained?

If I’ve learned anything from all this Freud I’ve been reading, it’s that we constantly seek pleasure and seek to minimize pain. As such, it doesn’t make much sense to rage about what “should” be taking place in the realm of reading, as though we’d learn to hate search engines and love Crime and Punishment by sheer force of an external guilt trip. Reading is pleasurable. Even when it’s hard, perhaps especially when it’s hard, it expands our minds and nourishes us in places we sometimes don’t know we’re hungry. If people want to sacrifice the pleasure of the printed page for the convenience of the e-reader, but they are still reading, what on earth is the problem?

Access: What kind of material do we, or can we, gain access to with new technology? What kind of material have we lost access to? Are there ways to bring back lost access?

As a scholar, I can say without a doubt that my academic work is immeasurably facilitated by the existence of electronic access to reading material. I’d much rather spend my time actually reading and thinking than hauling my ass 90 minutes across town to my university library unless absolutely necessary, or laboriously poking through a card catalogue for the sake of indulging in misguided nostalgia instead of using a fine-tuned search function. Also, the technologies that have emerged to assist readers with learning disabilities are making books more accessible to people who might never have been able to read them in the past. To me, these are clear gains.

As a reader who values marginal, emerging and local voices, I am deeply disturbed by the death of small and specialized literary presses, because I think they provide a much-needed relief from the slew of interchangeable bestsellers out there; some works that twenty years ago might have become underground classics will simply never see the light of day in the publishing world of 2011. These deaths are intimately related to the deaths of small bookstores and the growth of giant booksellers whose aim is profit, not love of literature. These giants are interested in sales growth by any means necessary, which means they underpay authors, negotiate punishing bulk discounts with publishing houses, and stock sure sells rather than taking a chance on emerging writers. As a culture we have supported these giants in their rise, and in so doing we’ve killed far more interesting and culturally valuable works of literature, publishers and booksellers. This, to me, feels like a terrible, crying loss.

But let’s be clear: this situation has not come about because of electronic access to literature. In fact, new technologies, while certainly hawked ad nauseam by the evil bookselling giants, are also potentially one of the routes to salvation for the little guys. gives you instant access to thousands of small and secondhand booksellers worldwide; author and small publisher websites and e-books allow us to buy directly from the source rather than give a chunk of the profit to the middleman; print-on-demand publishing means less overhead for small publishers, who can then focus their resources on the actual work; social media and online presence allow authors and publishers to promote their work directly to current and potential readers, and in some cases, a blogger with a good following can demonstrate to a potential publisher that their work will sell because they can show exactly how many people already read them. Technology is a tool. Like a fork, like a gun, like a piece of rope, it can be used for any number of purposes.

So let’s point the finger where it should be pointed: profit-hungry multinationals, not technological progress. It is terribly shortsighted to scapegoat e-books, of all things, for the current rotten state of literary culture, which is quite simply about capitalist greed, the soulless appropriation of literature by profit-hungry corporations, and our own willing participation in the whole system. I don’t see anyone in Book Love coming out guns ablaze against Amazon and Chapters-Indigo. Why not? I applaud those who wish to celebrate the book, but I deplore their lack of courage in focusing on false enemies when there are real ones looming ever larger, fed by our own hand.

Book Love’s preface, written by Henderson, bemoans the popularity of social media:

Twittering away, we never stop to think. In fact, we may be losing the ability to think. Nicholas Carr in his The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010) notes that his friends, after years of digital addiction, can’t read in depth anymore. Their very brains are changing, physically. They are becoming “chronic scatterbrains… even a blog post of more than 3 or 4 paragraphs is too much to absorb.”

I’d love to know what kind of “science” Carr used to come up with that little idea. Unlike Henderson and Carr seem to think, I don’t think my brain is turning to mush because I like Twitter—as a reader I’d like to be given a bit more credit than that, thank you very much. Last I checked, using social media is not a sufficiently powerful experience to single-handedly strike a death blow to my ability to read a book. Those who only ever read tweets may well lack the patience for Dostoyevsky, but that’s not Twitter’s fault—these are probably the same people who fall asleep halfway through a movie or topic-hop mid-conversation. Rather than pointing the finger at electronic media, you’re probably better off blaming excessive sugar intake, a lifetime of lowest-common-denominator advertising copy, and an upbringing or education that simply did not instil a love of meaty reading. Thirty years ago, people were blaming television and Archie comics for the state of kids’ intellects. A century ago, they were probably upset about typewriters causing people to lose the ability to write by hand. I mean, really, it’s all a bit silly, don’t you think? (Also, there is a particular irony in the idea of decrying the 140-character tweet in the introduction to a book that is entirely made up of one- or two-sentence quotes.)

Truly, though, beyond a purely logical deconstruction, what makes me cringe about the “it-was-better-back-when” comments is that they sound a whole lot like the kind of comments that homophobes and other bigots make. Fear of change, nostalgia for “simpler” days—people who rail against progress on principle make me twitchy. They sound far too much like the people who’d rather we go back to the simpler days when marriage was just between one man and one woman, and women’s place was in the home, and “we” all ate the same foods and read the same canon of (dead white male) literature which of course was only ever in English (except maybe for some French because that’s sexy), and “we” all went to church and there was no such thing as all those “other” holidays and so all “we” had to do was say Merry Christmas and not Happy Holidays, and by gosh everything was so much easier because “we” didn’t have to think about the diverse needs and perspectives of a diverse range of people, or bother learning very much at all about the world outside “our” happy little white middle-class English-speaking heterosexual bubble, unless of course it was excitingly exotic in a way that both titillated us and shored up “our” sense of superiority.

I’m not accusing those who prefer books to e-readers of homophobia, sexism or racism per se. But holding a preference in terms of how you like your reading packaged does not require that you start pooh-poohing other people’s choices. Close-mindedness has a terrible tendency to spread, and in some ways this type of stance is particularly shocking when it’s taken by writers and booksellers—the people who, in theory, are some of the most concerned with providing as many people as possible with access to new ideas. If you’re resistant to the new because it’s less comfortable to you than the old, if you don’t wish to learn new things or be challenged or stretch your brain, then your mind is already far more atrophied than those of the tweeters and blog followers and e-book readers you accuse of having precisely this problem.