the cramped root: worshipping the artifact 06.17.2005, 2:08 PM
posted by ben vershbow
A plant in a container grows differently than a plant in open soil. The roots conform to the shape of the pot. Similarly, our very notions of reading, of books, of knowledge classification are defined by the pot in which they grew. The texture of paper, the topography of the library, the entire university system - these were defined by restraints. Physical, economic, etc. And to a significant extent they are artifacts of their times. An example: the act of reading in bed, as Dan mentions, is frequently invoked as the ideal, as the supreme pleasure of reading, something that computers could never match. But this supine, passive reading stance is not pre-ordained. It is in many ways an artifact of the growth of the novel - a grand, fictional creation to be read in leisure settings. Lying down works well. It's pleasurable. You get lost in rich, immersive worlds. But there are immersive worlds that require a different posture. And there are kinds of reading that are more active.
The computer, too, in its current stage of development, is an artifact of the paper book, the typewriter, and the supercomputer terminal. These define the "pot" in which the computer has grown. And so far, the questions about online "reading" are defined by this cramped root structure. Even though the pot has shattered, we continue to grow as though the walls were there.
Another analogy: the horseless carriage. For years after its invention, the automobile was known as "the horseless carriage." People could define it only in terms of what had come before. You could say that online reading is the territory of "the horseless book."
lisa Spangenberg on June 17, 2005 8:20 PM:
I used to get exceedingly tired, back in the day, when demoing an Expanded book and someone would say:
"But I like the feel of a book" (or the smell--which I still don't understand)
"But can you read it in bed/on the beach/one the subway/bus"
Yeah, yeah you can, though on the beach is less than ideal. As for curling up with a book, I've curled up in bed, on trains, planes, boats, and automobiles with my iBook, and with my antique Palm. Works quite nicely, and yes, I can get lost in the book.
The trick is not so much in finding the right technology or interface, it's finding the right thing to read. Beowulf in the ms. reads just as well as it does in print--Gregory's Decretals, not so much. Beowulf in ms. on my iBook is fabulous.