On Reading Digital Texts

“A BOOK [in the medium sense],” writes Charles Catton in a recent Medium piece on the so-called ‘enhanced’ ebook, “is a means of transporting the author’s words to the reader through the act of reading.” Whatever he might mean by “in the medium sense,” (see below) I think Catton has it backwards: a book is a means of transporting the reader into the author’s world. And I don’t mean “transporting” in some romantic, voodoo-ey sense of “I was utterly transported…” Rather, I think it’s high time we in the publishing world took stock of what it really means to read something.

Reading is not fundamentally about the delivery of information. It’s just not. Reading — be it escapist fiction or biomedical reference — is a profound experience of going inside somebody else’s mind. It is a transposition, a transubstantiation. It is virtual reality, as anyone who has ever read a novel can see, if they only stop to think about it. Even the “dipping in” kinds of reading we do when we read nonfiction and reference works is still this kind of experience; you internalize somebody else’s sentences and they unfold in your own head, (almost) as if it were your own experience.

The idea that books – or writing, or any other medium – is, as Catton’s subhead says, “a Means of Transport” has surely been thoroughly debunked by media theorists. Marshall McLuhan made himself famous forever by pointing this out, and the field of communications & media studies exists to explore the dynamics beyond this. Nor is writing a ‘delivery mechanism,’ as a generation of poststructuralist critics took pains to point out (Roland Barthes is my favourite here). Nor, even, is publishing a ‘delivery mechanism’ for content; read John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid’s seminal article “The Social Life of Documents” for a concise primer on how documents don’t just circulate in society; they bring society into being.

Reading is about experience, which is something that the people driving the ebook movement so far – publishers, retailers, and technologists alike –have so egregiously avoided, even while at the same time the discourse around User Experience Design is the ascendant on the open web. I’d go so far as to say that most of what’s “wrong” with the ebook world today is that things have been designed around the retail experience, the production experience, the gadget-sales experience, with very little attention to what reading means anymore.

And so we come to the ongoing debate about whether ebooks need to be “enhanced” or not. The pro side argues that ebooks are boring and that people would like extra stuff, like the additional features on a DVD, or at least links to the Wikipedia article. The con side counters that all that stuff disrupts and distracts from the immersive reading experience. As if that was a thing. As if the “sustained silent reading” we did in gradeschool were a course unto itself, like math or social studies.

As if we knew enough about reading to even begin to make a case like that. Well… we may not know much about reading, but we know what we like, right? For starters, we like what we already know. After all, what we know is of course the measure of everything we don’t know. And we can so easily imagine what we don’t like… the spectre of videos popping up just as we get to the good part is a good bugbear, worth repeating endlessly. We have all read a book, and so we are all qualified to sit back and armchair quarterback what might be the right thing to do for books.

Yet we don’t know much… other than what we’ve always known and liked. So, for instance, novels are 300 pages because they’ve always been 300 pages. Short stories are short enough so that 10 of them fit in a 300-page book. And even though people have begun to experiment with different-sized texts (e.g., ‘singles’, ‘shorts’, and the new ‘long form’) we still so underestimate the extent to which we conflate genre with format.

New formats are already here, all around us. The web-page article is a new format. Blogs are a new format. Wikipedia is a new format. Image-macro memes are a new format. But these things are also, and more importantly, new genres, which is something we don’t think about nearly as much. And these new genres are just the tip of the iceberg. Look around.

And yet we continue to discuss the book and the ebook as though these were God-given categories. Eoin Purcell, who wrote the post that inspired Catton to write his post, argues that the generic ebook is evidently “good enough” to capture 30% of the market, and considering the so-called ‘enhanced’ ebook, asks:

…whether anyone is looking for such innovations. The question those seeking to make more exciting and innovative products from books have to answer is straightforward; will those new products entice ebook readers away from ebooks, entice print readers from print books when ebooks didn’t do so, or entice new readers to read where ebooks and print books didn’t? —Eoin Purcell, How Different are Books Digitally?

As much as I like Eoin Purcell’s writing and perspectives, here he’s sadly invoking a zero-sum game and offering a narrowly functionalist assessment – not just of books, but of reading itself. We all already read vastly greater quantities of non-book, non-‘published’, non-traditional digital text, in a staggering array of both formats and genres. This is not in competition with the book-as-a-novel. Reading has already changed. The innovations are all around us. The better question at this point in time isn’t whether we want or need innovations, but which innovations we want. That’s our business now.

There is no pure, unmediated literary format. The traditional book is itself technology; it affords and enshrines a particular set of conventional reading experiences. It is historically and culturally situated; there’s nothing God-given or essential about it.

James Bridle today posted a thoughtful piece in Grafik, called Read Only, in which he writes,

Perhaps the line of the text is no longer a central metaphor we need to cling to. Perhaps it never should have been.

Bridle too weighs in on the so-called enhanced ebook, going to a place he’s been before, in which he distiguishes between the experience of the text itself from the experience of other kinds of media elements (as though they were alternatives), and in doing so praises apps like Instapaper and Readability for putting the emphasis on the literary experience alone. Bridle says, “the real value of these apps is how they remove all the crud of web design around a good piece of writing”

That’s all very well (and I live in Instapaper on a day-to-day basis), but it again papers over our cleaving to traditional text-only genres. It only takes a moment to recall the picture books we loved as kids, and the coffee-table books we shell out big bucks for still, to recognize that there are legitimate genres that mix text with, say, images. We don’t talk about photographs getting in the way of the text in a photo essay (or, for that matter, a photography book. Or for that matter, a listicle), because we collectively understand that a photo essay is a genre that is the result of the interplay of text and image.

But Bridle says something more sophisticated next, which belies his supposed adherence to the uninterrupted flow of words:

because text, however we may imagine it, is not linear, and it never has been. Just as the tiles of the slippy map are near-instantly rendered as we move over them, slotting into place before we are even aware of them, creating the illusion of a continuous plane seen through the narrow gap of the browser window, so the mind continually enacts understanding, rather than passively receiving it. That understanding is composed of many multi-layered understandings which go far beyond the text itself, into memory and association, into anticipation and extrapolation

That understanding, “composed of many multi-layered understandings”… that’s where the innovation in the reading experience is going to come from. As it always has before.  That’s where publishing needs to open up and look to writers, artists, and creators generally for some new perspective. That’s a major part of what this Creating Digital Fiction Workshop is interested to explore.