“I can imagine a world without books. I cannot imagine a world without reading” (Piper, ix). In these last few generations of print there is nothing keeping book lovers from reading print books. Yet with each decade the print book yields further to the digital. But there it is, we are the first few generations of digital, and we are still discovering what that means for reading. It is important to document this transition. In Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, Piper describes how the print book is shaping the digital screen and what it means for reading.
Book was there. It is a quote from Gertrude Stein, who understood that it matters deeply where one reads. Piper: “my daughter … will know where she is when she reads, but so too will someone else.” (128) It is a warm promise and an observation that could be ominous, but still being explored for possibilities.
The differences between print and digital are complex, and Piper is not making a case for or against books. The book is a physical container of letters. The print book is “at hand,” a continuous presence, available for daily reference and so capable of reinforcing new ideas. The word, “digital,” comes from “digits” (at least in English), the fingers of the hand. Digital technology is ambient, but could could allow for more voices, more debate. On the other hand, “For some readers the [print] book is anything but graspable. It embodies … letting go, losing control, handing over.” (12) And internet users are known to flock together, reinforcing what they already believe, ignoring dissent. Take another example. Some criticize the instability of the digital. Turn off the power and the text is gone. Piper counters that digital text is incredibly hard to delete, with immolation of the hard drive being the NSA recommended practice.
Other differences are still debated. There is a basic two-dimensional nature to the book, with pages facing one another and turned. One wonders if this duality affords reflection. Does the return to one-dimensional scrolling of the web page numb the mind? Writing used to be the independent act of one or two writers. Reading was a separate event. Digital works like Wikipedia are written by many contributors, organized into sections. Piper wonders if it possible to have collaborative writing that is also tightly woven like literature? (There is the recent example of 10 PRINT, written by ten authors in one voice.) Books have always been shared, a verb that has its origins in “shearing … an act of forking.” (88) With digital, books can be shared more easily, and readers can publish endings of their own. Books are forked into different versions. Piper cautions that over-sharing can lead to the forking that ended the development of Unix. But we now have the successful Unix. Is there a downside?
Scrolling aside, digital is really a multidimensional media. Text has been rebuilt from the ground up, with numbers first. New deep kinds of reading are becoming possible. Twenty-five years ago a professor of mine lamented that he could not read all the academic literature in his discipline. Today he can. Piper introduces what is being called “distant reading”: the use of big data technologies, natural language processing, and visualization, to analyze the history of literature at the granular level of words. In his research, he calculates how language influences the writing of a book, and how in turn the book changes the language of its time. It measures a book in a way that was never possible with disciplined close reading or speed reading. “If we’re going to have ebooks that distract us, we might as well have ones that help us analyse too.” (148)
Piper embraces the fact that we now have new kinds of reading. He asserts that these practices need not replace the old. Certainly there were always be print books for those of us who love a good slow read. I do think, however, that trade-offs are being made. Books born digital are measurably shorter than print, more suited to quick reading and analysis by numbers. New authors are writing to digital readers. Readers and reading are being shaped in turn. The reading landscape is changing. These days I am doubtful that traditional reading of print books — or even ebooks — will remain a common practice. There it is.