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ENGL W3986: Screen Reading

Spring 2014

402 Hamilton Hall | Thursday, 4:10 - 6:00

Professor | Grant Wythoff (

Office Hours | Wed, 10:30 - 12:00 | Heyman Center 304

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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From novels to newspapers, legal contracts to medical records, the past decade has seen a dramatic movement of readers from page to screen. For Sven Birkerts, screen reading is “a keyword-driven process, and the reader has to exert near constant mental counter-pressure – drive with his foot on the brakes, as it were.” Do we accept that a change in format can have such an effect on the ways we read? In order to better understand the “newness” of digital media, this advanced undergraduate seminar will examine reading practices from the invention of writing to Renaissance humanism to machine learning. How do technologies of the book – scrolling, bookmarking, page, index, tab, bookshelf – become metaphors in the digital age? Are there any traces of these original tools and techniques in their metaphorical afterlives? Finally, what new forms of knowledge are made possible by the so-called “distant reading” of digitized text? Each week, we will discuss key assertions in the history of the book that emphasize the materiality of literature in different ways: from the importance of the book as a unit of knowledge production to the instabilities of textuality across print, manuscript, and XML versions. With each of our writing assignments, we will approach our screens not just as readers, but as writers who design texts with an eye toward particular modes of reading.

Policies and Assignments

Grade breakdown

  • Attendance / participation / presentation: 20%
  • Weekly writing exercises: 20%
  • Midterm exam: 30%
  • Final exam OR final project: 30%

Course components

Each student will give a brief presentation (of no more than 10 minutes) once during the semester to open up our readings to discussion. Your presentation can involve a close reading of a particular passage, a short activity, or a complication of one of the points made by our authors. You are not expected to present original research -- if it feels like you're writing a full-on essay in preparation, then you're probably going too far. Think of the presentation as a way of communicating to the class your thought process as you went through the week's readings. How did this text sync up with ideas from previous weeks, or with the overall themes of the course thus far? What were some particular moments you loved, or had a real problem with? In other words, you will lay out a series of guideposts and questions that will help orient us in the discussion to follow.

Each week, students will post 400-word writing exercises to the CourseWorks blog by classtime on Thursday. The default format for your piece should be a blog post that either a) links to a primary source (defined as a document that “provide[s] first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation”) related to the readings for the week, or b) an explanation, questioning, or complication of the week's readings. More specific exercises may emerge throughout the course of the semester, about which there will be further instruction provided.

Your essay project will use one of a number of digital platforms we explore throughout the semester. You will be expected to not only compose an original argument or narrative, but to highlight and reflect critically on the affordances of the platform you choose. Further details to follow.

In order to help you focus your reading and to serve as a mnemonic device, I will provide key terms for each week of class. Your final exam (DUE FRI, MAY 9) will consist of a selection of these terms, which you will be asked to define. Please note that the definition I will request is not the dictionary definition of the term, but an elucidation of the term as we have used it in the context of the class: in our discussions, in our readings, and in our project work. You will be expected to cite relevant authors (though not exact quotes or page numbers) as well as class discussions.

Laptop policy

Bring your laptop to class, every week. Practice good screen etiquette -- keep it to the side and don't stare too long.

Course texts

In keeping with the topic of the course, all readings will be provided in electronic versions. But in order to fully appreciate the variety of reading experiences we'll be learning about throughout the semester, all readings listed below as "protected PDF" will be available in hard copy at Butler Library reserves. Similarly, I ask that you buy any one of the following books, each of which runs under $15.

  • Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times
  • Roger Chartier, The Order of Books
  • Steven Fischer, A History of Reading
  • Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History


Online resources

Potential field trips around New York


January 23: Preliminaries

January 30: The invention of writing coincides with the emergence of civilization.


February 6: Western thought is the product of a paradigm shift from orality to literacy.

  • Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982, protected pdf), pp. 77-152
    • "Writing Restructures Consciousness"
    • "Print, Space and Closure"
    • "Oral Memory, The Story Line and Characterization"
  • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964, protected pdf), p. 3-21, 77-88
    • Introduction
    • The Medium is the Message
    • The Spoken Word: Flower of Evil?
    • The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear
  • Friedrich Kittler, "The History of Communication Media," CTHEORY (July 1996, web)
  • Amaranth Borsuk, Jesper Juul and Nick Montfort, The Deletionist bookmarklet, "a concise system for automatically producing an erasure poem from any Web page.

February 13: Books process, record, and transmit data.

February 19: LAB 1: Annotation

A workshop on tools for organizing and annotating digital text, including Zotero, Calibre, Evernote, Delicious, Rap Genius, Goodreader, Skim, Annotation Studio (by MIT's HyperStudio) Institute for the Future of the Book's SocialBook, and Prism.

February 20: It took 200 years for libraries to shelve print & manuscript as separate entities.

February 27: "How greatly this page here resembles a thousand other pages."

March 6: "They conveyed their thoughts to one another in an instant over cities or mountains."


  • Elspeth Jajdelska, Silent Reading and the Birth of the Narrator (2007), pp. 21-75
      1. Income, Ideology, and Childhood Reading
      1. Pausing for Effect

March 12: LAB 2: Writing

A workshop on word processing, markup, and typesetting systems, including Pandoc, markdown, and Scrivener.

March 13:

March 17-23: Spring Break

March 27: Texts cannot be said to have fixed properties; they are always in flux.

  • [Intro to textual studies]
  • Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (2001), pp. 1-28, 137-166, 193-208
    • Introduction. Beginning Again: Humanities and Digital Culture, 1993-2000
      1. Rethinking Textuality
      1. Dialogue and Interpretation at the Interface of Man and Machine


  • Gerard Passannante, The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition (2011)

April 2: LAB 3: Interface

A workshop on the Makey Makey interface kit.

April 3: Media reconfigure the logic of the senses.

April 10: Multitasking threatens attention span and the ability to sustain complex thought.


  • Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul (2013)
  • Chade Meng Tan, Search Inside Yourself (2012), by Google's "happiness guru"

April 17: Reading takes place within feedback loops between old and new technologies.


  • Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (2012)

April 24: There have been 129,864,880 books published, ever.


April 30: LAB 4: Collaboration

Experiments with notes taken throughout the term.

May 1: The book has become a "post-artifact," platform independent medium.

[Readings still in process.]


Show and Tell: Recent Artifactual Books (I'll bring copies of these in)

  • Amaranth Claire Borsuk and Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (2012)
  • Anne Carson and Gaius Valerius Catullus, Nox (2010)
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions (2006) and The Fifty Year Sword (2012)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes (2010)
  • Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts: A Novel (2007)
  • B.S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (1969/2007)
  • J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, S (2013)


Some assignments and readings borrowed from Katherine Biers, Adam Finkelstein, and Miriam Posner.