E-Books Are Still Waiting for Their Avant-Garde

Photograph of Stéphane Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés, Public Domain

E-readers have tried to make reading as smooth, natural and comfortable as possible so that the device fades away and immerses you in the imaginative experience of reading. This is a worthy goal, but it also may be a profound mistake.

This is what worries Wired’s Jonah Lehrer about the future of reading. He notes that when “the act of reading seems effortless and easy … [w]e don’t have to think about the words on the page.” If every act of reading becomes divorced from thinking, then the worst fears of “bookservatives” have come true, and we could have an anti-intellectual dystopia ahead of us.

Lehrer cites research by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene showing that reading works along two pathways in the brain. When we’re reading familiar words laid out in familiar sequences within familiar contexts, our brain just mainlines the data; we can read whole chunks at a time without consciously processing their component parts.

When we read something like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, on the other hand — long chunks of linguistically playful, conceptually dense, sparsely punctuated text — our brain can’t handle the information the same way. It goes back to the same pathways that we used when we first learned how to read, processing a word, phoneme or even a letter at a time. Our brain snaps upright to attention; as Lehrer says, “[a]ll the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.”

I think Lehrer makes a few mistakes here. They’re subtle, but decisive. I also think, however, that he’s on to something. I’ll try to lay out both.

First, the mistakes. I think Lehrer overestimates how much the material form of the text — literally, the support — contributes to the activation of the different reading pathways in the brain. This actually deeply pains me to write down, because I firmly believe that the material forms in which we read profoundly affect how we read. As William Morris says, “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.”

But that’s not what Dehaene’s talking about. It’s when we don’t understand the words or syntax in a book that we switch to our unfamiliar-text-processing mode. Smudged ink, rough paper, the interjection of images, even bad light — or, alternatively, gilded pages, lush leather bindings, a gorgeous library — are not relevant here. We work through all of that. It’s the language that makes this part of the brain stop and think, generally not the page or screen.

Second, it’s always important to remember that there are lots of different kinds of reading, and there are no particular reasons to privilege one over the other. When we’re scanning the news or the weather (and sometimes, even reading a blog), we don’t want to be provoked by literary unfamiliarity. We want to use that informational superhighway that our brain evolved and that we have put to such good use processing text.

Reading is, as the philosophers say, a family-resemblance concept; we use the same words to describe different acts that don’t easily fall under a single definition. It’s all textual processing, but when we’re walking down a city street, watching the credits to a television show, analyzing a map, or have our head deeply buried in James Joyce, we’re doing very different things. And in most cases, we need all the cognitive leverage we can get.

Now, here’s where I think Lehrer is right:  Overwhelmingly, e-books and e-readers have emphasized — and maybe over-emphasized — easy reading of prose fiction. All of the rhetoric is about the pure transparency of the reading act, where the device just disappears. Well, with some kinds of reading, we don’t always want the device to disappear. Sometimes we need to use texts to do tough intellectual work. And when we do this, we usually have to stop and think about their materiality.

We care which page a quote appears on, because we need to reference it later. We need to look up words in other languages, not just English. We need displays that can preserve the careful spatial layouts of a modernist poet, rather than smashing it all together as indistinguishable, left-justified text. We need to recognize that using language as a graphic art requires more than a choice of three fonts in a half-dozen sizes. Some text is interchangable, but some of it is through-designed. And for good reason.

This is where we’ve been let down by our reading machines — in the representation of language. It isn’t the low-glare screens, or the crummy imitative page-turn animations. They’ve knocked those out of the park.

In fact, we’ve already faced this problem once. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, book production went into overdrive, while newspapers and advertising were inventing new ways to use words to jostle urban passers-by out of their stupor.

Writers wanted to find a way to borrow the visual vitality of what was thought of as ephemeral writing and put it in the service of the conceptual richness and range of subject matter that had been achieved in the nineteenth-century novel.

That’s where we get literary and artistic modernism — not only Joyce, but Mallarmé, Stein, Apollinaire, Picasso, Duchamp, Dada, Futurism — the whole thing. New lines for a new mind, and new eyes with which to see them.

That’s what e-books need today. Give us the language that uses the machines, and it doesn’t matter if they try to get out of the way.

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