However much electronic books may try to look like their printed brethren, they still change how we manually interact with them and those changes matter for how we read. There are, for starters, no longer any pages to turn. There is no density to the e-book (all is battery), which is incidentally one of its greatest selling points. Open books can be measured by the sliding scale of pages past and future, like steps, just off to the side of the page. What lies after the digital page? An abyss. No matter what the page number says (and depending on which screen you’re reading it will say different things), we have no way to corroborate this evidence with our senses, no idea where we are while we read. Instead of turning the page, we now have the button, at least for a little while longer. The hand no longer points, and thus cognitively and emotionally reaches for something it cannot have (like Michelangelo’s famous finger), it presses or squeezes. The mechanical pressure that gave birth to the printed book in the form of the wooden handpress is today both vastly reduced in scale and multiplied in number through our interactions with the digital. There is a punctuatedness, a suddenness, but also a repetitiveness to pressing buttons that starkly contrast with the sedate rhythms of the slowly turned page. Buttons convert human motion into an electrical effect. In this, they preserve the idea of “conversion” that was at the core of reading books for Augustine. But in their incessant repetitiveness the meaning of conversion is gradually hollowed out. It is made less transformative.
Buttons also resist. Over time, their use causes stress to the human body, known as carpal tunnel syndrome. Like its related postural malady, “text neck,” these syndromes are signs of how computation is beginning to stretch us, both cognitively and corporally. The resistance of the button is an intimation of the way technology increasingly seems to be pushing back.
Perhaps it is for this reason that we are moving away from the world of the button to that of the touch screen. From the ugly three-dimensionality of the mechanical apparatus we ascend to the fantasy of existing in only two dimensions, a world of the single, yet infinite page. Here the finger no longer converts, but conducts. With capacitive touch screens your finger alters the screen’s electrostatic field thereby conveying a command. Instead of pressing to turn the page, we now swipe. Kinesthesia, the sense of bodily movement, overrides the book’s synesthesia, its unique art of conjoining touch, sight, and thought into a unified experience. In an electronic environment, corporal action overtakes reading’s traditional inaction.
The more my body does, however, the less my mind does. Interactivity is a constraint, not a freedom. Swiping has the effect of making everything on the page cognitively lighter, less resistant. After all, the rhythmic swiping of the hand has been one of the most common methods of facilitating “speed-reading.” And as one study after another affirms, the more time we spend reading screens, the less time we spend reading individual units of the text. Skimming is the new normal. With my e-book, I no longer pause over the slight caress of the almost turned page—a rapture of anticipation—I just whisk away. Our hands become brooms, sweeping away the alphabetic dust before us.
Tonight I will read to my children before they go to bed. Although the “bedtime story” was only invented as a common practice at the end of the 19th century, there has always been a durable physiological connection between sleep and reading. Unlike the nursemaid’s oral tales that were meant to frighten children into staying in their beds, the slightly monotonous rhythm of parents’ reading aloud is imagined to be a more effective way of accessing the unconsciousness of sleep.
Once the circus of getting ready for bed is over (why pajamas are so hard to put on is a mystery), we search out a clear plot of carpet and choose a book to read. Maybe it will be something from the Frog and Toad series or Tinker and Tanker or, the house favorite, George and Martha.
As I begin to read, the kids begin to lean into me. Our bodies assume positions of rest, the book our shared column of support. No matter what advertisers say, this could never be true of the acrobatic screen. As we gradually sink into the floor, and each other, our minds are freed to follow their own pathways, unlike the prescribed pathways of the Web. We read and we drift. “The words of my book nothing,” writes Walt Whitman, “the drift of it everything.”
New research continues to emphasize the importance of mind wandering for learning. It turns out that not paying attention is one of the best ways of discovering new ideas. Reading books, whether silently or aloud, remains one of the most efficient means of enabling such errant thinking. As our bodies rest, our minds begin to work in a different way. New connections, new pathways, and sharp turns are being made as we meander our way through the book, but also away from it. There is no way to tell if anyone is actually paying attention anymore as I read, including myself. This seems to be one of the great benefits of reading aloud, that you can think of something else while you do it. We may be holding the book together, but our minds are no doubt far apart by now. The fairy tale is the first story of childhood because it tells of such leaving behind (parents and home), of entering the dreamscape of the woods—and the mind. It tells of the crooked path of change. How can one know where reading books ends and dreaming in books begins?
Perhaps the patron saint of reading should be Dr. Faustus. Faust, which means fist in German, was one of the most important folk heroes of the early modern world, which saw the invention of printing. Faust was a product of all those books that were increasingly available to readers. Unlike Don Quixote, a rough contemporary who steadily devoured works of fiction, Faust tried to know too much about the world. Faust was Quixote’s serious side. He tried to surpass what could be known in a book, whether it was the Bible or the alchemical handbook, famously fleeing his book-lined study at the opening of the tragedy. Faust, the fist, in other words, is our modern day demon, not Mephistopheles, his devilish double. Faust reminds us of the way books are totems against ceaseless activity, tools for securing the somatic calm that is the beginning of all careful but also visionary thought. If we believe in the value of rest, and the kind of conversional thinking that it makes possible, then we will want to preserve books and their spaces of readerly rest.
But Faust also reminds us not to hold on too tightly. He shows us the risks of grasping. He reminds me that the meaning of reading lies in the oscillatory rhythms of the opening and closing hand.
Reprinted with permission from Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, by Andrew Piper, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.