Amid the seemingly endless debates today about the future of reading, there remains one salient, yet often overlooked fact: Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely apart from it. How we hold our reading materials, how we look at them, navigate them, take notes on them, share them, play with them, even where we read them—these are the categories that have mattered most to us as readers throughout the long and varied history of reading. They will no doubt continue to do so into the future.
Understanding reading at this most elementary level—at the level of person, habit, and gesture—will be essential as we continue to make choices about the kind of reading we care about and the kind of technologies that will best embody those values. To think about the future of reading means, then, to think about the long history of how touch has shaped reading and, by extension, our sense of ourselves while we read.
The significance of the tactility of reading could begin with St. Augustine. In the eighth book of his Confessions, Augustine describes the moment of his conversion to becoming a Christian:
In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow?’ ” Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this very moment? I was asking myself these questions when all at once I heard the singing voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, “Take it and read, take it read.”
Augustine is sitting beneath a fig tree in his garden, and upon hearing the voice he takes up the Bible lying near him and opens a passage at random and begins reading (Romans 13:13-14). At this moment, he tells us, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” Augustine closes the book, marking his place with his finger, and goes to tell his friend Alypius about his experience. His conversion is complete.
No other passage has more profoundly captured the meaning of the book than this one. Not just reading but reading books was aligned in Augustine with the act of personal conversion. Augustine was writing at the end of the fourth century, when the codex had largely superseded the scroll as the most prevalent form of reading material. We know Augustine was reading a book from the way he randomly accesses a page and uses his finger to mark his place. The conversion at the heart of The Confessions was an affirmation of the new technology of the book within the lives of individuals, indeed, as the technology that helped turn readers into individuals. Turning the page, not turning the handle of the scroll, was the new technical prelude to undergoing a major turn in one’s own life.
In aligning the practice of book reading with that of personal conversion, Augustine established a paradigm of reading that would far exceed its theological framework, one that would go on to become a foundation of Western humanistic learning for the next 1,500 years. It was above all else the graspability of the book, its being “at hand,” that allowed it to play such a pivotal role in shaping one’s life. “Take it and read, take it and read” (tolle lege, tolle lege), repeats the divine refrain. The book’s graspability, in a material as well as a spiritual sense, is what endowed it with such immense power to radically alter our lives. In taking hold of the book, according to Augustine, we are taken hold of by books.
Nothing is more suspect today than the book’s continued identity of being “at hand.” The spines, gatherings, threads, boards, and folds that once gave a book its shapeliness, that fit it to our hands, are being supplanted by the increasingly fine strata of new reading devices, integrated into vast woven systems of connection. If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense. What this means for how we read—and how we are taken hold of by what we read—is still far from clear.
Aristotle regarded touch as the most elementary sense. It is how we begin to make our way in the world, to map it, measure it, and make sense of it. Touch is the most self-reflexive of senses, an insight affirmed by the German researcher David Katz, who established the field of touch studies in the early 20th century based on his work with World War I amputees. Through the feeling of touch, we learn to feel ourselves. Touch is a form of redundancy, enfolding more sensory information into what we see and therefore what we read. It makes the words on the page richer in meaning and more multidimensional. It gives words a geometry.
After completing his early masterpiece Dante and Virgil, the great French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix wrote in his journal, “What I must chiefly remember are the hands.” As Delacroix said of painting, so too of reading.
Books, like hands, hold our attention. As early as the 12th century, writers began drawing hands in the margins of their books to point to important passages. Such a device gradually passed into typescript and became a commonplace of printed books. It looked like this: ☞. The pointing hand in the book stood for the way books themselves were like pointers, making the world graspable. If books open us out into the world, they also constrain. They bring the world down to size, inoculations against the problem of patternlessness.
The child’s first drawing is often of his or her own hand. The footprint may be the first mark we make in the world (for hospital records), but the handprint is the original sign of self-reflection, of understanding ourselves as being in the world. The “handbook” or “manual”—the book that reduces the world into its essential parts, into outline form—is an extension of this art of measurement. It is one of the oldest types of books, dating back to Epictetus’s Enchiridion (second century), a short repository of nuggets of wisdom. In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede taught readers to count to a million on their hands in his On the Reckoning of Time (725). By the 15th and 16th centuries, the measuring hand would become the ultimate sign of our bibliographic relationship to the world, embodied in the new genre of the atlas. In its first incarnation, Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), the entire world could now be held in the reader’s hand. The secular bravura on display in these books, where the reader assumed the divine view, cannot be overstated. By the 17th century, the great age of wars of religion, palmistry, and chiromancy, knowledge of and on the hand would become major sciences. Handbooks seem to proliferate in periods of intellectual and technological uncertainty, much as they are proliferating today.
In the 19th century, readers witnessed the birth of reading as touch, in the form of Louis Braille’s invention of a dot-matrix reading system for the blind in 1824. The method derived from an earlier request by Napoleon for a code that could be read by his soldiers at night in the field without the use of light. Braille’s innovation was to make the dot-matrix representation of letters small enough to correspond to a single touch of the finger. It made reading digital in a very literal sense. By the end of the century, libraries such as the National Library for the Blind in Britain contained over 8,000 volumes in braille, one of many subsequent technologies that aimed to bring reading to the visually impaired.
The turn of the 20th century was a period of numerous experiments with the tactility of reading, both practical and impractical, culminating in the modernist revival of experimental books between the world wars. Books made of sandpaper, cardboard, cheap notebook paper, wood, and even metal were some of the many ways that artists experimented with the touch of reading. In the Russian artist El Lissitzky’s celebrated Architecture of VKhUTEMAS (1927), we see how the disembodied hand of the divine voice from the medieval book has returned, now in the form of the drafting hand of modern science. With the compass needle seemingly woven into the hand’s grip, we can see Lissitzky performing a subtle visual pun. The compass needle is imagined to stand in for the sewing needle, one of the original tools of bookmaking through the sewn binding of the book’s spine. For the Russian avant-garde, the rectilinearity of modernism—the cube, plane, column, grid—was as much born from the book as it was the industrial Gargantua of the new machine age. The handbook was one of modernism’s secret muses.
How can we hold, and hold on to, our digital texts today?
It is not surprising that one of the most canonized pieces of new media art is Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain, in which letters rain down a screen and come to rest on projections of viewers’ open hands, one of many new electronic works that take the hand as their conceptual starting point. Text Rain is a potent reminder of the way the digital, at least in English, is named after the hand’s component parts. The book’s handiness is recycled on the screen, only now the circuit that once enclosed us within a larger sense of self and place—that brought us into contact with God, as it did for Augustine—has become purely solipsistic: we see ourselves collecting words with our hands, as we become the new gods. But the words of Text Rain can never truly be grasped by our hands. They are like Platonic forms. They remind us how fragile our hold over words is, that we are only ever godlike.
For Augustine, the book’s closedness—that it could be grasped as a totality—was integral to its success in generating transformative reading experiences. Its closedness was the condition of the reader’s conversion. Digital texts, by contrast, are radically open in their networked form. They are marked by a very weak sense of closure. Indeed, it is often hard to know what to call them (e-books, books, texts, or just documents) without any clear sense of the material differences between them.
But on another level we could say that digital texts don’t so much cancel the book’s closedness as reinscribe it within themselves. Where books are closed on the outside and open on the inside, digital texts put this relationship in reverse order. The openness of the digital text—that it is hard to know where its contours are—contrasts with a performed inaccessibility that also belongs to the networked text. There is always something “out of touch” about the digital. Consider Kenneth Goldsmith’s online Soliloquy (2001), which was initially published as a printed book consisting of transcripts of his digitally recorded speech over the course of a single week. In the online version, words on the screen only appear when touched by the cursor (the electronic finger) and then only one sentence at a time. Every time we move the cursor to illuminate another sentence, the one before it disappears, just as the one after remains invisible. Like a jellyfish, the textual whole slips through our fingers.
This is not to imply that digital texts are not at some level “there.” This would be to fall prey to the “virtual fallacy” (computing culture’s equivalent to Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy”). Digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden. We cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen’s letters, the electromagnetically charged “hard drive,” without destroying it. Unlike books, we cannot feel the impressions of the digital. The touch of the page brings us into the world, while the screen keeps us out. All that remains of the hand is a ghostly remnant of its having been there at the time of scanning, like the chance encounters with scanners’ hands from Google Books, accidental traces of the birth of the digital record. The hand no longer points, like the typographic manicule; rather, it covers over or gets in the way. Hand was there, we might say.
But digital texts can be grasped, you will say (I, too, own an e-reader or two). Touch has emerged as one of the most important new fields in contemporary computing. Falling under the heading of “haptics” (like optics for the hand), it encompasses the development of touch screens, virtual handshakes, and surgical training at a distance. But it is also part of a culture of the “handheld,” the way computing has steadily been migrating from large rooms to our desks to our hands. The more screenish our world becomes, the more we try to reinsert tactility back into it.
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.