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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

relearning to read

The institute for the future of the book blog discusses a slow viewing of a Herzog film
and states
The problem of availability is something that seems increasingly to have been solved. To view or to read well is another kind of problem. In the past, when there was an economy based on scarcity, this might not have been as much of an issue: whatever was available was watched or read. Now we need to think about how we want to watch: we need to become better readers.
I've been chewing on this for awhile. This morning it struck me that perhaps this is a much harder task than we may think. And perhaps the technical challenges associated with bringing about the new mode of availability are trivial compared to the human and social challenges of reclaiming the same depth we had and perhaps developing it in new directions. I, for one, have certainly become worse at in depth reading in recent years. Perhaps there will be long term benefits. But I'm most often struck by a sense of loss.

To me, there are two separate questions. The first is about the nature of hyper text, and what such a literature might mean. My gut feeling is to reject it, and somehow it feels like this is related to the integrity of personal identity, and the linearity of time... (problem much simpler reasons are available)... were there ever choose your own adventure stories that reached the level of high literature?

The second question is about how to read single texts. Do we take notes? Do we spend hours at a time, or minutes? Do we always read linearly, or sometimes skip ahead? I don't know why these questions should even be asked, except that with internet reading I've taken to all these habits, and perhaps they should be clarified if not rejected on an individual basis. I think for the most part, these are bad habits, akin to seeking out cliff notes for a book and not actually reading it. The danger of mistaking the map for the territory?

One final point is that there's a small flaw in the claim that the availability problem has been solved. What this means is that digitally, texts are more and more easily available. However, at this point, I really don't feel like e-readers are good enough. Maybe I just haven't given them a chance. But in any case, the truth is that if one prefers to read a printed text in a convenient book form, then the digital existence on one's devices is not the same. And independent book stores provide a filtering process that forms a community and provides these books for immediate purchase. I see the new system as an alternative, but calling it the "availability" problem hides the changes that have already taken place and will continue to take place with respect to what books mean, how they get to us, and the connection to the author.

I guess I just really like libraries and bookstores, and wonder what will happen to these institutions and how the social role will develop. Probably much has been written on this, but I think its easy to think that somehow the technical part of digitally distributing text has somehow done away with a large amount of preexisting objects, culture and ways of thinking about things.