Hidden Reading Life

 

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.


Birkerts: process and perfection

In his chapter “Hypertext,” Birkerts continues his exploration of the differences between print and electronic texts, between words on a page and words on a screen. In “Into the Electronic Millenium,” he emphasizes the difference as one between linearity (print) and association (electronic)–earlier in the book, this opposition was described as  depth versus shallowness. Here, turning his attention to a literary hypertext created for a digital environment (Moulthorp’s Victory Garden), he continues the opposition, focusing it on a difference between process and product. As he puts it succinctly,

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. (158)

Moving forward from page to screen, he believes, we move backwards from the book as a product to the process of writing and producing it. Along with this “profound” and “consequential” shift from literature and product to writing as process, Birkerts argues, “provisionality” is promoted and the traditional goal of the writer (he mentions the French novelist Flaubert) is lost. Attending to this loss, the reader of the book, turned into “process” at best, at worst a “sophisticated Nintendo game,” loses his or her sense of the private self (164).

These are familiar  keywords Birkerts uses in his argument: process, product, privacy, provisionality, perfection, potential. My criticism and concern for the implications of his argument might best be focused by adding another ‘p’ word to his list: pedagogy. It seems to me that in worrying about the ways that writing’s process becomes, potentially, revealed in a digital or electronic environment, Birkerts really worries the potential that anyone might become a writer. In my view–recall, I am a teacher of writing, and a writer still learning my trade, as every writer does–provisionality and process are necessary ingredients for learning. One learns by learning the process; one writes by producing writing, not by having written, by having a product. The reader is always ready to turn into a writer, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on the “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” We thus participate in writing. And participation is yet another concern, and another ‘p’ word, that Birkerts discusses. Instead of that, he wants to return to a time when the author perfected his writing by creating books that, in Birkerts’ phrasing, overpowered the reader.

Perfect, that is to say, completely finished, books might exist–though I haven’t read one. But even if they do exist, the problem becomes, for the writer, for the learner, how to get there while being imperfect? For learners, perfect books are dreamed of and always never written. Isn’t that what happened to Birkerts? These are some of the thoughts and concerns I take into the final pages of his argument and our initial exploration of electronic and hypertext writing.

I mentioned using Google Books to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).


Birkerts on privacy and process

Birkerts emphasizes the privacy of reading. We recall this from the autobiographical experiences he offers in the beginning of Gutenberg. Toward the end, as he turns to the “electronic millenium” that (he fears) we have rushed headlong into, privacy returns as the thing that is lost: the waning of the private self that, he argues, reading books (though he doesn’t always use the object ‘books,’ often just assumes reading) cultivates. As such, I assume that he would vigorously object to the understanding that Shelley Jackson invites: I want piratical readers, plagiarists. In Birkerts’ politically tinged language: readers as social collectivists. For some further thoughts on plagiarism and the notion of ‘recombination’ and ‘recombinant’ that Hayles begins to introduce in “Flickering Connectivities,” consider this blog posting on Plagiarism.

In addition to the reiteration of privacy, what I notice most in reading through chapters 8-11 of Gutenberg is the word process. Birkerts turns to the word particularly in the chapter “Hypertext.” To further his definition of hypertext generally speaking (or electronic communication) in contrast with “the page,” he offers the binary process vs. product. I think he is quite right in associating digital writing (let’s use that phrasing) with process–as in word processing, one of the terms he wants to echo, pejoratively; as in writing that has been processed–and book or print or traditional writing with product. Where I think he is wrong is in the conclusion he draws about the impact of process over product.

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. [158]

Process is foregrounded, revealed, no longer hidden; the sewing signs of the writing process are kept in view. As we have seen and begun to theorize in relation to Patchwork Girl. How ugly, how feminine, how interesting, how distracting; how processed. But the point, I presume, is that we loose the whole in favor of ever shifting or sliding parts. So I think he misses the point. And more to the point, I think neglects the pedagogical implications of this digital shift to the process of writing. We learn to write by viewing the parts of the process; as I have put it (with an eye to the Wizard), by looking into the machinery behind the curtain. I take it that Birkerts doesn’t like the idea of a machine. Fine. But here I see that he throws out with his distaste for the machine of writing (the age-old technology that writing represents, through which it represents) the possibility of learning to become a writer. Another pejorative he offers for the problem of writing in the fluid process of the digital screen: “provisionality.”  But such is the character of education. How else are we to learn?

In the end, I don’t think Birkerts wants us to learn to be writers, if we aren’t writers already. He wants writers to have their readers. Yet, ironically for this writer who loves to read, he doesn’t want the one to intersect (might we say, interface?) with the other. The process of learning is, it seems to me, many of the things that Birkerts fears we are becoming in our world of networked communication and distributed subjectivity, what he refers to as a hive: messy an social; messy, because social. I don’t mean social merely in the sense of exposure, of the loss of privacy. This seems to be Birkerts’ reduction. Rather, I understand learning to be social in its process. We can’t learn what we don’t need or want to communicate; our learning can only exist in its communication. It seems to me the greater solipsism lies in his vision of some sort of reading or learning environment that is entirely private, cut off from the world in which the learning must live if it is to be vital. We can keep quiet or keep things to ourselves. Such a life might involve fewer distractions, less noise. But if we are going to learn, if we are going to be changed, we will need to get outside ourselves through the learning. We will need, to use two words that Birkerts cites in his coda, the first from McLuhan, the second from Benjamin (both of whom I have cited before), extension, reproduction.


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.