a graduate seminar at UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2012
–> Compose your own 300-500 word reflection on present or future forms of reading
I am the last person I know who doesn’t have a smart phone. My phone is, shall we say, simple. It flips open—how quaint. Most people don’t actually call me anymore, though. They text me. Unfortunately, texting back on the tiny keyboard is so cumbersome, I try to make my replies as brief as possible. So when I receive texts long as tomes, I can only manage to reply with something thoroughly disappointing like, “ok, c u l8r!” I’ve even gone so far as to request people stop texting me until I can manage to acquire a less obsolete phone. But they haven’t stopped. I know what you’re thinking: “stop texting?!” My request does not compute.
Really, reading and writing have become increasingly important in my life and the lives of countless others. Email, chat platforms, texting, facebook messaging, twitter—these have become primary forms of communication. They require us to constantly stream our written thoughts to others. Since starting my doctoral program at UCSB, I’ve watched most of my colleagues replace their laptops with iPads in class, turning note-taking into a minor art form. Styluses dance, wrists flick and fingers drag across brilliant LCD screens. Sitting hunched over a flip phone is not only inelegant, but it doesn’t offer the same choices for reading or writing.
Not that using an iPad comes naturally. I recently embarrassed myself by asking how to scroll on an iPad when a friend asked me to read a chat transcript on her device. Remember the baby who tries to read magazines like an iPad? Consider me the inverse.
In response to a marked increase in tablet users in her classroom, one of my professors pondered what the future of reading in her class might look like. “Soon we’ll all be reading on our tablets,” she moaned. She expressed frustration at this prospect, since to her, e-books seem somehow less substantial than traditional hardcover or paperback printed books. “Whenever I buy an e-book, I always feel like I’m paying for nothing. It doesn’t even feel like reading.” Not only is the text itself somehow lesser than, to my professor, e-books inherently encourage a different kind of engagement with the reader.
While I fancy myself as having very few anti-technology prejudices, having logged onto the internet for the first time in the third grade and never looked back, nevertheless I found what my professor said intriguing. Reflecting on my consumption of e-books, a printed book is far more likely to cooperate with me. My kindle-version books do not always. When I “highlight” an especially long passage on my Kindle, half the time the screen freezes. Whenever I look up a word using the built-in dictionary, it leaves behind a distracting e-ink palimpsest. Note-taking becomes impossibly unwieldy as I try to type on tiny round keys. I feel my gaze being pulled across the screen constantly. But now if a book doesn’t wrestle with me a bit, I haven’t concluded the act of reading. All of these troublesome processes have simply become facets of the new modus operandi that is digitalized reading.
. . . . And then in 2007, I started reading theory.
I read Jameson, Lacan, Lessing, Barthes, de Stael, Bataille, Fanon, Foucault, de Beauvoir, Derrida, Butler, Mulvey and Harraway and Hebdige. I was in a Latin MA program, so I interspersed this personal reading with the work of translation. [Poet] took a strange turn, as the page became an interface for time-travel. When translating Horace I felt like Benjamin’s angel of history, my Latin to English dictionary a simulated interface of time-travel. The Classical Studies Department at the University of Missouri seemed very much in the realm of science fiction.
Then summer came around and I picked up a cheap Dover edition of Kreutzer Sonata for some relaxing reading at the coffee shop. I could barely get through it, that page-by-page labor of attrition. I finished it in a few days and found myself thinking sarcastically about the whole ordeal. I said to myself, “Thanks for the story, Tolstoy!” wallowing in the insufficiency of narrative, rooting around in the thick gaping trenches of a language defined by lack. It was like being caught in the end of history, trapped in an absurd notion that my hipster intellectualism that foreclosed the hope of a messianic return. I wanted so much to skip out on the exhibition of where I sat at lunch in school while hiding out in the reading room convinced I saw something that the others never would within the immersive and coherent binding of Brave New World and The Stranger.
For years I tried to relearn how to read
and then in 2010, I bought my first laptop. . . .
Liz’s Reading Reflection:
The term “reading” is one with a plurality of meanings and, in the interest of keeping my reflection manageable, I will only be comparing two of them. The conversations, arguments and occasional acts of fear-mongering that spring up around the question of what it means to read have had surprisingly little impact on my personal relationship with the concept. When I think about reading, my mind inevitably turns to the act of experiencing a novel printed on cellulose while I am sitting on either a couch or an armchair (though the latter is preferable) and sipping a mug of tea. Though I look at many texts during the course of a day, I do not feel as though I have been reading unless the aforementioned requirements are fulfilled. This disconnect between reading as the act of interpreting alphanumeric signs and reading as the pleasurable encounter with a fictional text within a specific setting is partially an effect of the involuntary nature of the former. I find it impossible not to process strings of letters as words in order to discover their meanings. I would imagine most literate individuals would react the same way; they cannot help but read a text placed before their eyes. This form of reading is less an action and more a perception.
My desire not to reduce reading to “mere reading” explains why I, as both a scholar and an avid reader of books, interpret reading as something more than word processing. This is where my myth of the ideal embodied reading practice comes from. I turn reading from a process into an experience. My ideal reading experience has very little to do with the act itself, which is an unconscious mental function, and everything to do with scenery and props. The stage is set for a kind of reading that is absorbing, deeply enjoyable, and viscerally satisfying. This is the definition of reading I picture when experts prophesize the death of reading. The act of reading will not disappear: I am convinced by Dehaene’s argument that reading evolved to fit the human brain and I believe that reading will remain one of the best methods of data input when it comes to humans for quite some time. The question I return to is how can I ensure my idealized vision of the reading experience will survive in a digital or even post-digital world? Or, to go back a step, is affective attachment to an experience enough of a reason to find ways to either preserve or re-instantiate it?
I think the future of reading is really a set of possible (concurrent) futures, each with its own distinct histories, cultural anxieties, and potentialities. It also seems that the future of reading is inextricably bound to the futures of the book, writing, learning, and teaching, and that one cannot really engage with the future of reading without taking account of this “reading ecology.” In this seminar, I have been most impressed with and persuaded by the arguments that situate these futures within larger cultural-historical trajectories, arguing for gradual, situated transformations, rather than radical breaks or hyper-novelty.
This seminar has made me think more and more about the relationship between reading and literacy, broadly conceived, but always linked to critical engagement and interpretation, i.e. reading as gateway to critical cultural literacy. Regardless of what we read, and here I might insert that I don’t think the future of reading depends on the future of the established literary canon, we should be concerned with thinking critically and deconstructing whatever objects are in front of us. As I’ve argued all quarter, I do not think it is particularly productive to try and relegate or equate the notion of (critical) reading to (high) literary reading. I think the humanities broadly, and literary studies specifically, have experienced a great deal of difficulty in rallying public support because of a general inability to explain or justify the significance not of reading but of reading these specific books. In discussing the future of reading, it seems that we should foreground the method (critical engagement/interpretation) rather than the object (War and Peace). The future of the former seems more fluid, adaptive, and thus, more likely, than that of the latter.
Whether or not we as literary scholars embrace this change sooner or later is up to us as individuals, but I think the relationship between the future of reading and the future of reading the kinds of books taught in undergraduate survey courses needs to be examined more carefully. The two futures are certainly intertwined and codetermined, but I don’t think the former is necessarily dependent on the latter. I agree with Hayles that, at the micro-level (individual act of reading), we must be attentive to the specificity of the medium, whether analog or digital, but I also think that at the macro-level (practice of reading in general) the method can transcend the medium.
Taking my cue from Hayles’ aside on personal experience, I begin with an anecdote. In the early days of the BP oil spill in 2010 I avidly read the New York Times to keep apprised of the crisis. As events protracted—the potential solutions and their difficulties becoming increasingly repetitive—I was less willing to devote time to the articles and began relying mostly on graphics (charts, maps, diagrams, schematics). Even scanning was not fast enough since many of the stories were built upon boiler-plate from earlier news articles. As the spill seeped into the summer months, I stopped “reading” altogether and relied solely on images and their accompanying text.
If reading for the text/image spurs epigenetic advance in writing, technology and practice, the future of reading might tend toward some further synthesis of the oversight/insight dichotomy that Bruinsma articulates, or the narrative/database distinction important to Hayles. Reading for formal layout of images and text beyond practices like concrete poetry and beyond the embodied repercussions of scanning practices (for instance, the figure F Hayles describes), and toward something like Hall’s Ludovician might inaugurate new objects of reading: something both text and image. The conceptual shark might be one avatar of such a reading practice, the graphic novel another. Scanning a graphic novel can reveal information about theme, tone, point of view, irony, etc., more readily than scanning a novel. The panels close the gap between close reading and hyper reading. Granted, this is incredibly speculative, which indicates the degree to which reading practice is naturalized by the materiality of the object read. Because of this naturalization, however, the images, ads, and other graphics to which we are already accustomed might migrate from the margins and merge with the text.
As a side note, Hayles book reminded me of one of my favorite websites which may be of interest: http://mind.textdriven.com/about
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