Book Is Here

A challenging polemic pits print against on-screen reading

Right now you are reading, and I am writing. And whether you are reading my words on paper or on a screen, you are probably more aware of your chosen medium—more attuned to its characteristics—than the reader of almost any previous generation. Living as we do in a moment of transition, from what Adriaan van der Weel calls “the Order of the Book” to some new order (or disorder) of the digital, we have become exceptionally self-conscious readers—transforming ourselves into test subjects in our own experiments, carefully monitoring the ways our reading is changing, dutifully registering all apparent effects. We are all a bit like Nicholas Carr, who in his famous 2008 Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” described an “uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” noting, “I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.” If we do not all draw the same conclusions as Carr, we are all asking the same questions: how is reading changing in the digital age, and how is this changing us?

When something truly big like this happens—something so big, in the eyes of many commentators, that it can only be compared to Gutenberg’s invention of movable type nearly 600 years ago—there are, as I see it, two basic ways to react. Carr demonstrates the first, which is essentially to freak out: to view the transition to digital forms as basically unprecedented, and to accept that this unprecedented change in media will bring about unprecedented social changes. Freaking out can be negative: like Carr, you can see digital reading as tending toward “shallowness.” It can also be positive: along with writers like Clay Shirky, you can see the digital age as a paradise of open access, readerly participation and exciting new interactive forms. But it tends to be one or the other, picturing the digital world as either totally malign or absolutely marvellous.

Andrew Piper’s Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, rejecting such black-or-white thinking, illustrates the other way of reacting to our period of transition. This is to seek analogy—to fight the urge for panic by finding precedents for what we are going through. If there is a risk in this approach, it lies in appearing to cling desperately to the past. We need only remember the voice at the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land that says, apparently in a losing cause, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Piper arranges his fragments more usefully. Relying on a truly impressive store of comparisons drawn from the long history of reading, his message is something like the following: it is only our own ignorance of the book and its history that makes us see the transition to the digital as something unprecedented, and which allows us to heed the frenzied warnings of adherents to the freak-out school. The best defence against hysterical premature nostalgia for the book, Piper suggests, is a deep familiarity with books and the knowledge they contain. If Book Was There has a lesson, it is that the more you know about books, and the more books you have read, the better you will understand that we have been here before—in this place that seems so unfamiliar.

Piper’s compact and ambitious introduction makes this point very directly. Titled “Nothing Is Ever New,” it addresses all the usual suspects and perpetrators in the alarmist sweepstakes concerning the advent of the digital. With a concision that can only be called vicious, Piper replies thus:

We take little notice that we have said all this before. Four hundred years ago in Spain people read too many romances (Don Quixote), three hundred years ago in London too many people wrote crap (Grub Street), two hundred years ago in Germany reading had turned into a madness (the so-called Lesewut), and one hundred years ago there was the telephone. We have worried that one day there would be more authors than readers (in 1788), that self-publishing would save, and kill, reading (1773), and that no one would have time to read books anymore (in 1855). Everything that has been said about life in an online world has already been said about books.

Piper’s erudition, the sheer range of his reading, is on full display here. If anything, we might fear that he will be too learned a guide—too much like Madame Merle in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, who responds to even the most shocking anecdote, “Oh, I’ve been in that, my dear; it passes, like everything else.” But Piper makes his many references to the history of reading not to show off—and never to deny the significance of what is happening today. He uses his impressive knowledge, first, to expose the apocalyptic clichés masquerading as original insights; and, then, once the garbage is cleared away, to focus on what truly is new about reading in electronic times.

Witness what he does in the first chapter, “Take It and Read,” about the tactility of books versus digital texts. He begins by describing the role of a very practical quality of physical books—the ability to flip through them and select passages at random—in the conversion of St. Augustine. (Augustine’s game of book-roulette ended when his finger landed on Romans 13:13–14; the rest is history.) Piper proceeds to argue for the centrality of physical touch in the history of reading, from “handbooks” to Braille, to a 19th-century fly fishing manual into whose pages hundreds of flies were hooked. All of this is to highlight something actually different about digital texts: the way that, in contrast to the touchability of books, they “always seem to elude our grasp in some fundamental sense”—how, while they do exist somewhere, “where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden.” Surveying specimens of digital art like Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter,whose words change when you move your cursor across them, he finds this ungraspability both a fact of electronic texts and a major theme in them.

Having identified a tangible (pun intended) difference—something concrete (again), beyond fashionable histrionics—his next move is to probe its significance. Like Marshall McLuhan, Piper is interested in the “message” of the electronic medium—in how subtle differences in the “shape of reading” might change “the way we shape our thoughts.” But unlike McLuhan, he is not tied to any predetermined thesis, and not nearly so eager to jump to a definite conclusion. On the one hand, he associates the tactile stability of the book with a soporific tranquility. The book, not liable to fly away at any moment, becomes for Piper a “[tool] for securing the somatic calm that is the beginning of all careful but also visionary thought.” But on the other hand, reflecting on The Jew’s Daughter, where to touch one word means to let go of several others, Piper asks: does reading a book not also involve a rhythm of catch and release—is the process of turning a page not at once a holding-on and a letting-go? “I find joy in the way words escape me with Morrissey,” he says, “in their lightness, the way I can make them go away.” What seems new and at first disturbing—the physical elusiveness of the digital text—turns out also to be familiar.

This is not to say that Piper avoids taking sides. While his argument strives always for balance, it nonetheless returns again and again to what he regards as the primary virtue of books in the digital age: the way they help us escape. He laments an age obsessed with “the functionality of reading”—beset by the notion that reading is only useful if it has some “value.” “When there is so much more to read and when we are always reading for some purposes,” Piper says, “we are only ever ‘catching up.’ We never have the chance to incorporate, digest, curl up, close off, recede.” Book reading, because it encourages us to slow down and to cut ourselves off, becomes for Piper not only a tonic for life in a hurried age, but also—in a society that has “become fearful of reading’s recesses,” suspicious in particular of “the book’s intimacy and its immeasurability”—something like an act of ­defiance.

The question of privacy and quantifiability is at the heart of a particularly brilliant chapter on digital versus print practices of sharing, which similarly finds virtue in the “off-the-grid-ness” of the book. Drawing again on a marvellously diverse set of historical precedents—examples of sharing from Adam’s rib to Unix—Piper arrives at two points about the way we share in the digital age. First, he finds something insincere in the ethos of “social” sharing that dominates so much discussion of the networked present. Sharing, Piper repeatedly insists, necessarily involves giving something up. Lending a book involves both taking a risk on the dependability of a friend and also revealing—through our marginal jottings and dog-ears—something intimate about ourselves. “Having a file in common that we can both access at the same time,” however, “overlooks any sense of personal investment in the process.” Since you do not need to give anything up in order to share a digital file, “file sharing” is a sort of paradox. Piper’s second point is that sharing must be voluntary to be genuine. Lamenting the “web of measurability” into which the reader of electronic texts is inexorably drawn, he writes,

when distributors of electronic books store your reading data or annotations on their servers; when search engines store your page views; when social networking sites store everything you write, you are by default sharing your reading, whether you want to or not. It may not be “public” (i.e., on display), but it is being read. In this scenario you’re not an amateur or a connoisseur, one who loves or knows, but a test subject, someone who is constantly being measured.

This for Piper is the chief difference between book reading and electronic reading: the way that “in books no one is looking where you are looking.” It is also the chief advantage of books over electronic files.

Indeed, although Piper tries in every chapter to find something redeeming to say, his most frequent rhetorical use of electronic reading is in order to illuminate negatively the wonders of books. Each of the chapters in Book Was There is structured on a “here is how the book does this/here is how electronic texts do it” comparison—and whether Piper is discussing note taking or page flipping, books almost always emerge victorious. The major exception is the final chapter, “By the Numbers,” which probes the relationship between counting and reading. Here, as if to make up for the beating that electronic reading has taken in the previous six chapters, he is positively effusive. Arguing that counting has been a crucial element of reading from the beginning—and providing his usual wealth of examples, from clay tablets in Turkey circa 8,000 BC to Dada’s embrace of random combination—he finds that the present-day explosion of numbers-based approaches to literature “return[s] us to reading’s numerological origins.” Piper sees the practice of “distant reading”—using computer algorithms to analyze massive numbers of literary texts—as a welcome and reasonable response to the flood of information facing the contemporary reader. (An example from his own research uses statistical models to track the stylistic DNA of Goethe’s Werther in some 5,000 works.) And in a somewhat more convoluted argument, he comes to see electronic games as “an interpretation of human creativity”; by playing them, “we learn about our own thought process, about the nature of expression, about the formal structures of language-based reason.”

If Piper’s intention in this final chapter is to effect something like the “turn” of a Shakespearean sonnet—a closing reversal of perspective that forces us to reimagine all that has come before—it does not quite come off. After six chapters that, while balanced, nonetheless amount to a strong case for the value of books in the digital age, I was not quite prepared to accept the concluding point of this concluding chapter—that “computational reading is different from book reading,” but that neither is “better than the other.” Indeed, in the epilogue, displaying the critical honesty that is perhaps his most attractive trait, Piper speaks of the “sense of melancholy” that “often surrounds reflections on the future of reading,” in which he recognizes his own book’s full participation. “I confess,” he says, “it has been impossible to resist.”

The title of Piper’s epilogue is decidedly melancholy: “Letting Go of the Book.” Its concluding message, however, is not downbeat but positively defiant. We must not yield to the voices prophesying the death of the book, he counsels; while we will perhaps do more reading on screens, it is imperative that we not do all our reading that way. If we stop reading books, he warns, we will accept screen reading as natural, and thus become less aware of the special “shape” of digital reading and the particular way it shapes the way we think. He does not dwell on the flip side of this argument, however, which is for me one of the crucial points to emerge from Piper’s book.

This is that the arrival of digital reading, precisely because it provides us with an example of reading other than in books, is making us understand better what the book is—and what it means to read one. To engage in a hyperbolic statement of my own, no age has better understood the book, because no age has ever had such a seductive alternative. As Piper notes in his introduction, “there is nothing like a sense of demise to spur our attention”—and, as Book Was There itself proves, there is nothing like an alternative to make us understand and appreciate what we already have.

The twilight of the book is just as plausibly its golden age. As Piper often does, I will end with an anecdote to illustrate what I mean. When I recently found I was not using my Kindle very much, I gave it to my mother, who was very grateful for the gift and set about reading on it voraciously. At the same time, I gave her a print copy of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which she did not pick up for a few months. When she finally did, she called me and exclaimed, with an ardent note I am not used to hearing in her voice, “My goodness, what a gorgeous book! What beautiful fonts! What stunning title pages! And it’s so easy on the eyes—I’ve never enjoyed reading more!” A few months with the Kindle had turned my mother into an aesthete and a book geek—and so defamiliarized print reading as to transform it into a completely novel, exciting experience. “By the way,” she added, “you can have the Kindle back.”

Book is here!