In my experience, studying digital humanities has been a consistent eye-opener. A number of weeks ago, for instance, Tim O’Keefe casually mentioned in his lecture that the much-feted Kindle was on its way out, digital reading practises having been largely subsumed into the iPad’s monolithic reach. Now maybe I’m very old-fashioned, but this was a genuine shock (and a somewhat glum one at that – surprising, given that I have never owned nor wanted to own a Kindle). For the first time it made me feel uncomfortably old; wasn’t it only yesterday that the poor Kindle was being triumphantly hailed as the future of reading, the death of print, and all such associated apocalyptic scenarios?
I am, naturally, aware of the pace of technological change, but the Kindle had seemed like something new and properly game-changing. That I would associate these factors with longevity perhaps now shows me up for the dinosaur I am – and it is laughable that I feel pangs of nostalgia for something that once so deeply unsettled my English literature-bred morals. But I’m being premature. Of course the eponymous e-reader is a long way from being dead and buried, particularly if the battle against its decline is being fought by a corporation as powerful as Amazon. And in many ways it is the sea-change in reading practises it brought about that is the true issue (and legacy) at stake here. Wherefore the future of digital reading?
According to the Electronic Text Centre at the University of Virginia, an ebook is “any full-text electronic resource designed to be read on a screen, in something other than a web browser”. In today’s digital marketplace this has expanded beyond the tablet; as our phones grow in size and screen clarity so they encroach on the domain of reading platforms. But for the most part the ebook is associated with a standard tablet-sized device, with the interface designed to either mimic the physical page or to optimise ease of reading on the eye.
So where’s the problem? Surely for those of us wanting to spare the planet’s trees the increasing transition to digital reading platforms can only be heralded as progress? But as one astute commentator, Jonah Lehrer, has pointed out, there remains “a nagging problem with the merger of screens and sentences”. In other words, the medium influences how we read. The physical presence of text and how it is presented should not simply be taken for granted – much like how the early Russian Formalist and Structuralist critics urged that language should not be regarded as a window into reality. Rather, we should recognise that what we are using to gain access to ‘knowledge’ has a fundamental effect on our reading practices and, to some extent, vice versa.
There are parallels here also with the Modernist conception of ‘hard reading’. For authors such as Eliot and Joyce, this involved a deliberate slowing down of perception through the use of obscure language, techniques and allusions. It turned the spotlight on the practice of unconscious literary interpretation itself, forcing the reader to come to terms with, among other things, the visual representation of text on a page. In the 21st century, Lehrer claims, we risk losing all sense of difficulty and materiality about the written word, as screen-based text becomes ever smoother and more adaptable to the human eye. He uses the example where he can only seem to edit his own writing in a 3D format. “Why”, he asks, “do I only notice my mistakes after they’re printed on dead trees?”
The implied answer here has some important implications for the modern Humanities department. Our reliance on printed monographs has spanned hundreds of years, and, if librarians have anything to do with it, should last a while yet. But an increasing proportion of the printed word is now being consumed in digital format. Journals and periodicals have all but disappeared off the shelves and into the realm of online subscription packages. Academic ebooks have been gaining traction, albeit in smaller numbers that publishers would like to see (I wonder how much this has to do with the presumably sharp resistance among academics to the cause of their dwindling print runs?) But one of the most significant developments in this field is undoubtedly the rise and rise of Google – both in its Google Scholar and GoogleBooks formats. Increasingly, the first port of call of the average undergraduate in urgent need of citations is that ubiquitous search bar. What Google has arguably perfected in this process is the ease of usability and access. Most recent publications are now fully word-searchable at the tap of a screen, and with databases such as JSTOR now appearing in Google searches this trend is only set to continue.
So should we lament at the altar of our digital overlords and beg for a return to hard reading, physical search processes, or even just the ensured safety of the Kindle? Of course not, although as some hard-core nihilists (usually found festering at the back of History departments) would have you believe, it wouldn’t be worth your breath. Screen reading is here to stay, and we should deal with it. But nor is the humble paper-and-glue book dead: as one recent Guardian article put it: “the ghost of Gutenberg is still alive out there, kicking and finding a way.”
Hallelujah to that.