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Andrew Piper, a teacher of literature and, apparently, ‘the history of electronic reading,’ at McGill University in Montreal, has published a book called Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. Yesterday, this excerpt was published on Slate.com, decrying the rise of e-reading and the decline of the printed book and positing vaguely apocalyptic developmental consequences for the human species because of it.

Now, it might be easy to paint anyone who says something so outlandish as a mere technophobe, but what Piper is doing here is actually somewhat insidious; he’s using unsubstantiated pseudoscience combined with a religious/philosophical argument to try to make it appear that, whether you look to God or the atom for your place in the world, the e-reader is the devil on all counts.

Piper is obsessed with the book as object, and his whole argument basically revolves around the idea that the act of reading has become conjoined with the act of holding a book; therefore, if you are no longer holding a book and proceeding through the standard tactile act of turning pages, you aren’t reading. For ‘proof’ of this point, he quotes from St. Augustine’s Confessions, where Augustine apparently converted to Christianity upon hearing a child say ‘take it and read,’ and so picked up a Bible and, poof, Christian. Piper writes:

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.

This is an extremely facetious intellectual leap to make, and upon any sort of scrutiny it just does not hold up. For what else would someone have said 1,500 years ago? Yes, the book is an object, so one must pick it up to read it. So? How does the act of holding the book supersede the act of reading it and acquiring the information from it? Piper says the act of holding the book was conjoined with Augustine’s personal conversion. Again, so what? St. Paul (and many other biblical figures) were converted after seeing visions or hallucinations; does not hallucinating mean ‘seeing isn’t seeing’? Furthermore, quoting religious philosophy doesn’t work for much beyond scriptural debates, because you can’t try to make anthropological and physiological arguments about human behaviour based on ancient texts shot through with the supernatural, or try to use Christian texts to describe behaviour in this polyglot world.

Piper also unintentionally undercuts his own argument in this passage:

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 … 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.

It would interesting to find out if any writers back then were lamenting the downfall of the scroll and the catastrophic affects this would have on humanity, and decrying the turning of pages in books as ‘not conducive to intellectual development’ because you couldn’t see the whole text at once as you can with a scroll. And how much fuss was kicked up when the Gutenberg press was invented, because it would make books mass-marketable? Just as books taking over from scrolls was a natural technological transition and did not signal the end of learning, e-readers are simply the next technological transition. Yes, e-readers physically handle differently from books, but so do books from scrolls, and humanity survived. I’m sure we will here too.

The majority of Piper’s article is a mess of pedantic obfuscation; he cites arcane examples and takes quotes out of context to attempt to make his point, such as here:

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.

What exactly does this really mean? Somehow, someone reading a digital text is at a disadvantage because s/he doesn’t ‘know where the contours are’? It just doesn’t make sense. Piper seems insistent on the fact that since you can’t grasp a digital text the same way you can grasp a printed one, this somehow denigrates the act of reading. His thesis is that “the meaning of reading lies in the oscillatory rhythms of the opening and closing hand.” But if that were true, then, according to Piper’s argument, nothing you read online has any value, because you aren’t ‘grasping’ that either. Reading Piper’s own article on Slate, for example, or this blog post, has little value because you weren’t grabbing your computer screen as you read it. Or, technically, anyone without hands has never ‘properly’ read a book. Are we really meant to buy that?

Writing, and then consuming that writing through reading, is always about the ideas therein. The ways that those ideas get distributed, whether by computer, or book, or scroll or e-reader, are inconsequential to the power and virility of the ideas themselves. To argue that the physical distribution of the idea is more important than the idea is silly and irresponsible.

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8 thoughts on “Of Course e-Reading is Reading (A Rebuttal)

  1. Piper: Reading is an activity with a culture around it that involves the transmission of information via a tangible copy of the written word.
    James: Reading is the transmission of information via the written word.
    I see both as reasonable assertions, though yours, James, is a fundamental definition, while his is more poetic (but nonetheless valid).

    • I don’t believe his assertion is valid because he suggests, with nothing substantial to back it up, that once we make the full-on transition to e-readers, it’s going to fundamentally alter our physiological development as a species due to the loss of the particular tactile act of turning pages in books.

      He may be right, but I would have liked to have seen him cite some actual studies on the issue (if there are any) instead of merely quoting arcane religious texts and crafting nonsensical philosophical arguments.

      Oh, and thanks for commenting. 🙂

    • But I think it’s something more than just nostalgia – he’s trying to posit physiological consequences to moving away from printed books. It’s all a bit weird, IMO.

  2. What he is fundamentally saying is that those who cannot physically grasp a book, like, oh, I dunno, Stephen Hawking? are not truly reading. He is therefore asserting that the physically abled are smarter than the disabled. And what an abhorrent assertion that is.

  3. I don’t believe the quality of the reader comes into Piper’s argument. I believe he’s discussing the culture around the activity, and asserting that as the traditional reading culture is eroded by the transition from paper to e-ink, it will change the way we think. With the recent study from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center as an example, I think it’s easy to see that there will be some loss of focus on the content during the transition in favour of a focus on the technology. I do not see, however, a convincing argument that, once ebooks are standard, we as humans shall be unable to comprehend or focus ourselves as well with an ebook as a traditional paper book.

    http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/Reports-36.html

    • Sounds about right.

      But whether Piper intentionally meant to comment on the ‘quality of the reader’ or not, he does basically imply that if you can’t turn the pages, you’re missing out on something, which would preclude anyone who doesn’t read paper books in the traditional way as being at a disadvantage.

      It shows the dangerous involved in trying to make your prose so flowery that it potentially gives off unintended messages.

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