What is a book?
What’s your relationship to a written work? Peter Mendelsund explores the instability of reading in What we see when we read, suggesting that as reading is an immersive activity, during which we remove ourselves from the lived world and forgetting to provide detailed context to our experience (beyond where we were, what time of day it was), then the feeling of reading is actually the memory of having read, and is a false memory. We impose our unconscious onto texts, to sketchy descriptions of character (Mendelsund takes some time to describe this process - quite brilliantly - by challenging our ‘picture’ of Anna Karenina. Go read his book. It’s better than this one) and we build something unique in the space between the author, the text and the reader. Reading, Mendelsund reminds us, is not like watching a film. It is not fixed. It is personal.
The book, in that case, is a vehicle for ideas, and those ideas are not fixed things. They talk to each reader differently.
What do we do when we digitise books? Do we attempt to retain that fragile tension between object and author, reader and memory? Do we appreciate the platform’s role in that tension?
We do not.
What to do differently?
What we can do differently is exert some small shift in the reading experience.
Consider pace. We read quickly, slowly, at our own chosen rate. Some of us skim, some pore, some bounce or scatter our attention across a page. We can turn back, quickly, to check we didn’t miss something, and race ahead at the close of a chapter, at a crucial, tension-filled moment.
Robin Sloan wrote an essay called Fish for iOS. He describes it as a ‘tap essay’. Each ‘screen’ (the content is delivered in tiny chunks of text, making typographic use of a phone’s landscape screen) delivers the next in sequence by a tap. Sometimes a word, progressing toward a complete sentence on the current screen, sometimes a single word that gives way to the next screen. The whole thing is a little over 1000 words long. The essay reflects on our relationship with digital technology and asks us to think about what we treasure, what we go back and read again, and how often we don’t. The first thing you notice, as a reader, is that there is no facility to go back.
We can only go forward, into the essay.
of a back button.
Sloan does more than just slow down the pace of reading though. Fish is concerned with the way in which we interact, in that we ‘favourite’, we signal to the writer, or the world, that this is something we consider worthy of our attention. Fish looks at the internet, at digital writing and reading, and reflects that world back to us.
Were Fish to be published as a bound volume, the effect would, of course, be completely different. Not that that stopped anyone before.