Book review: Book Was There

As a professor of literature at McGill University, Andrew Piper is, in essence, a professional reader, and he brings this experience to his latest book, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press), in which he offers a very personal meditation on our evolving relationship with reading. In what ways is a physical book more than its content? How have screens and digital technologies changed the way we understand, interact with, and share texts? Writes Piper in the book’s prologue,

This book is not a case for or against books. It is not about old media or new media (or even new new media). Instead, it is an attempt to understand the relationship between books and screens, to identify some of their fundamental differences and to chart the continuities that might run between them. (p. ix)

Their “fundamental differences” dominate the content of the book, since the similarities between books and screens are perhaps more obvious. Piper wonders whether, in the era of ebooks, we have become a culture of skimmers—the slipperiness of digital text and the immediacy of the page turn on e-reading devices mean that we don’t give ourselves the chance to digest what we read. Exacerbating this problem is a glut of content:

We have entered into an exponential relationship to the growth of reading material. Like many parents or educators, I worry that the growing expanse of reading pulls us apart, not just socially, but also personally. The incessant insistence on the functionality of reading—that there must be some “value” to it—only amplifies this problem. When there is so much more to read and when we are always reading for some purpose, we are only ever “catching up.” (p. 129)

The social aspect of reading is key to Piper’s book. Reading in itself is an act of isolation, yet by reading, we develop a common culture that socializes us. We catalyze that socialization by sharing what we read, and Piper notes that whereas sharing a printed book is a meaningful act—not only do you give something up to another reader, but by doing so you also make public your appreciation and endorsement for that book—sharing digital content may not carry the same weight:

If I do not have any collection of digital files in the same way as my books, will I be able to give them away in the same manner? When I pass down my books to my children, I imagine I will be sharing with them as sense of time. Books are meaningful because as material objects they bear time within themselves. (p. 107)

As much as Piper attempts to remain above the fray in the oft-promoted argument that digital reading and ebooks spell the death of print, his text is tinged throughout with nostalgia for print books—or, at least, for their former primacy as the authoritative sources of human knowledge. He argues that each time a new technology replicates a book’s functionality in terms of conveying content, we try to load it with features that replicate other aspects of a printed book, whether it be the ability to hold it in our hands, turn pages, or jot down marginal notes. The relationship between print and digital texts, however, doesn’t have to be antagonistic; their co-existence could have benefits to understanding:

The use of multiple channels—speech, scroll, book—is the best guarantee that a message will be received, that individuals will arrive at a sense of shared meaning. Like the book’s ability to conjoin the different faculties of touch, sight, and sound into a single medium, according to the tradition of the Codex Manesse the book itself is imagined to reside within a more diverse ecology of information. When we think about media death, about the idea of the end of certain technologies, we do well to remember this medieval insistence on the need for redundancy, the importance of communicating the same thing through different channels. (p. 7)

As much as he is a champion of the printed book (downplay that fact as he may), Piper acknowledges that some digital technologies can be used to enhance our understanding of text. I like this example:

Feature Lens, which was developed by the Human–Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, is a program that allows you to view meaningful semantic patterns within large structures of texts. For Tanya Clement, who undertook an analysis of Gertrude Stein’s famously difficulty and repetitive novel The Making of Americans (1925), the interface revealed a range of structural patterns so far unnoticed by readers. (p. 141)

Although Book Was There raises some interesting points, I didn’t find any of what Piper wrote particularly revelatory, and because the text was so personal to him, there were portions to which I just couldn’t relate and that made me feel disengaged from the book. Maybe I’m not well-read enough to appreciate the author’s many literary references, but their liberal use, often in places where I would have found historical or scientific examples more persuasive, made some of his conclusions seem tenuous. He reads a lot into shared terminology between the print and digital worlds—pages and page views, the faces of Facebook and the faces of typefaces, etc.—extracting meaning where I simply see a metaphor to allow users to relate to new technologies. Although I appreciate Piper’s enthusiasm for this topic, I would stop short of recommending this book to anyone looking for objective and rigorous insight into the act and consequences of reading. Instead I’ll cross my fingers and hope that Alberto Manguel will one day decide to update A History of Reading to encompass the digital age.

One thought on “Book review: Book Was There

  1. > Although I appreciate Piper’s enthusiasm for this topic, I would stop short of recommending this book to anyone looking for objective and rigorous insight into the act and consequences of reading.

    Ah, but Iva, perhaps that’s just b/c you’re too focussed on the “value” of reading! (heh) Srsly, thanks for the review — the book sounds intriguing. The thesis as you describe it brought to mind Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which I really got off on. Funnily enough, the one tome of Manguel’s on reading that I’ve read, The Library at Night, left me kind of “meh.” But your name-check of History of Reading has put a bug in my ear …

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