I am not writing this entirely in private. And yet, as Birkerts sees it, reading should be a solitary act. The picture of reading I get thus far, particularly from the autobiographical perspective he provides in chapter 2, emphasizes 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 alluring 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.
A strong assertion/speculation at this point: the struggles he details in this same chapter with becoming a writer, the difficulty in writing as he had planned–these stem from his overly anti-social view of reading. A key term that emerges for me by the end of chapter 2, then, is social: and all the variations he offers for his vision of reading that is not socially focused–privacy, hidden, individual, etc. As I think further about the focus of the first writing project, thinking about drafting my own vision definition of the reading/writing life from my perspective, I can use my conversation with Birkerts on the social as a guide for thinking about my own emerging argument. Where have I had experiences with reading/writing that would help me elaborate my view in response to SB, my sense that reading should not be viewed as anti-social? Where does that come from in my experience? I am not yet sure what my precise thesis would be at this point. And so, a way to get more specific in my own terms and argument is to dig further into some reflection on my own experience, then work my way back to a stronger and more specific statement of the problem/response of my argument.
Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.
Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….
And a line I would forward to put into direct conversation with, and counter to, Birkerts: “This is not to suggest we shouldn’t attempt it. The attempt is glorious, and attempting rewires the brain. It moves the circuitry around, attaching a new conclusion to an action, reconstructing self. In a way, thinking about the self hacks it.” My extension from this: it sounds to me as though Monson is also describing the fundamentally rhetorical nature of reading and writing–we do it to change and be changed.
And note the ways he links this to algorithm, to gaming, in ways that correlate with Piper’s perspective:
“We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought…”
My digital remediation/hack of Monson’s hack as essay (with my digital annotations) is available here.
Link to a Final Fantasy Walkthrough/FAQ
A key idea from Andrew Piper’s argument in “By the Numbers”:
When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this feature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)
The understanding of texts as dynamic and interactive and not static objects: though the specific reference here is to the digital text, we can (with Joseph Harris added to this conversation) also think of this as a fundamentally social and rhetorical nature of writing. When we read and write we rewrite. That’s the algorithm.
What do you think of this idea of literature–the experiences of reading and writing–interacting with the logic of numbers, of playing, of computation. The argument from both Monson and Piper seems to be that literature has always had an element of interactivity, long before the invention of digital mediation. Would you agree?
Some electronic and computational or algorithmic texts to consider, in response to Monson and Piper.
Piper argues that “playing with texts has always been at the heart of reading” (140). Has playing been at the heart of some of your reading experiences? If not, could you argue that reading texts is at the heart of gaming? What does it mean to game? How is that similar to, and different from, reading or interpreting?