Birkerts v. Hayles: book v. mediation

Note on process: This posting represents an alternative approach for using the Glog in response to reading. In my first Glog on Gutenberg Elegies (focusing mainly on the introduction and first chapter), I used the glog while reading, taking notes, then spending more time with an issue I noticed and wanted to delve into. In effect, I finished the Glog when I finished reading. Those of you who like to read and take notes might try this. Remember that you needn’t write the entry live; you can if you prefer write in a notebook (I assume it would be digital in some form, ie a word document) and copy at a later point into your wordpress Glog. Another option would be to read an entire assignment, take some notes along the way in the book or a notebook, then sit down to reflect on the reading by writing your Glog. Experiment with the best way for you to glog. The purpose is for you to find the mediation of your reading (in effect, that is what we are doing; Birkerts would likely cringe hearing that word in connection to reading) that will best prepare you for class discussion and for your future writing. Overall, whether you write while reading or soon after, I do suggest that you never leave too much distance between your reading and your writing.

Why would Birkerts cringe? Because reading should be, as he sees it, a solitary act. The picture of reading I get thus far, particularly from the autobiographical perspective he provides in chapter 2, emphaszies what he calls his “hidden reading life” (38). Due to family dynamics that he explores, he learns to associate reading with “feminine” principles shaped by his mother and in some tension with his father. His father emphasizes the activity of doing and associates reading with passivity. I don’t want to psychoanalyze too much–though the way SB presents this, he does seem to invite this kind of analysis of psychodynamics. Is SB’s strong love of books (bibliomania) tied to feelings for his mother? I am not thinking Oedipus here so much as the way he associates reading so strongly with privacy, with the hidden, almost with an illicit activity (daydreaming in the middle of the day, inside, presumably was illicit from his father’s perspective). 

Mediation–in the form of digital reading, the screen–of this private and secluded activity thus violates not the object (the text, the book) but the subject of reading: the reading experience that Birkerts has with books. It makes the experience public; it pulls the books out of the boxes: recall his assertion that books are most alluriing when being packed up in a box (53). Digital mediation of reading and writing is lots of things; one of which is greater connection with a reading/writing audience. That is of interest to me. I wonder if others agree, are equally interested in the social aspects of digital writing (even something like Facebook). Birkerts is concerned about reading becoming too social. My concern is that his definition of reading and its significance is too narrowly viewed as private, as requiring privacy.

Thus far, Katherine Hayles presents a different view of the same picture. She, like Birkerts, is a great lover of reading and books as she grows up. The key difference is that books are examples of what she begins to define as mediation–and significantly, mediation that is not limited to books (thus, she also finds in the chemistry labratory). [We will talk more about mediation when we visit the printing press at the Lit House] For Hayles, the mediation of writing and ideas that a book represents is thoroughly material. To that extent, she is like Birkerts: she loves thinking about the material form of a book. But unlike Birkerts, she resists the “binary” (the either/or proposition) which then makes a book mutually exclusive with things in the material world, including social connections. Books, Hayles suggests to the contrary, can offer the experience of being both solitary and social. I see this in her explanation that her interest in literature and reading as with her interest in computers and how computers can mediate literature and reading–that her ‘hook’ in all this is how she can bring binaries (contraries) together.

Thus far, Birkerts and Hayles both sound similar to young Victor Frankenstein and Walton in terms of their reading histories: passionate readers. But the differences between privacy and social connection is a key; and further, how this difference comes out in Birkerts’ definition of a book as a private, almost sacred object (at least, books he considers worth reading) and Hayles’ view of a book as part of a larger “ecology” (her metaphor) of mediation in which symbolic come in a variety of material forms, including through the software and hardware of the computer you and I are using this very moment, right now.  

 

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