The Silence of the Ebooks

In the midst of an animated discussion with a grad student, weighed down with armfuls of books on media archaeology and criticism, I was utterly stumped by my inability to locate something I’d remembered reading last year: a fascinating chapter on John Cage’s 4’33 (of silence) and other interesting examples of blank media that still, somehow, have content. I struggled, I googled, I searched high and low on bookshelves, hard drives, gmails… all in vain. Eventually I turned to googling bare keywords in the hope that somebody, somewhere would refer to this text. Or maybe I dreamt it? Seemed plausible: a dream about a non-existent article about a non-existent song.

It turns out the truth wasn’t far off that. What I recalled reading was in fact a book – Craig Dworkin’s No Medium – which I read last summer, in one of the two pine muskoka chairs I had built and which sit in the shade of a katsura tree in my front yard. That part of the memory was crystal clear. How come I couldn’t remember what I’d read?

Eventually the details fell into place. I read it on the Kindle, which is of course why it didn’t turn up in any of my searches. And indeed, Craig Dworkin’s core argument, beautifully illustrated by literally hundreds of examples of blank, non-existent media, is that there is actually no such thing as a bare medium; rather, media are interpretive occasions, or at least eventful: their context is gathered, rather than given.

When I remember reading a book, I remember so much more than the text. I remember the physicality of the book, and where (and when) I was when I read it, and probably traces of whatever else was going on at the time. How the ebook messes with that memory! By erasing the physicality of a text, or at least by submerging it in a bland and anonymous container, the experience of reading – or rather, the experience of having read – is truncated.

If there is to be an embodied sense of a digital text, it must necessarily come from the text itself. I wonder if – putting ebooks aside – it would be possible to create an immersive digital storyworld rich enough to flesh out that part of the experience of reading, to provide the sense of a time and a place and a surrounding context. Is this perhaps easier with fiction than nonfiction? Because fiction provides a location, an immersive world to inhabit? And if so, how to provide that grounding in a nonfiction reading experience?